I swiveled in my office chair for a Royal Street view of the tourist masses flocked in feather boas clutching to-go cups while locals weaved their way around the packs of conventioneers, bachelor parties and safari-clad senior citizens. This panorama was my daily diversion from reviewing all things criminal for the Louisiana Supreme Court whose palatial digs sat in judgment in the most unlikely of locations, the French Quarter of New Orleans, an area known more for the birthplace of boozy concoctions and jazz than jurisprudence. But in the spring of 2005, my distraction sprung from within. Craving more movement than the wheels of justice provided, my daydreams turned to roller derby.
Roller derby leagues were laying down tracks across the U.S. after getting a reboot from the sleazy 70’s version to an updated symbol of female empowerment paired with fishnet stockings. Although the skaters appeared to be much younger, much more tattooed women than myself, I felt a kindred spirit from my childhood years of roller skating around the dining room table with a Donna Summer 8–track backing me as I looped the green linoleum floor over and over. My sedentary existence as a behind-the-scenes lawyer propelled my four-wheel fantasies as I rounded the imaginary track in my mind, sporting my skater name emblazoned across my back, Illegally Blonde.
The name reflected the pride I took in achieving good hair and a meaningful career but I needed more than a moniker to spur me into action from slacker to skater. I sought encouragement from a friend who knew me from our disgruntled teenage days. Without hesitation, he replied, “Hell yeah, you were kinda mean.” I then asked my husband for his thoughts and without hesitation, he replied, “You’ll get creamed.” And then Katrina happened.
Exiled in Houston with my husband and my New Orleanian in-laws, we shared space with my parents who conveniently lived in Houston and were conveniently divorced thereby providing us with two houses to stay in. I watched the televised water mark lines continue to rise in my adopted city while safe and secure back under my parents’ roof in my hometown. Derby dreams were shelved as all my thoughts turned dark wondering when we would go back home – to the city where I became a grownup – from college student, to law student, to lawyer and then wife. I volunteered alongside my fellow Houstonians in the sheltered remains of the Astrodome, desperate to connect with my fellow evacuees who were much worse off but still shared the same underlying pain of removal from a city we loved.
October 2005 marked my return to New Orleans. Our house was still standing but plenty was not. Katrina’s sudden disruption and deprivation of my daily routine and rituals taught me a life lesson: postpone at your peril. And so I moved my roller derby daydreams to my to-do list. Katrina had depleted the league’s numbers – some members remained far removed from home and some with more pressing concerns. But joining roller derby represented a comeback, and a welcome back, for me and my city.
Lacing up a pair of standard issue roller rink skates, I circled the concrete parking lot across the street from our house, skating the same pattern from the green linoleum floor of my youth. I then braved my first roller derby practice fully armored with a helmet, wrist pads, elbow pads, knee pads, and a mouth guard. And for the first time ever, I became an athlete. Before that, I was a failed cross country runner, track team dropout, frequent visitor to the nurse’s office when PE involved any sport that had the potential of a ball hitting me in the face, and had gone AWOL on many a gym membership. But now I was mastering crossovers, booty blocking, and whips and pushes. I’ve never been a natural at anything but I took to the track just like I was back in the dining room listening to Donna Summer belt out Last Dance. “We Skate Through Hell and High Water” was our mantra as we rebuilt the league while rebuilding our homes, our businesses and our lives.
The Big Easy Rollergirls made their debut on September 16, 2006 – a year had passed since Katrina. Our bout was held in the colorful, cavernous warehouse of Mardi Gras World – our track surrounded by Mardi Gras floats housed for the off-season providing a surreal, sold out backdrop for the first ever appearance of flat track roller derby in New Orleans. The rules of roller derby may have been lost on the crowd but their cheering sounded like the whole city was inside. We all rose above the water mark line that night.
I left the league after the first season but roller derby has never left my heart. I also left New Orleans but the city remains in my soul. No longer a jammer, I became a jogger but every time I round that corner on the three-mile loop in Memorial Park, Illegally Blonde gets back on the track. And don’t even think of cutting me in line at the deli counter.