Ping Pong in the Park

Gustavo Valdes is better than me at ping-pong.

Then again, I imagine so are most people. I’m what some might call athletically challenged. My high school gym teacher once asked me to sit out during a flag football game because she claimed I was a safety hazard to both my classmates and myself. When it comes to possessing hand-eye coordination, I appear to be significantly lacking.

Still, I found myself vaguely interested when I heard through the East Village blogosphere that a new ping-pong table had moved to Tompkins Square Park, a permanent fixture donated by local outdoor table manufacturer, Henge Tables.

Located near the park’s dog run and dedicated to the recently retired park supervisor, Harry Greenberg, the table seemed to serve a greater community purpose than merely providing light outdoor recreation.

To me, it was a glistening, polished concrete invitation for strangers to come take a friendly swing at each other.

Egged on by the late afternoon sunshine and a restless itch I’ve been fighting all winter, it was an invitation I gladly accepted. Why not?

But as a friend and I approached the statuesque table, the sun glinting off its steel net, I realized we faced an immediate challenge: We didn’t have paddles.

A laminated sign posted on a fence nearby told me I could rent one for free at the Flea Market Café, a restaurant across the street on Avenue A between St. Marks and East Ninth Street.

It wasn’t exactly the most likely place to find ping-pong equipment—a quizzical fact I brought up to the Flea Market Café’s bartender, Jean-Philippe Ahoua, who was unloading a box full of shiny new paddles onto the counter, right next to the martini shaker.

“We were asked if we wanted to be a participating business in collaboration with the new ping-pong table that was set up,” he told me. “We love ping-pong.”

My friend and I returned to the table, armed and ready to play.

But I wasn’t ready for Gustavo.

It was clear from the start that Gustavo meant business. Quick and alert, he was engaged in the middle of a heated volley when we arrived at the table, his dark eyes darting back and forth as he loped a bright orange ball at his opponent with a fluid flick of the wrist. A wrinkle of concentration marked his forehead, making him look seasoned and professional, a ping-pong champ.

I decided to approach him.

“How old are you anyway?”

He was 12. He had just started playing ping-pong five months ago after receiving a set of paddles and practiced regularly with his mother using an old wooden table in his living room. He had noticed the new table on his way to school that morning and was overwhelmed by the prospects of a summer full of ping-pong bliss. He asked if I wanted to play.

I eyed him up and down, assessing my competition. This kid was good. He knew it too. As Gustavo looked up at me with his intent stare, the sound of dogs barking in the nearby dog run pounded in my ears. He could take me.

Not quite ready to embarrass myself, I admitted I didn’t know the rules. His face broke into an easy smile.

“I’ll show you.”

We spent about half an hour out there at the ping-pong table, my friend, Gustavo and I, the three of us shrieking as we fumbled serves and chased after missed shots.

By the end of the day, I certainly was no pro. But I had learned how to keep score. I learned how to hold the paddle two different ways. I learned that people don’t play ping-pong to show off their athletic prowess. They play because it’s a beautiful day in the park, because they can borrow paddles from restaurants. They play because it’s fun.

After a while, Gustavo had to go home. His mom was calling.

“Maybe I’ll see you around,” Gustavo said.

Who knew? Maybe he would.

Later that week, I spoke with Alan Good, president of Henge Tables, about why his company decided to donate a ping-pong table to Tompkins Square Park in the first place.

“I look at it as a type of outdoor pub,” he said. “It’s nice to linger and have an excuse to look at and listen to other people as they play. It’s neat to see the courtesies that come through cooperative physical activity.”

And in a neighborhood like the East Village, he said, a place already brimming with interaction and vitality, it just made sense to give people another excuse to come together.

“Anyone can dink a ball over the net,” Mr. Good said. “You can make a bunch of mistakes and nothing matters. It’s all fun.”