American Culture

Damon Runyon and Me

I’ve always admired the works of Damon Runyon. Drawing on the people he observed every day in Brooklyn, he created fictional characters that seemed more real than people I really know. There’s even an adjective to describe people who look like the characters in a Damon Runyon story: Runyonesque. I always wanted to be Runyonesque. And when I worked as a newspaper reporter, just as Damon Runyon did, I would have given anything to have heard someone say: “That Hargrove, he’s almost Runyonesque.” I told my wife about this.

“Why do you want to be onionesque?” she asked.

“Not onionesque, Runyonesque. You know, Damon Runyon? The writer?”

“Why can’t you say that Damon Runyon is Hargrovian?” she asked. “I can spell Hargrovian. Hey, Onionoid, why don’t you run yon garbage to the dumpster? And if you go out, we need toilet paper.”

Damon Runyon was also a sports writer. I like sports. And so one day in the winter of 1969, after football season but before baseball season (there was no basketball season in 1969-we watched helplessly as the Boston Celtics won another NBA championship after the UCLA bruins won another NCAA championship) my brother and I discovered Roller Derby. In Roller Derby, network television reached its zenith as the elevating and educating force it was meant to be.

Everything we needed to know about life was on the Roller Derby track: separate from the pack, count on your teammates, go fast, don’t be afraid to use your elbows, look out for everybody else’s elbows, and while the people behind you will pull you down, it’s the people in front of you who will knock you out. It was one of the greatest shows we’d ever seen. Not Three Stooges great, but still very impressive and too good to remain a spectator sport. We had to play.

Tragically, the local skating rink was owned by our uncle and he knew us. So if we wanted to experience the thrill of Roller Derby, we would need a different location. But first, a quick primer for the younger generation. A roller derby team had 5 members on the track at one time. Each team had 10 skaters, five male and five female. The guys skated in quarters 2 and 4, the gals in 1 and 3 and (in theory) ne’er the twain did meet. A team scored points by passing members of the other team, as the whole pack skated around the banked oval at speeds from fast to really fast. There was a lot of fighting and hair pulling and punching and throwing your opponents off the track. On TV, it looked easy.

We tried to bring Roller Derby, sans skates, to Connelly Junior High School, but it didn’t work out. We managed three quick jams before the principal put an end to our nonsense, and when I say he put an end to it, remember that 1969 was the Golden Age of corporal punishment. True, the principal’s paddle was cruel and unusual, but it was also a convincing argument. It cut off the jam.

And so, Roller Derby became our Saturday afternoon television entertainment of choice. We never missed a game. Oh, we knew something important was wrong with Roller Derby. It was around this time that my brother introduced me to the phrase “predestined conclusion.” The Derby always ended with the San Francisco Bay Bombers, led by the mighty Charlie O’Connell, just barely able to squeak out another win over some evil group of thugs. Maybe it wasn’t predestined. Maybe it was fate, but we didn’t mind, because when the men weren’t skating, the women were.

She was my first true love. The Golden Girl, Joanie Weston, almost 6 feet tall with long yellow tresses, she was surely a wanton angel come down to earth. True, our TV had a small screen, the picture wasn’t that good, and she was moving, but what did that matter? She was all grace and speed, and she could elbow me in the face any time she wanted. I thought my heart was hers forever.

Actually, my heart was hers for a week. That’s how much time passed before I saw Ann Calvello. I loved her, too. Ann Calvello with her multi-colored hair, was the fighter, the spitter, the woman who could kick ass and insult as well as any goon. She was the bad girl my mom warned me about, the one I had been looking for ever since the warning came. This woman who was eternally too-tanned by the heat of some star I didn’t know existed. Again, there was the problem of the small screen and the low definition quality of the picture. The fans in the crowd called her Banana Nose. But hey, I like bananas. When she was on the oval, I couldn’t look away.

And sometimes, Joanie and Ann would collide and fight. That bothered me a lot, because it was like watching two Valkyries drop to wretched earth when they should have stayed in the Valhalla of my teenaged dreams. Maybe, I daydreamed, they were fighting over me.

They’re both gone now, the fantasy twins of my youth. Joanie died in 1997 of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, and Ann passed away from liver cancer in March, 2006. That’s the problem with the present tense. Our memories are bound to the past, and once you reach a certain age the past is everything. Around the banked oval of my heart, they still move with the speed of memory. And when I eat a chili dog late at night, I can feel them fighting in flames.

My ever-loving wife wonders why I scan the Roller Derby websites, and I can’t give an answer that would make any sense. Let us say that I have become in a rather pathetic way, the Runyonesque person I always wanted to be. It is ironic that Damon Runyon made me Runyonesque.

Because the greatest of Damon Runyon’s great works, was the game he invented in 1937: the game of Roller Derby. And his short stories weren’t that bad, either.

3 replies »

  1. This is a remarkable post on so many levels. It’s great storytelling. It’s funny. But as a writer, I am blown away by the craftsmanship. You could build an entire semester around the construction of this story.

    Sir, I am in awe.