Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Little Person Ping Pong

I once played ping pong with a little person, and lost. I have been reminded of this incident by all the white-hot ping pong action that has been on display in the Olympics.

[By the way, I've been watching the Olympics pretty much constantly. My votes for most super-boring of Olympic sports:

Air Rifle - You'd think someone shooting a gun would have an inherent excitement to it. It doesn't.
Beach Volleyball - I can't watch more than a point of this, in spite of the bikinis.
Dressage - Dancing horses were just fine for Ian McCullogh, but man, there comes a point when you realize you're watching a hoofed mammal prancing, and you have to question your judgment.]

When I lived in Santa Cruz these many years ago, there was a bar near my apartment, and it had a ping pong table. This table was used in the same way that bar pool tables are used: you'd put your name up on the chalkboard, and whoever won the last match would call you to play. I was OK at ping pong, and after a few weeks of playing quite a bit, I thought I could hold my own.

There were a few true ping pong masters in that bar. The baddest ass ping pong master was an old guy with a pot belly that owned a Chinese restaurant across the street. No-one looked forward to playing him. He'd gesture with his paddle, and the ball would be a white blur, bouncing off the table in the very corner, before rolling under the Arkanoid cocktail machine.

And you would hear only his derisive laughter as you swung your paddle impotently.

Needless to say, I never dethroned this ping pong master. I like to think that he preened, shirtless, in the men's room before a match, maybe with Foreigner playing in the background. It makes me feel better.

One night I was in the bar, which my friend and I had imaginatively dubbed The Ping Pong Bar [I'd like to point out that at no time did we refer to the place as The Table Tennis Bar. That would have been wrong and against God's plan.] and I had won a few games. I was getting to that level of ping pong where you can stand back from the table a little bit and really put a good swing on the ball. I was thinking about spin. I was pondering the efficacy of coquettish drop shots. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was ready to challenge the Chinese Restaurant owner, and eventually represent my country as some kind of ping pong savant.

Flush with pride, I called the next name on the chalkboard.

From a barstool strode a little person. He was probably about four feet tall, and wearing a Gold's Gym tee shirt. Little big muscles bulged on his considerable biceps. He was grinning at me, a gold chain flashing from his chest.

I felt in a bit of an ethical dilemma. This guy has no chance, I thought. But I didn't want to shame him. It was a no-win situation. If I trounced him, I'd just be another almost-six-foot liberal arts major taking advantage of a vertically challenged opponent. I would be reviled as a bully. If he beat me, of course, it would be certain humiliation.

I approached him to introduce myself and shake hands, but he was having none of it. There were to be no friendly exchanges. He looked at my proffered hand with scorn. We took up our positions, only his head visible over the table.

We rallied for serve in the time-honored and complex "Ping- Pong - Rally's - On" ritual, first developed by the ancient Minoans in the eleventh century BC, and I won the serve.

I pondered how to approach the serve. I could go for my normal spin serve, and bamboozle him, leaving him begging for mercy, or I could just tap it lightly over the net, taking advantage of his minimal reach. But I wanted to feel out my opponent, so I served it straight to him.

He reached up, and swung an overhead smash. He hit the little ping pong ball as hard as he could, right at my head.

The ball rebounded off my forehead, and my diminutive opponent laughed. "Your point," he said. There was no doubt in my mind that he had done that on purpose.

The game continued, with him sometimes aiming a smash directly at my face. I was getting a little flustered, and my game started to suffer. Gone were my plans for delicate backspins and beautifully executed drop shots. This was serious. I played hard, pausing for beer only at service changeovers.

The game continued, with the lead seesawing back and forth, but in the end, he beat me. I put my paddle down on the table and left my dreams of Olympic glory there at the Ping Pong Bar.

Months later, the little person came into the bagel shop in the Capitola Mall where I clung to a small shred of dignity, weighing out portions of lox shmear and baking bialies for the uncaring masses. If anything, his big little muscles had increased in size. He greeted me and we reminisced about our battle, in a touching scene that would not have been out of place in My Bodyguard if that film had taken place in a bagel shop and involved ping pong in any way at all.

So go the days of our lives.


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