Morning at Ping Pong

Sergio is always the first to arrive. He wears a low-cut yellow tank, the v-neck down to the sternum, exposing tanned skin that has taken him through eighty-three winters. Wiry white chest hairs escape from the skimpy tank top. He has been on the table since ten, having walked from his apartment on 39th Street and Sixth Avenue. “Twenty years I been living there,” Sergio says, laughing wryly like this fact is incredible. “I seen the ping pong tables when they first come.”

“Did you come to the park before the ping pong?” I ask. I know the answer will be no, but I want to see if he is the kind of New Yorker who fetishizes or derides old midtown.

“No, no,” he says. “It was no good before. Drug dealers there,” he points at the 41st Street porch, where tourists watch an accordionist. “And there”–the back of the library, lined with restaurant patrons dining al fresco.

He plays for an hour more or so, with Rev, who has a lazy eye and a benevolent smile. Rev tells Sergio he needs a wife. Sergio laughs but his eyes are hard. “I like to be alone,” Sergio says.

“But man was made to be loved by woman,” Rev says. “There is a woman out there for every man.”

“What about the men who love men?” I ask. “And the women who love women?”

Rev shakes his head, still smiling like he knows some calming truth we don’t. “Self-serving,” he says. “It bears no fruit.”

“I am going to SPiN,” Sergio says suddenly. SPiN is the indoor ping pong club. Not free of charge, like the park, but free of proselytizing. Sergio pulls a string backpack on over his stooped shoulders and heads toward Sixth Avenue, his yellow tank top soon indistinguishable from the taxis whirring by.

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Childhood

Childhood was Brandon Jones in the backyard at dusk, waiting to catch fireflies. We never saw each other outside of school, and really I only knew him as some girl or another’s crush. People said he lived in West Brattleboro in a small apartment with uncles and cousins instead of parents. He must have walked by and looked up at our big house–with its inviting picture window lit through gauzy curtains, hinting at something wonderful within—and ached to be part of it.

It was our weekly movie night and we were piled onto the couches and chairs on the top floor, getting ready to watch something family friendly, or moderately so, because Mom was a little lax with the movie choices. “Brandon is down there,” someone said. “Brandon Jones.” I doubt if I was even surprised, because kids seemed to show up on our back porch without warning quite often. There was the time Cody and Ryan Houston played basketball in our driveway, not knowing that a new family had moved into the empty house kitty-corner to theirs. They left when Dad went outside to find out who they were; this was before September 11, and I’m sure two pre-teen Vermonters had never heard an Arabic accent before. They might not have even known what Arab was. There was the time Sean Ferguson, (who, like Brandon, lived way across town in an area we only drove past when going to the local diner for Belgian waffles), called the home phone and said, without introduction, “I’m in a comfortable chair on a back porch with a golden dog.” That, of course, was our prized Adirondack chair, and our smiling golden retriever Annie, and our back porch. My girlfriends and I spilled down two flights of stairs, a wave of giggles, and there Sean was, all dimples and sparkling go-light green eyes. There was the time Tosh from next door came through the gap in the fence like a stray cat, looking lost and beat up. On his side of the fence there were junky cars littering the yard and young women with kids, and there was always a stepdad or something yelling at him. We didn’t like Tosh much, but we let him stay on our side until the swell on his cheek lessened or the bloody nose dried up.

It wasn’t so surprising to see Brandon, then, because backyards seemed permeable. We climbed fences and roamed into alleys and buildings and corners of town that didn’t belong to us, but only because nothing seemed to belong to anyone. That’s how Bridget and I found Strawberry Fields, a stretch of wild grass a few twists and turns from the house. We lounged on the grass until it became too itchy, and Bridget wove flowers into our hair. When we skipped back to my yard, where mom was grilling for friends (this was before everyone was vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian), all of the adults smiled at us like we were a pleasant sepia-toned memory they had just unearthed.

Down the road from Strawberry Fields was another discovery, the Hobo Trail, which seemed to have been built for our convenience. Me and the Houston boys lived atop the steep Estey Hill, and two of our gang, Katie and Ava, lived at the bottom. They scaled the hill in freezing New England winters, jeans wet to the knee with snow and air needling exposed skin, and in humid New England summers, the air viscous and fragrant and coated over everything, thick as marmalade. One day during what could have been a hide-and-seek game or just a walk in search of town secrets, one of the Houstons tripped and crashed through the thorny bushes that obscured the trail’s entrance. “Hey, come in here!” he shouted. We followed, and found that the trail led straight down to a white one-room church at the bottom of Estey Hill, just near Katie and Ava’s. The Hobo Trail became our preferred route, but no matter the direction we always met each other halfway and hiked the path as swiftly as Orpheus, since nobody would hear you scream from there—the trail was canopied by trees and cut above a converted factory complex. Even our concept of danger, though, was juvenile, driven by imagination rather than reality. An insane asylum bordered the town, and we imagined a patient might get loose and snatch us from the Hobo Trail. It never happened, of course, but it would have been a good story to pass down to younger siblings except for the fact that all of us were the babies of our households.

Who knows how much time Brandon and I spent catching fireflies? The grass, shaggy and overgrown, nipped at our skinny ankles as we roamed the yard. We were silent, as if our voices would disturb the chorus of chirps and flutters that filled each New England night. Catch and release. Catch and release. We tangled our fingers together and scooped the fireflies into our palms, holding the creatures only until they offered a performative twinkle. Immediately, we’d let go. If one held on too long, the magic was lost.