"All the crazies are that way," he says pointing down a street to our left. "You can't miss them." Two young men carrying two very cumbersome cases of beer appear to our right, striding down the middle of the empty road, followed at a distance by a bearded man in striped tights, a top hat, and a bedraggled kilt.
"See, you can't miss 'em," says the homeless man, chuckling in an indulgent way that sometimes accompanies age. Someone tosses him a beer, which he raises in a breezy toast before elegantly tapping the pull-tab. The muted staccato is broken by a carbonated hiss as we pass, and he beams: "Tonight is a good night."
At the end of the block, silhouettes gain detail in the glare of brightly lit doorways, then dissolve again into the darkness of the street. The dull thud of music can be heard as we approach, but it's no preparation for the scene that unfolds like a controlled explosion in the parking lot just beyond the last apartment building: It is a whirligig of flashing lights, gratuitous colors, roaring generators, flailing limbs, and shrieks of laughter -- a free-wheeling free-for-all casually known as the Cyberbuss Guerrilla Roller Derby.
"I've been training for this my whole life," says The People's Gardner, a dark, long-haired man with a pair of rollerblades on his feet and a children's push toy in hand. He launches into the wheeled melee of the track, wielding his toy like a vengeful hockey stick filled with tiny rainbow-hued balls that bounce like popcorn. Circling the potted shrub and teetering tower of plywood that act as the track's only reference point, he narrowly evades being tangled in a thick rope stretched between a speeding office chair, a bicyclist, and a roller skater wearing a cape and duct-tape armor. An accelerating wheelchair, occupied by a woman in a tutu shouting through a traffic cone and pushed by a wild-eyed, skirted rogue with antennae on his crash helmet, takes a corner too fast and tumbles into a heap. A push scooter, driven by a formidable opponent in full-camos, football padding, and welder's goggles, sails past, followed by a rolling toilet minus bed pan, an airport luggage cart equipped with a bean bag, and a cow-bike.
On the perimeter, a handful of slightly apprehensive spectators stands behind a line of sagging caution tape, but most of those gathered stand close to the track, moving only when unforgiving metal components and human extremities come flying toward them. They know the caution tape is only a token. With the Cyberbuss, perimeters are about as useful as rules.
"As you know, it's better to ask forgiveness than permission," says C y b e r sAM. "That's the good thing about the buss. If the cops come, we'll just take it on the road."
Recently resuscitated with a new crank shaft, the large silver school bus sits on one end of the track, offering Rollerball for our viewing pleasure and disco music for dancing, and acting as a very tall, narrow stage for performers and announcers. Throughout the year, the "buss" and its silver-painted denizens travel around taping and posting live footage of oddball events online, for long-distance "Cyber-fhREaKs" to enjoy. But tonight there will be no live Webcast. Too dangerous for the equipment, they say. Still, the fhREaKs are in full effect: Tinsel-covered crash helmets, polka dotted dresses, fun- fur armor, welding masks, kneepads, vel-vet overalls, and leather bodices jiggle to "Another One Bites the Dust."
A piercing trumpet call announces the beginning of the derby. The motley conglomeration of teams lines up with shopping carts padded with futon pillows. Riders jump in calling for weapons -- mop handles topped with baby-doll heads -- and sustenance in the form of cheap beer; the drivers, all on skates of some form or another, grab the handles and rev their "engines." Some misguided soul calls for regulations and rules.
"First team to make it through 20 laps wins!" shouts a sequin-festooned gal from the top of the Cyberbuss. A last-minute entry in the form of a German shepherd in a push cart and a roller skater with a glowing fish head causes a little delay, but after four false starts, the carts are off, careening around the potted plant and into each other. Almost immediately there is chaos and confusion. A well-launched bean bag pillow causes a huge pile-up as three teams tumble to the ground in a snarl of spinning wheels and topsy-turvy head gear. Righting their mangled contraptions, the downed racers rejoin the fray, pushing, shouting, rolling, and screeching with irrepressible abandon as lap-counters try to keep one eye on their team and one eye on their toes. Lagging teams valiantly attempt to knock over more resilient athletes by shoving mop handles into their wheels, ending in scrapes and bruises and more pile-ups. The crowd cheers appreciatively, scrambling out of the way as the carts rattle pass. And the race goes on. Round and round, flailing and swearing, drinking beer between pillow bouts and collisions.
"Where do the gorillas come in?" asks one bleary-eyed bystander. "Bloodshed is one thing. I was promised gorillas."
After what seems not long enough, the winner is announced: C y b e r sAM.
The fix is in, but shouts of "bullshit" garner a re-tally and, in an unforeseen upset, Fish Guy and his dog Molly are awarded the ceremonial 40-ouncer of King Cobra, which is dropped from the top of the buss into the waiting arms of a lucky recipient below.
Red, in camos and dangerous-looking metal shoulder pads, still questions the decision's validity, but decides to jump into a gurney and join in the ensuing free-skate, along with 6-year-old Kiki and the dog named Molly.
Beaten but not over-battered, Smokin' Joe limps away from the battlefield to take inventory of his bruises and drink some Gatorade, while his partner Impish Trish orders Chinese food delivery to the address next door.
"I think I wore myself out before the race," says the grinning Smokin' Joe, who earlier was seen doing wheelies in his patchwork skirt. "I have to learn to pace myself. Not really. It's all in good fun, you know."
Later that night, at Colma's 24-hour Serra Bowl, it seems like another world. At midnight, the parking lot is still packed, the bars are bustling, the dance floor is pumping, and every lane in the place is occupied. Folks swill beer and slap each other on the back for their well-earned strikes, talking about their wives/girlfriends/boyfriends/ husbands and their well-earned time away from home.
But all is not quite as it seems.
On Lane 12 a punk-rock angel with wings and a much-worse-for-the-plane-wreck Buddy Holly are busy selecting their bowling balls. A few minutes later, they are joined by a haggard, hollow-eyed Marlboro Man with a cigarette hanging out of the tracheotomy hole in his neck. Jayne Mansfield, with a bloody gash left in her neck by her accidental decapitation by a gas truck, casually checks a 5-inch silver pump and puts on her bowling shoes. Forties starlet Suzie Wong arrives on the arm of Keith Moon and someone offers up a clear bowling ball with a skull floating inside. It's just a few dead celebrities getting together to bowl a few frames. No big deal. But, oh, the stares. You'd think no one ever saw a Chinese starlet bowl four strikes in a row holding a large feather fan in one hand. The game is on, sort of.
Stating that bowling is not a cummerbund-friendly sport, Buddy Holly all but gives up. Mansfield's game is much like her career: She starts strong and ends up in the gut- ter, whining about that bitch Marilyn. The Marlboro Man wheezes through a few frames and tries to make a comeback toward the end by ripping the cigarette from his throat, but it's too late. Keith Moon seems too stoned to care. The Angel of Dead Celebrity Bowling keeps a watchful eye, quietly doling out prizes and bowling strikes, even though her Jesus has left her in the lurch. And Wong takes the game.
On Mansfield's way out, a curious bowler poses the question everyone in the bar had wanted to ask: "What are you doing?"
"Just having fun," Mansfield says, adjusting her fur. "Even dead people have to have fun, you know."
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