PJRD, A Mid-Life Sanctuary

Written by Pennis the Menace

When I was 12 years old, a local cable station aired a TV series called “Rollergames”.  Six teams competed in a highly theatrical version of the classic sport, scaling a Wall of Death and flying off a Jet Jump as the jammers made their way through the packs to score points.  As a prepubescent awkward youth with lingering baby fat and a terrible hair style, I fell in love with it and never missed one episode.  I dreamed about skating and being one of those rock stars on wheels one day.  But teenage years happened, then college, then other dreams.  After all, I never knew that roller derby was alive and well in the nation, let alone the world.

Suddenly, I was 39 years old.  I had suffered a back injury.  I was knee deep in mid-life crisis mode – not because I needed a sports car and a hot chick on my arm, but because I had almost died from an active drug addiction and was living in a recovery house trying to reclaim my independence.  On the train coming home from a meeting one night, my housemate and I were sharing with each other about past dreams.  I bring up roller derby.  He says so casually, “Oh, I know roller derby people.”  I whip my head to face him eye to eye…”WHAT?!”  I scream at him.  “Yeah, there’s a league in Philly”….. “WHAT?!”  “Yeah, look ‘em up on Facebook…”

A hot minute later I found the Penn Jersey Roller Derby League and messaged the group.  Within minutes Stella Threat cordially replied and invited me to come observe their Sunday practice at the warehouse.  In ten minutes I was leaping down the steps at the train station, feeling like a 12 year old again who hadn’t missed a moment of life.

That Sunday, I made my way to the warehouse.  I remember walking up to the door and pausing, seeing the logo on the ajar door.  From inside a hundred tiny wheels skidded and groaned as some of the Hooligans, the men’s team, were exercising their bad-ass moves in scrimmage.  I took a deep breath and walked inside with a smile so wide it betrayed the spinning my stomach was doing.  I mean, what the hell was I doing there, some random Facebook messager who is pushing 40 and busting his way into some practice?

But I was about to be amazed.  

I sat on the bleachers.  I met Rip and Monster– two of the lady skaters.  They shook my hand, asked me my name, and shared their enthusiasm for the sport as the men did their thing amidst screams, whistles, and encouraging cheers. I asked questions.  They answered them with cheerful eye contact.  I expressed fears about committing.  They told me their golden rule – Life first, derby second.  Sounded more than good.  I benevolently eavesdropped on their casual conversation amidst normal derby noises blasting off the track.  Everything I heard at once lifted my spirit to new levels of intrigue and calmed my self-manufactured fears.

The whistle blew; the team took a break.

Watching some Hooligans! 

Watching some Hooligans! 

I turned to ask another question, neither hearing the approaching wheels nor expecting the goodwill riding on them.  One by one, over half of the Hooligans team rolled over to the bleachers with extended hands toward me– a complete stranger who had a completely stunned look of gratitude radiating from his face.  I didn’t stay a stranger for long.

I told them I didn’t have skates.  Nurse Ratchet lent me a pair of his.  I didn’t have wheels.  Monster gave me a set of her spares.  I didn’t have knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, or a helmet.  Dudley Do Wrong directed me to the tables in the rear of the warehouse, where there were plenty of equipment pieces, almost as if they were waiting for new skaters to pick them up and put them into motion.  In ten minutes, I was suited up and rolling around the track after the practice. I even met the face behind the messenger when I asked a bad-ass 5’2” roller rocker where to stow my gear till next time– Stella herself.  Two shrieks ensued with a sweaty hug after.

Practices are almost daily.  Lap after lap, drill after drill, sweat after sweat, I willingly bear the brunt of unsteadiness, facing the fears of learning and applying new techniques, and learned to discard my well-intended enthusiastic actions in favor of controlled and effective new behavior.

But the best lesson of all?  Derby has taught me to fall down and get up again…quickly.

Testing out "Judy," Penn Jersey's Banked Track!

Testing out "Judy," Penn Jersey's Banked Track!

And each time I recover from a fall, I am stronger…more confident…overall BETTER – and all of this is accompanied by unflagging encouragement from not only the other rookies but also the vets.  Some younger, some older, some shorter, some taller, all friendly…always.  I leave that warehouse after each and every practice with stronger legs, firmer ass, trimmer waist, clearer head, and fresher perspective on life. 

On Saturdays there is a league workout (and even non-league members can participate for $5– what an awesome opportunity!).  One day during that two hour skills strengthening, I learned something I never had ever imagined– skating backwards.  While Misfortune Cookie, the coach for the workout, guided me, I broke down crying right on the track.

