Friday, April 24, 2009

Rollin' with a Sockit Wench

It was late July 2007 when I saw it. In the middle of an old aircraft hangar I saw two scantily clad women rolling around the concrete floor pummeling each other with their fists. In the background a Seattle punk band was playing music and there were several thousand people around me hooting and hollering with primitive fascination as we watched these two ladies scuffle. Seconds later, the fighting stopped. Was it an underground fight club I was in the middle of? No, it was roller derby. The victorious woman, known as Pia Mess, was fighting with the person on the other team that tripped her up and even though she was penalized for coming out swinging, she walked away with her head up high like she were the queen of the land. I was staring, I was yelling, I was getting turned on. This was fucking awesome.

Roller Derby has been around for almost a hundred years, but for some reason it never really caught on. As far as people were concerned throughout the years, it was a weird kitschy pseudo-sport akin to dodgeball or curling, something to be regulated to bored kids on the playground or ESPN 3-20 to fill up the time. That all changed in recent years.

So what is Roller Derby? Take roller skating, make it a race, add in elements of full contact hockey and rugby, give it some punk rock sensibilities, and bam, you got something magical. Throw in the fact that much of modern day Roller Derby is an indie sport that is predominantly women and you have a form of female empowerment that would put the 60's to shame. That's right Gloria Steinem, this is the new face of feminism, deal with it.

Where do you find Roller Derby? In old hangars, abandoned stadiums, wherever there is a lot of asphalt and bleachers, or in one case; Key Stadium where the Seattle Supersonics use to play. As of March 2009 there are over 77 leagues governed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), each self-financed and regulated by large bodies of volunteers and supporters. They're not in it for the money or the fame, they're here to kick asses and take names.

These people will put you in the hospital and they'll do it with lipstick.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the lovely Sister Piston about Roller Derby. Sister Piston plays for the Sockit Wenches, one of the four teams that make up the Rat City Roller Girls based out of Seattle and for the record she can mop the floor with me, with you, and with your mom and she'd sleep like a baby afterwards.

Big Bad Sister Piston

#1 How long have you been doing Roller Derby?

2 years of training
2 years on a league
4 years total

#2 What drew you to the sport, how did you find out about it?

I saw the Rat City logo on a t-shirt (Sassy Chassis' t-shirt to be exact) and looked up the website. I asked to go see it for my birthday and I knew that day that I was going to do it. I told Mister Piston that I was going to do it and he said that he didn't think I was big enough. Boy did I prove him wrong.

#3 The Rat City Roller Girls recently started having bouts at Key Arena, how does it feel to be playing in an arena that's housed the Sonics?

It feels awesome. This team isn't going to just up and leave Seattle because of a business deal...we are Seattle.

I think it's wonderful to have the city, arena staff and sponsors be so supportive of us and to enable us to play in a more professional venue. I hope we get to stay a good long time.

The best part is that we no longer have to turn away fans. Last year, every bout sold out because of a smaller venue size...this year, folks can come and try it out and never worry about finding a place to sit and watch.

#4 Since derby is an indie sport, how much work goes into setting up games, ie funding and promotion?

I honestly think we've moved just beyond indie sport into rising sport given the growth, popularity and the fact that it's managed the test of time very well. The revival has been going strong for at least 6 or 7 years now and shows no signs of slowing with international leagues popping up all over the world.

The work that goes into it is unmeasurable. Girls are warned that they can expect a non-paying part time job when the look to join the league and it is more than true. Every aspect of the work is done, organized, managed or planned by the skaters and their friends.

There are girls that commit more time than a full time job to the sport in addition to practice and skating. There are also girls that do much less than a part time job, but when you step back and look at the situation, you see that these girls are also juggling school, a family and work on top of that.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle doing that part time job thing.

#5 How strong are the rivalries between local teams, if you see each other on the streets is there any West Side Story-ish confrontations or is it all hugs and kisses?

There's an adage in the sport that what happens on the track stays on the track. I think that we are lucky that this is true about 98 percent of the time. Every once in a while gals lose a bit of self control and harsh words are exchanged, but for the most part, the drama gets left behind at the whistle.

That's not to say that rivalries aren't extremely strong...they are. All of us want to win. No one wants to lose...and there have definitely been some weird interpersonal things that have lead to tension between specific teams. I think it adds to the experience.

Hell has no fury like a woman scorned right?

#6 Whats the worst injury you've sustained while playing?

Hmm...I'm knocking on wood right now because I've been lucky so far.

I'd say the worst was a dislocated/separated shoulder (not sure what the official diagnosis was). I wasn't even in a game, just doing a drill and landed with all of my weight right on the top of my shoulder popping it out. I was laying in bed that night and rolled onto it and heard the biggest "chunk" sound and it popped back in and I dropped about an inch. I'll tell ya, it was like that whole, ripping the tape off the skin fast thing. It was a lot less painful after that one moment.

