Monday, June 21, 2011
The hard streets of LA.
Young men are out hustling, doing whatever they can to make it. They feel forgotten by society. They’re forced to make difficult decisions. Join a gang for security and protection, or face life on their own, where nothing is handed to them. Either way, it’s a hard life. These young men know a lot of heartache, know a lot of loss. They feel lucky to make it out alive.
The one break many get is when they get on the court, playing the game they love. Sure, there’s trash talking, maybe some shoving, but on the court there are rules, it’s a safe place. And, it’s a chance to exercise and get out some of that angst. You can picture it, a few sweaty guys in the noon day sun, going left, going right, and slamming it home. It’s intense, and it’s one of the few times they get to feel free. “What’s the score?” yells one of them. “Let!” yells another. To many gang banging inner city men, ping pong is a refuge. To others it’s a way out. There is nothing more ubiquitous than urban youth sweating around a table, on which they play tennis.
Today, I ventured to downtown LA and entered that world as an outsider. I left one of the gang.
My friend, Scott, from my Level 2 improv class invited people out to join him in a ping pong tournament at a bar downtown. I jumped at the chance. I love ping pong, and I’ve never played in a tournament. My dad and grandparents used to play in tournaments some, but I’ve never done it in an organized way. We had a table growing up and we used to play quite a bit. There were a few hazards. You had to avoid the shelf on the wall in the corner, too near the table, the wall wasn’t very far behind you, and if you were playing with my friend, Matt, you had to duck after he lost match point because there was a good chance his paddle would come flying toward you. Those hazards just made me stronger, more ready for big city ping pong.
We grabbed a drink and sized up the competition. There was the older guy, who arrived on a motorcycle with a lady. He brought his own paddles in a special bag. There was another guy who was yelling at himself and all too intense. There was also a guy who put spin on the ball that I had never seen. I felt like Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump. No one would choose me for their team, but maybe underneath it, I can play. Michelle was my Rosie Perez.
They put the bracket up on a white board. I drew Scott first round. First, the older guy lost. He got on his motorcycle and drove off into the night. A couple of matches later, it was my turn with Scott. It was 3-2, then 5-5, then 8-7, a real seesaw battle. Eventually, I won. It was my first tournament victory. I tried to get the others to start the wave, to no avail, apparently, that’s not a thing you do there.
My next match was against a guy wearing a Nike shirt. He must have had the shirt because he was sponsored by them for ping pong. He crushed me.
I think it’s important to experience all of LA, not just Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and the beach. I think it’s important to go experience the rough and tough side as well, see how the real people live. I think I did that tonight.
I got next.