We cycled up 6th Avenue to 42nd Street. I was on one of those citibikes and, having spent 5 or so days in Manhattan, had become somewhat familiar with the skills one needed to ride New York City streets. The rules as I had figured them out were:
- Looks like a gap? Is a gap.
- ‘Should we go down this street with the bike lane?’ is a rhetorical question. Yes, you should.
- The back brake is on the right. Especially important when attempting skiddies.
It was a Sunday and the sun was out. We parked up and wandered over to the two outdoor tables they have permanently installed in Bryant Park. There are picnic table settings surrounding the court area. There is a man with an official-looking, lime-green polo shirt. He mainly stands under an umbrella where there is a bucket full of bats and balls and a clipboard with two columns (one for each table), and then names and times handwritten beneath them. Most of them had been scratched out.
I walked up and asked how it works. “I write your name down, then when I call you, you play.” Made sense. I told him our names and then we found a picnic table and sat down to watch some games.
These were the Bryant Park Locals. I knew that because I recognised four of them from photographs online. And there was a constant banter happening between them that comes only with the familiarity of regular play. Haggard Bat Guy was good and spun the ball a lot. He had this racquet that most other players would retire hurt, or at the very least replace the rubbers on. One side looked as if it had been melted in an oven, and then the other had worn down to the wood. After he finished a match, I politely asked him if I could photograph him with his racquet. He said no, and then put his headphones on. I could only presume he was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth at full volume.
Then there was The Voice. Tall, muscles, capable and loud. He was not the best player of the Locals but he had a baller presence and it felt like the others appreciated that. When the good players played him, they would win but they would enjoy the match. His forehand reminded me of mine. It was one of those ones that when it goes in it looks clinical, but then it rarely goes in. The Voice would lament these misses with a sense of amazement and surprise. He entertained and that made him good to watch.
Finally, there was The Kid. When most of the Locals seemed qualified to play a Masters Tournament, The Kid brought the millennial factor. Cool, Steve Urkel glasses come good, skinny AF jeans and a vintage check shirt. The Kid had swagger; he would move fast, get low, whip a forehand and then flick his racquet in a spin. This guy was talented and represented where table tennis needs to go. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard, he was the future.
“Hey man, I called your name. Table 1.”