“Buddy, what’s the matter?” she asks with a compassionate and firm tone. I keep rolling on as the tears roll down.  Looking at her right in the eyes, I confess…

 “Last year …at this time… I couldn’t walk,” I reply.

It is the truth.  A 3-disc back injury and unexpected loss of a job had left me half crippled physically and totally crippled mentally.  I was unable to walk more than 5 city blocks without having to sit for a few minutes.  Add in the addiction component (I had relapsed when I was laid off), and I was practically incapacitated.  I felt hopeless…irritable…miserable.  I wondered if I would ever be able to get on my feet again, both literally and figuratively.  I stayed in this state of self-destruction for three years.  

They say the journey of 1000 miles begins with one step. Luckily, I found 12 of them.  That fellowship helps me repair the hole that was in my soul for so long, and my roller family keeps me moving forward…

A few weeks later at Monday night practice, I had my first scrimmage.  The jammer’s starred helmet cover was passed to me.  I will never forget the sweet fearlessness as I stretched it over my helmet, saying out loud, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.”  The whistle blew.

In that first attempt after 6 weeks of practicing, I juked and darted my way right through the pack, and in crouched, centered derby stance blew right around the apex with flawless cross overs while Matt’s Mom in the bleachers yelled “Gooooo, RJ! Hauuuul AAAASSSSSS!!!”  I became the lead jammer with the ref circling the inside of the track pointing at me like a dog race’s mechanical bunny.  My second approach at the pack was just as successful as the first, and I picked up 4 fictitious points.  It might have been 8, but I went out of bounds.  Regardless, the progress was exhilarating to say the least.  It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up, right?

But derby, like life, is an ongoing challenge.  After I signaled to stop the scoring cycle, I impetuously hurried to celebrate.  Throwing my hands up in self-enthralled victory, I wiped right the hell out and skidded almost into the parking lot from the momentum.  As I taxied to a stop on the concrete flat-track floor, I flooded with emotion – laughing, crying, screaming – all in delight. 

I was 39, I was alive, and I was at home.  

As Wonder Wehrmann, LunaChic, Dildo Baggins, and Dauntless Deb skated over to congratulate me, I looked up at the ceiling blurred from sweat and tears to thank God for aligning my path with PJRD.

Later that month, assessments for the rookie game approached. Two and half hours of tests. T-stops. Plow Stops. Grapevines. Slaloms. Twenty laps in under 5 minutes– to name a few. Did I want to qualify? Absolutely. Would I qualify? I didn't know. My adrenaline takes over out of sheer excitement sometimes and I can't stop. Not good.  But manageable.  The good news is I have a team of compassionate and talented coaches like Slambino and Speed Tree, vets like Rolla J, Juke of Hearts, Strawberry Tuffcake, Bunsen Bruiser, Ruby Bruiseday and Mazeltov Cocktail to teach me, and volunteers like Shelly Splinters and Calamity Jen who do nothing but support me. 

The night of August 3rd arrived– my assessments. Nothing beats a failure but a try.

As I systematically put on my gear, I quietly asked God to remove my difficulties, repeating the famous Serenity Prayer. I truly don't remember how nervous I was, for I had worked very hard and dismissed any emotional stock in the outcome. Two and a half hours later, Slambino calls me over to tell me that I need more solid footwork, to remind me that I had started the rookie program late. That he cannot fully pass me... but he is allowing me to play in the rookie game on August 22nd on a probational pass. I break into tears and hug him for what seemed like half of forever.

One hurdle to clear- league dues. As of August 3rd, I had no money to spare for them. However, two days later, an unexpected offer of a phenomenal full-time job found its way right to me. And so, with all of my ducks in place, I adopt my roller alter ego #144 Pennis the Menace. The 144 is for the 12 steps x the 12 traditions of my fellowship, and the skater name is derived of course from the TV character– with the snarky, aggressive twist that my roller peers weave into their names.

My time on that track is coming in less than one week now.  And amidst the chaos of screams, blocks, wheel grinding, jams, whistles, checks, and cheers, I will have that moment of joyous tears as I experience the serenity of my mid-life sanctuary…in my oval home, rockin' and rollin' with my family on wheels– The Hooligans, She-Devils, and Hell’s Belles.

The autograph wall is signed....it's official!

The autograph wall is signed....it's official!

To cheer on Pennis the Menace and his fellow classmates in their graduation game, click here!