Ping pong goes yup-market

by Gerald Nachman

Spin, Susan Sarandon’s ballyhooed New York Ping-Pong parlor, has finally landed in San Francisco. She may have rejuvenated the game in the Big Apple, but she’s a Jerry-Come-Lately in the Bay Area, where Ping-Pong is a tech office fixture. I’ve been playing the game myself at least every week for 10 years, first at the Richmond Rec Center and then, after I bought a table, in my basement — table tennis’s natural habitat. We all played the game as kids in somebody’s basement. In my case, it was at the home of Brooke Jones, whom I had a crazy crush on at 14, growing up in Oakland.

Like most fads, Sarandon’s version of Ping-Pong has become an overpriced indulgence for foodies and Millennials (a word we need to outlaw), with tables renting for $29–$79 an hour (with long waits) and where the game sounds like a trendy hook for a bar and grill. I can’t imagine that serious Ping-Pongers will hang out at Spin — most prefer the more modest confines of basements, rec centers and patios, where the game belongs. At the Richmond Rec Center, I was a rare sight among no-nonsense, hard-playing Asians whom you play at your own peril.

I’m a mediocre player, at best, losing regularly to my friends Hal and Maggie. Hal and I play every Monday. I might win a game or two a month (on rare occasions, two in one session). Hal has a couple of wicked twisting backspin serves I am almost helpless to return. He tried to teach me how to serve but I was unable to master it, or just lacked the will to learn, an old dog faced with a new trick. So I bumble through our games, coming up with the occasional great shot and holding my own in a few inspired rallies.

Considering my string of losses, and that I have no sneaky serve, unless you count my little dink shot that Hal often slams back in my face, it’s surprising I still manage to play through my despair and arthritic hip and knee and problematic feet. Easily the hardest part of our games is retrieving the ball, bending over 30 times an hour to chase it down before it escapes into nooks and crannies the ball finds to hide. We accompany our games with a running commentary of sportscaster clichés (“Nachman is on the ropes now but fighting back gamely…,” “The great Newman, known as El Gato, makes a spectacular lunge at the ball that Nachman is powerless to handle…”). Much of the fun is parodying sportscasters’ cant.

Ping-Pong is one of the great underrated pleasures, even if you’re lousy at it. It’s the only exercise I actually enjoy, calling upon keen hand–eye coordination and, at its most hectic, providing a moderate cardio workout. It is the ideal game for codgers. You can get to most balls without a lot of running around, but at 70-plus, it’s wise to let the wide shots go, lest you stumble in futile pursuit. Anyone who can stand up can play, and many a rally is either manic or comic — or both. Somehow it’s a game that makes you laugh, often at yourself, yet another of its under sung appeals.

Friends I cajole into playing invariably plead, “Gee, I haven’t played in 30 years,” but there’s not a lot to remember. Ping-Pong is the least complicated but most enticing of games for amateurs, and within a few games you’re match ready. It’s surprising how satisfying it is to bat a tiny celluloid ball back and forth, even without a decent serve or athletic prowess. No special strength, bulk or height is required. Men and women are evenly matched and all ages can take on each other. I used to play my Irish masseur, Kevin, who is 40 years younger and plays football, and I’d often whip his muscled hide. In your 70s, this is extremely reassuring. My strategy was that Kevin’s aggressive footwork often did him in, while I, in my plodding way, would simply lie back and watch him botch many a macho shot.

Little did I know that the Bay Area is a hotbed of Ping-Pong  freaks, with Milpitas its capital, boasting four high-level clubs and the home of one U.S. Olympic table tennis player, a 16-year-old ace named Kanak Jha, ranked 272 in the world (I’m ranked 609,476th). Maybe Milpitas will finally get some much-needed respect to overcome its sorry punchline name.

But I think I’ll skip Spin, which a San Francisco Chronicle article likened to “something out of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’.” Spin regulars refer to the game as “ponging,” reason enough to stay away, not to mention drinks called Lob. 1 and Backspin No. 2 — much too cute for serious players. The Chron’s wine, beer and spirits writer Esther Mobley called Spin “a good place to go on a date with a 23-year-old who just sold their start-up.” I’ll keep that in mind. The club also peddles table-tennis gear like Spin-monogrammed gym bags inscribed “Come play with me” and “My balls, my business.” Uh, no thanks.

I was at first delighted when I read a few years ago that Sarandon had opened a Ping-Pong emporium in New York. I was hoping it would give the game some long-deserved visibility with a movie star’s imprimatur, but the fad factor seems to have overtaken what should remain a humble pastime played amid cardboard boxes, garbage bins, shabby chairs, a stationary bicycle and under a dim overhead light. Your serve, Sue!

Gerald Nachman is a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist and critic, and the author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America. His new book, Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway’s Most Remarkable Songs, will be published in November.

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