In 1972, President Nixon visited China, and suddenly table tennis was in the news. I was working at George Washington High School at the time, and decided, in my capacity of drug abuse prevention specialist, to set up a ping-pong table just outside the cafeteria, as a healthy alternative to drugs during lunch hours. It immediately attracted the Asian students in the school who ate their lunches while waiting for their turn. I played against these students, but didn’t stand a chance. I didn’t know whether it was lack of practice or declining reflexes caused by advancing age. Obviously I needed practice. I would show these kids what a thirty-six-year-old codger could do.
The only place to practice and to play ping-pong any time of day or night in New York City was at a well-lit basement with five tables known as Marty Riesman’s, on 96th Street, just West of Broadway. However, the game had changed since my youth. For one, it was now called, “table tennis.” The real major change was that sandpaper and pimpled rubber bats were no longer used. The bats or paddles now came from exotic places such as Sweden, Japan, and China, and were covered with thin layers of sponge and rubber, and required an entirely different approach to the game. It was a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience.
Marty Riesman was an interesting man. He was about six feet tall, hatchet-faced, thin, and he wore glasses. On his head he wore a small newsboy cap at all times that he referred to as his “lid.” He smoked incessantly. He had been United States table tennis champion three times, and during those glory days traveled with the Harlem Globe Trotters, giving exhibitions during half time. This involved cutting cigarettes in half with a slammed ball from the other end of the table and challenging audience members to games in which he was only allowed to score if his ball hit a paddle resting on his opponent’s side. He lost very seldom. However, when the paddles changed, he was out of it. He didn’t like the game as it had evolved, and truth be told, could no longer compete against the young Chinese and Japanese men who now dominated table tennis.
Marty was about fifteen years older than I, but he also had grown up on the Lower East Side and like myself, had spent evenings at the Edgies (the Educational Alliance) playing ping-pong, although he reached a level I couldn’t approach. He had also attended Seward Park High School, and it was remarkable how much poetry he still carried in his memory from those days and would recite upon request. He was unmarried and spent his waking hours managing his table tennis emporium, which even with all its lights on was still a rather dingy green and yellow place with slightly sweaty walls. I played during the day, usually after work. However, the place came alive at night, around midnight, when the experts took over, playing and betting to their hearts’ content until dawn. Cigarette smoke was thick, all the tables in action. A hundred dollars might be wagered on the outcome of a single point, with all the yelling that accompanied such a bet. Damon Runyon would have felt at home here.
Sadly, Marty Riesman’s no longer exists. It was replaced by a huge, modern apartment building called the Columbia, and New York lost one of its grittier institutions. Marty wrote books about his game and became president the United States Table Tennis Nation.