The white man in the suit was sweating.
The jacket was off, the tie was loose and the sleeves were rolled up.
It was hot — not the brutal, sweltering heat of the hottest summer days in New York — but hot nonetheless.
Overhead, the trees were swaying gently with the breeze. The dance of the leaves meant the spots of sunlight that hit the table moved, and moved again.
It wasn’t the sun that was making the man sweat, though — it was the game.
He was immersed in a lunchtime game of table tennis, well into his 40s and struggling to cope with the precision of his opponent.
That opponent — a tall, black man wearing cycling shorts and with long dreadlocks bouncing off his back — was smiling and bouncing, clearly loving the contest.
And the standard was decent — but only decent, not outrageous. These were ordinary players having a bash.
Time and again, the man in the suit went for a big, top-spinning forehand to end the rally with a glorious flourish. And he kept missing. He swung hard and hit the ball well, but he was off by a foot or more every single time.
He talked to himself after every miss, mouthed the occasional expletive to himself, and slow-motioned the type of swing he wished to make.
And then, in the next rally, he missed again.
All this time, in play after play, the guy in the dreadlocks just kept hitting percentages, kept putting the ball back over the net and then, when he was ready, set his opponent up to let him have his big swing. And when the miss came, he smiled in sympathy, and said ‘Great hit, man!’
And then he served again.
Finally, one of the big forehands dipped and spun and clipped the end of the table, before flying off across the pathway. The crowd who had gathered to watch cheered and the man in the suit punched the air. It was a small but lovely victory earned against a wider defeat.
A few years earlier when the tables first opened, a sign on the side offered gentle instruction on how to react to results: ‘You are welcome to be polite, considerate and courteous in victory and defeat.’ There was no doubting that here.
When the game ended, the men shook hands in the way that modern men in cities do — a sort of clasp of hands, followed by a shoulder bump.
And, almost immediately, the next game started between two players who had waited patiently for their turn — just as those behind them in the queue were also waiting for their own hit.
The two table-tennis tables sit on the edge of Bryant Park, a space about the size of a soccer pitch, not far from Times Square in the middle of New York.
All around Bryant Park people are eating sandwiches and hotdogs and burgers — and drinking coffee and sparkling water and red wine.
There are people playing chess and two men are trying to juggle. Over the far side, there is a putting green and the Square is also used for the French game of boules. A carousel remakes the music and motion of childhood.
The table tennis is a recent addition to the Park, which is more than 130 years old. And now, every day, table tennis matches take place in ten-minute slots. The bats and the balls are provided free of charge.
For those who are inspired to compete, monthly singles, doubles and mix- doubles competitions are organized (with elite or ranked players banned from playing) in the evenings from May to October. And companies hire them out for team-building evenings — the surrounding stalls and restaurants surely oil those outings.
For decades the Park was run down and infamous as a site of multiple muggings and drug deals. By the 1970s it was avoided by any discerning locals, before a decade-long regeneration project transformed it into a place where people pour into, before, during and after their working day in the surrounding office blocks.
The people who run Bryant Park claim (with a mixture of pride and hubris) that it is ‘the greatest public space in the world.’ Whatever about that, there can be no denying that they succeed in their mission to make the Park something special in the life of the city.
There are two things of particular interest here. The first is that the Park is run by a private company who act as agents for the city government. The Bryant Park Corporation was founded in 1980 and manages everything in the Park, from the toilets and the gardens, to the table tennis tables and the chessboards.
What they put on, is put on for free. And it is essentially made possible by raising money through sponsorship. From Google to Citibank, and from the New York Times to Evian, the ability of the Bryant Park Corporation to raise money to develop — and redevelop — their space is hugely impressive.
The upshot is that a Park which was essentially lost to urban recreation now attracts up to 6m people per year. And the time-honoured policy of making a place safe by attracting people to it at all hours has been crucial — and table tennis has played its part in this.
Which brings us to the second point of interest.
The Parks and Recreations Department in New York has been putting in table-tennis tables across the five boroughs of New York over the past decade.
None of these other tables are in places that thrive quite as spectacularly as Bryant Park, but each serve their own function and are fitted to their own environment.
Putting the tables in costs relatively little money and has used up little space.
Crucially, they give people a place to play together. And — equally crucially — they are for people of all ages. More than that, when table tennis is played in public, it often serves to draw people to stop and watch — or at least to slow down as they pass.
Basically, people in suits and people in dreadlocks can play each other in a place where other people watch.
And that can be no bad thing.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved