Writer’s Note: This essay was originally published in 2013
In my neighborhood we all got together each summer and played ping pong. Kids of appropriate ages would bike over to our cul-de-sac and wait their turn to “play winner.” We would play under the sun all day, with the kind of dehydrated feverishness that can only come from youthful reserves. In the evening the sweat dried to our skin and the pads of our splintered feet hardened. At night the deck was lit overhead by work lights fixed to the rain gutters. There was no end to the playing, the play. As the years went by and maturity set in, the ping pong went on like this with few changes to the scenery. Cokes eventually had rum in them, cigarettes were taken mid game, girls showed up, but the passion for the games remained. Playing never grows old.
Last month I received an email with the subject line “Want to go to this…?” sent by a friend. “This,” was a backyard ping pong tournament. Replying yes invited within minutes a second email providing a list of players (“we have nine players scheduled”), the location (Oakland) and the time (2–8pm). The tone of the email was serious, too serious for ping pong.
The tournament was held by a tennis pro named Steve whose bulging red eyes matched a shirt that showed how fit he was. Steve was fit. The focus that Steve was known for on the tennis court was evident in the cleanliness of his house, the symmetry of his landscaping, and in his detailed personal grooming. He spoke at you, efficiently. This is Center Court OK. I just had the flagstone installed, so this will be the first match on it. Before it was dirt, too uneven. Two tables OK. The other one is in the driveway, we call that the B-Court. Same height on the tables, I adjusted them this morning. In his kitchen, Steve poured me purified water from a glass jug. The strained expression on his face didn’t loosen even for comfortable, generous tasks.
Lisa, Angie and Nancy, three more tennis types, navigated around the marble kitchen island and introduced themselves enthusiastically. They all looked like their names. Like Steve, they were fitted neatly into performance enhancing gear and amped for play. Barry was another participant. He was lithe and forward leaning in an Oakland Athletics t-shirt. He swayed and nodded and from a distance, could be taken for either seventeen or fifty. Barry bounced around the kitchen with a new brand of social restlessness brought on by endless, involuntary routines of networking. He made his way to each of us and collected necessary details, stopping only when all the animate objects had been exhausted. He offered me his card and explained what he did for work, which was inexplicable, then he left me, satisfied that we had sufficiently interfaced. When we moved out to the backyard, Steve explained that he eventually wanted to install a closed circuit television so players could watch each other on either court.
Sitting on a lawn chair with a red acrylic bong in his lap was the unlikely figure Bruce. In contrast to the tennis pro’s, Bruce looked like he was at a poker game. He had a panama hat, wrap around athletic sunglasses, and baggy, casual clothes. He was in his mid fifties, grey haired, and looked to be enjoying life immensely. Bruce and I were designated by Steve as the first players on Center Court. I was handed a paddle that was professional and of European descent and we hit the ball back and forth in an exhilarated practice volley. Steve heralded in the beginning of the tournament from the deck landing above us. Everyone but me understood the rules, which were not rules but dictates. Steve spoke with a piercing vitality that challenged your existence. He was self-created, moment by moment, carefully drawn outward from some idea of perfection all the way to his sun-spotted flesh. He was the broad, inclusive age of self-improvement forced through a narrow straw of fascism. I served the first ball of the tournament and he screamed: Four inches, palm up!
Of the components that make up a man’s ping pong game, his serve is a defining one. A serve is something that you can count on in a game where offensive maneuvers are few. My serve, the serve that has become natural to me over a couple of dozen years, was deemed illegal by Steve and the tournament rules. Ball goes four inches Alex, up in the air. Palm faces up.
I looked up at Steve and now Jack who had just arrived. They were surveying the yard, accessing the competition. Jack had a face out of a sitcom, too kind and too photogenic to be real. Jack could have been anything in life, a fireman, President even, if he would have just let his face do the talking for him. But when he spoke he spoke only of ping pong. And he agreed with Steve: This is universal Alex. Ball goes four inches in the air, palm faces up. I looked at the kindness in Jack’s face and explained that I just grew up playing with kids from the neighborhood. Jack spoke coldly, against who he was. Yeah, we all did.
This was an informal ping pong tournament in Oakland in Two thousand and thirteen. This was in a house that tech built, renovated to Two thousand and thirteen furniture catalog approximation. This was in a backyard carefully designed to maximize recreation efficiency. It should have been clear when I saw the first aid kit tacked to the wall outside. Or when Steve came to wipe clean the tables before play with the focus of a man performing an sacred rite. It was a ping pong tournament that I was unprepared for as someone who hadn’t grown up yet.
Everyone here had grown up and fallen in love with structures. As a result, the wild playing of our youth lost its irreverence for rules. The movements were less free, gasping for expression in skin-tight boutique wares. What Steve and Jack had learned from their time spent at Apple and Google was that only the appearance of fun and spontaneity were necessary, enough to look good and impress the neighbors. Hard rules lay underneath and kept the wild passions at bay, deadening the errant balls and forceful serves. Intuition had been replaced by the more reliable metrics. This was ping pong in the height of the tech age.
Ping pong wasn’t designed to grow up. There is a largeness to the game that by appearances looks miniaturized. There is something in ping pong it that isn’t beholden to anything, more friend to chance and superstition than to management.
I played with them. I tightened along with them and still lost most of the games. Although Barry did note that I shouldn’t have played barefoot. Barry said that proper footwear was essential to quick returns. On the B-Court, Lisa flatly called out the score between points. I caught myself once saying Nice point in a hushed, scholarly tone. Bruce had a smile on his face most of the time, partly because the weed was good and partly because he loved ping pong. It gets really good sometimes, he said. At those levels, when you’re not in your head about it. When you can just enjoy. Were out here with the sun on our skin, in motion. When you’re playing from that space, the game is just beautiful.