#7 Do you foresee retiring from the sport, or will they have to pry the skates off your cold dead feet someday?

I'm going for the cold dead feet stance. I think even when I am too broken to play anymore I will be involved with coaching or some other aspect. It's really a big part of my life and it's done so much good for me that I can't bear the thought of saying goodbye to it completely.

#8 Since derby is all self financed, how much would a typical derby player end up shelling out over a year?

I would say around....$1000 for gear and dues per year. But it's really hard to tell because you've got transportation costs to go to practice and meetings like 7 days a week, you end up spending money and fundraisers because we all tend to want to support each other and if girls can afford it they often spend a good deal on airfare to go to boot camps and RollerCon to become even better. Then there's the medical costs. Those are the big whammy.

I've said often that this is not a poor woman's sport. It's like polo have to expect to drop some serious cash at some point.

#9 How can the fans help out besides showing up at games?

Check out the volunteer options. There's almost always something someone can do to help set things up or tear down.

And SPONSOR SPONSOR SPONSOR! If you own a business or you know someone that owns a business....start talking/thinking sponsorship. Nothing makes the derby world rock more than a good sponsor. Except winning a game.

Every dollar counts, buy merchandise, talk to your boss about a great advertising opportunity...spread the word.

#10 Any memorable bouts you'd like to share with our readers?

I would say the most memorable bout has to be one where I was just a wee beginner. It was the championship game the year before last Sockit Wenches vs Derby Liberation Front (insert speech about bitter rivalry here), my second game to play ever....I was pretty much just trying not to fall down and keep up with the pack at that point.

Our captain, and one of our star jammers, Drew Blood gets hit by Kitty Kamikaze and doesn't get up. This was not good. Our team was pretty shaken and during the half time many of us went to see her in the EMT area (just a sheet on a string back then) and she kept telling us all that she was fine, just out for the game.

So we go back and manage to win it, for her. We found out after the game that she had four broken vertebrae in her back and was high on morphine when we were all talking to her.

#11 How much has derby impacted your life?

I would say it's changed my life completely. I went from being a shy introvert behind a computer every day of my life to an outgoing, active and strong individual who isn't afraid of looking silly in the quest for finding more joy in my life.

Don't get me wrong, I still love computers. But now I know how to talk to people without a qwerty.

Catch Sister Piston and the Rat City Roller Girls in championship action on May 30th, 2009 at Key Stadium in Seattle.
Photography credits: Jules Doyle aka Axle Adams

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tortilla Heights

You can find good Mexican in San Francisco pretty easily. Being a town full of foodies, the people who live in this city know that good Mexican food is abundant and cheap. So it stands to reason that expensive Mexican food would be superior in every way. I mean instead of meat from questionable sources, they'd have meat from Nimon Ranch so it's gotta be better, right? Wrong, dead wrong, terribly wrong. Case in point, Tortilla Heights.

Anyone whose been around the block looking for a good burrito will tell you that a good Mexican place will be kind of divey, the staff will have dubious American Citizenship, everything on the menu is inexpensive, and if it's not a taco truck; it's a building in a ghetto-ish area. Tortilla Heights is none of these things. For one thing, Tortilla Heights is located in the Pacific Heights rich person neighborhood. It also has a tiki bar decor, which implies to me that rich people have confused Mexicans with Hawaiians. Not only that, but everyone who was a server looked like they came from a sorority. I would've been fine with all of these had my food been good, or had it been cheap, but alas it was neither.

After dinner with a good dozen of my cohorts, the general consensus was Tortilla Heights had some of the blandest Mexican food this side of the border. My chimichunga was literally flavorless. The meat inside had no seasoning or marinade, nor did it have any ingredients beyond the meat that would add any sort of taste to it. It was also $12 dollars. For $12 I could've eaten at two or even three places in the Mission District and tasted something more flavorful. The person next to me had an appetizer plater of nachos, which would sound appealing except the cheese they used looked and tasted like the cheese you have to pump out of a 7-11 nacho station. Looking at the faces of everyone at the end and it was unanimous, this place sucked. If there was any one saving grace, it was the churros. However, it's hard to fuck up fried dough with cinnamon sugar sprinkled on it so that's not saying much.

Overall, Tortilla Heights is a bland and pricey experience. The ingredients taste fresh, and wont make you sick but it's no Celia's or Tommy's as far as gourmet Mexican goes. Even worse, if you're thinking of stopping by there for a cool margarita on a hot day you'd be greated by some of the worst ventilation in any building. I assume it's to simulate the mexican heat, but no air conditioning or open windows on a hot day probably constitutes a crime somewhere. My recommendation, walk down the street to Japan Town and get ramen instead.

Tortilla Heights is located on the corner of Divisadero and Bush in Pacific Heights.