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Monday, May 14, 2012


We are always looking for something different and interesting to do for a date on a Saturday night, a practice which I am ending right now. Why do you need to do something different all the time? Every time we go out to eat, as I am ordering my veal francese, someone invariably says to me, “Why don’t you have something different for a change?” Sometimes it’s even the busboy or someone from another table who says it. And I say, “Because I LIKE veal francese!” And the busboy says, “Well good luck because this is a Chinese restaurant.” Only he says it in Spanish.

Anyway Courtney & Bob from our double-date foursome had the bright idea to check out the new ping-pong place in Pleasantville, since they had a coupon. I don’t use a whole lot of coupons unless I’m on vacation and get one of those coupon books at the hotel. “10% off every large pizza.” Then I get the pizza and there is half a slice missing. You don’t usually get a coupon for anything good, like a home, or a Rolex, but in this case we jumped on the idea, since a night of ping-pong sounded like fun, and in all the years that I have visited Pleasantville, nothing unpleasant has ever happened to me there. Except I did get kicked out of a bar once, but since I was drunk even that was pleasant. This ping-pong place is co-owned by Will Shortz, who edits the New York Times crossword puzzle, so we figured we could be in for a celebrity sighting also.

What I did not realize until I got there was that this is NOT a ping-pong place. This is a Table Tennis Facility. Any time you walk into a Facility, you know they mean business. We saw a bunch of guys (there were no women) who looked extremely serious about Table Tennis. As we looked around at the tables, laughing and smiling, they looked upon us with disdain and scorn, and stuck us in the “dipshit area,” which is where they put the players who look like their balls might disrupt the other players, and you can stick your own joke here. My wife was wearing heels, which was a dead giveaway. The only sport played in high heels is women’s beach volleyball. Or did I just imagine that??

Immediately I could see that nothing I know about the game of tennis would translate to ping-pong. The net seemed ridiculously low for one thing, until the security guy came over and told me to get the hell off the table. We played mixed doubles, and it felt like good-natured fun for a while, one couple against the other. Then things started to get serious, and I got down to arguing every line call, like I do in tennis. Since we didn’t have instant replay I suggested we play the exact same point over, really slowly, and get another look at it.

I dusted off my famous “no-look” serve, where I cagily pretend to look off to the side where there is no earthly reason to look, and fire a ridiculously fast serve that barely clears the net and sails effortlessly past the opponents paddle. I banged the first five tries off the side of the table whereupon they bounced backwards and hit me in the nuts. This is the kind of harmless fun that always results in injury to me, and I knew I should have worn a cup or at the very least a bicycle helmet.

At that point who should walk over but Will Shortz. My wife recognized him immediately which impressed me for a few moments, until I realized that his photo does not actually appear anywhere in the New York Times, and she would have no reason to know what he looks like, other than that she might be stalking him. Guess what he was wearing? That’s right! Shorts! And a Sudoku tee shirt. Which led me to believe that he may be starting a clothing line. Shortz’ Shorts!

By force of habit I almost called him “Will Shortz, that Son-of-a-Bitch,” since I have never mentioned his name without the qualifying phrase. This is a guy who has made my life miserable every day for years, trying to stump me with his abstruse clues. Does the question mark at the end of the clue mean he is making a joke or is it part of the puzzle’s theme?

Before I could stop myself I asked him if he knew a four-letter word for Scandinavian goose. He made a face to Bob and Courtney as if to say, “No, but I know a four-letter word for ‘idiot.’” At least I refrained from asking him if Brian Eno has ever thanked him personally, and unless you do the Times puzzle every week you won’t know what I mean by that. He actually seemed willing to hang out and chat, and he played a few points with us. I wanted him to teach me how to put topspin on the ball, and he said that the pips on our paddles were not up to snuff. I hadn’t even considered the paddle pips before, and wasn’t sure if he was just yanking my crank. He told us that they were facing inward instead of outward, like the Gladys Night variety.

I gave him a gander at my patented “no-look” serve. “Ha!” I whispered to Courtney. “He didn’t even get a paddle on that one!” “It never hit the table!” She pointed out. “Even on YOUR side! You almost broke the fluorescent light!” After he blew about twenty past me I started with the name-calling, and he finally left.

We were late for our dinner reservation, but on the way out Bob noticed a ping-pong serving machine. We went over to check it out. Bob set it to “20,” not knowing what the number referred to. We switched it on, and it turns out the “20” meant “20 zillion MPH.” Before he could pick up a paddle the thing hit him five times in the forehead. He spent the next ten minutes hitting balls as fast as he could move the paddle, just in self-defense. They were coming so fast he couldn’t finish the sentence, “TURN THE GODDAMN THING OFF!” All he could get out was, “TURN…” so I kept turning around in 90 degree increments as I laughed my ass off. Finally I regained my senses and unplugged the thing, since I didn’t want to get too close to it. Everyone who had been playing before was at the front desk as we were leaving. They couldn’t have been nicer, wishing us a pleasant evening and inviting us to return any time, by which I could tell that they really meant, “Don’t ever come back here, at least without a pair of shorts and a Sudoku tee shirt. The heels can stay.”

Incidentally, ping-pong was originally played in England at the end of the Victorian Era, when people had a lot of time on their hands, and little to use them for. It was originally called “whiff whaff”, but since that sounded dumb they changed the name to the much more sophisticated-sounding “ping pong.” Europeans dominated the game in the early 1900s, but in the 1960s, Japan became the world champions, followed by the Chinese in the 1980s through to today. That started to change in 1988 with the introduction of table tennis as an Olympic game. The Olympic Committee is now also considering tag and see-saw.