On the morning of April 24, a Gmail notification appeared on my phone: “One new message from Juanna Rumbel.” Juanna Rumbel is the derby name of writer, storyteller, and stand-up comedian, Elizabeth Gomez.
We sat down together for an interview last week before she performed at Give Your Choice a Voice, the annual pro-choice speak out for the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women. She arrived on crutches carrying an easel sized sketch pad full of penis drawings. Later she explained that she tore her Achilles tendon during a Muay Thai kickboxing session, and she would be using the drawings in her set that night.
“Tonight for this show I’m either going to do something funny, all my dick drawings that I brought, or I’m going to talk about having been in a really abusive relationship. There’s a big range, because life is like that. For tonight’s show I’m going to decide when I get there because I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
Life is unpredictable like that and at this point Elizabeth can handle life’s shifting tides and greet its challenges with a ready curled fist (or foot?).
That ready and willing attitude explains how she got to her current position in life. She founded Chicago’s first and only roller derby league, started a writing group that blossomed into a well-read blog, and now she performs all over the city as a stand up comic and storyteller. To most people, her range of interests seems bizarre for a mom with a full time job. Elizabeth doesn’t question her direction, but evaluates each interest separately saying, “It’s a path I’ve started down and I really enjoy it so I’m just going to keep doing it.”
The path she refers to now is live performance, but roller derby was her gateway crazy woman past-time. She hasn’t actually skated in several years, though she’s still involved in the derby community. Why did she quit competing? She explains, “Roller derby isn’t a game. It’s not like a pick-up softball league. It’s your whole life.”
Elizabeth started roller derby in 2004 with Kelly “Sister Sledgehammer” Simmons. A chance encounter with a roller derby queen in Austin, Texas, inspired their initial awareness of roller derby. “We met a girl waitressing at the Continental Club. She was the epitome of what you think a Texas girl should look like. She had a denim skirt on and a gingham shirt and I feel like it was rolled up, but it probably wasn’t. It’s probably just my memory. My friend Sister Sledgehammer, Kelly, saw this mark on the girl’s hip and she asked ‘What is on your hip? ‘What is that a tattoo of?’ The waitress with her tray and her hat, said ‘Ugh it is NOT a tattoo, it is a derby burn!’ And she flipped around and walks away from us and I just melted. Who is she, and why is she so confident? Why is she taking over this whole room with all that attitude and I still love her!”
When Kelly and Elizabeth got back to Chicago they began researching derby leagues in the hopes of attending matches or joining a league. There were none in Chicago at the time. They reached out to the other six existing leagues in the U. S. and asked what they should do. “They all wrote back and they said well you could always start a league. And I was like ‘Oh that’s crazy! I don’t know how to skate. I don’t know a lot of people. I’ve never seen a game. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ And they said, ‘well you could.’ Yeah I guess I could… and then we did.”
“And then we did” can be roughly translated to and then I recruited skaters, fundraised, planned practices, games, training sessions, advertised and promoted, sold tickets, and worked a full time job while raising two children and going through a divorce.
Elizabeth skated for eight seasons before retiring her skates, helmet and pads. Then she began the next chapter of her life: writing.
Her boyfriend (now her husband) is a writer for the Chicago Reader. They actually met when he wrote a story about the Windy City Rollers. He encouraged her to start a blog. Elizabeth confesses,“it was called One Bad Mama, and it was terrible. I was never consistent, and I wasn’t great at writing because I didn’t know what to say.” So she decided to look for workout buddies. She posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to start a writing group that would offer feedback and assign deadlines. There was a strong and positive response from many of the friends she’d met through the derby community.
Drinkers with Writing Problems started as a monthly meeting and feedback session. The group soon opted to meet more often, aiming at weekly sessions. Then they started a blog. “That was about accountability for ourselves,” explains Elizabeth, “we just wanted a blog so that we’d have deadlines that help us write more.” Then things changed. “One day we woke up…and we’d had a huge boost in our blog. We thought what is going on? Somehow we’d been picked for the WordPress Editor’s Freshly Pressed.” One of Elizabeth’s stories was featured in WordPress editor’s selected list. “It started building our followers. We kept publishing stories and got more followers. Now you can find us under the editor’s pick for writing and short stories and all sorts of different categories. I think we’re up to 9000 or 10000 followers on WordPress.”
Most recently, DWWP has added a live show at Brisku’s Bistro on the last Friday of every month. Unlike storytelling shows, this is purely a reading without any additional performativity required.
In addition to her DWWP shows, Elizabeth performs stories and stand-up all over the city. She typically performs 8-10 shows each month, and is a cast member of Kelsie Huff’s female comedy group the Kates.
What’s next? Catch Elizabeth “Juanna Rumbel” Gomez read at Tuesday Funk on May 3 at Hopleaf. Stay tuned for an upcoming appearance on Kristin Ryan’s podcast Bloody Mary, which will focus on the movie Sleepaway Camp.