Reisman's first club, the original house that ruse built, was never strong on the niceties. Interred beneath a movie house and a luncheonette, the motif was sort of Early Subway Station, sweating pipes and all. The floor was so uneven that pieces of broken paddles had to be wedged under the legs of the seven tables.
Little else seemed wholly on the level. Grifters of all stripes hung out at the place, peddling everything from hot diamond rings to a surefire tip on the fifth at Yonkers. Reisman got his slice by running a flea market out of the back room—one big seller was a truckload of the last remaining Mexican bullhorns this side of Tijuana. Caught up in the swim, even the most casual of players turned would-be shark. Newcomers were greeted with cheery greetings like, "I'll give you six points, fish, loser pops for the tab."
The quality of play at Reisman's was intense, the addiction total. There was little human discourse, only the mesmeric plickety-plock-plick, plickety-plock-plick of batted balls. There were no clocks, no windows, no cleansing rays of sunlight. Sweating and grunting in an eerie fluorescent glow, the inmates flailed away like Dante's accursed until someone noticed that the cracks in the door were turning pink. Only then, at dawn's first beckoning, would they leave or, in some cases, bed down on one of the tables.
The mix of players was markedly heterogeneous. If the Melting Pot of the World had an underbelly it was Reisman's. Orientals and Eastern Europeans were predominant, for in those countries table tennis is a major sport, but it helped to know how to keep score in Hindi, Yiddish and Afrikaans as well. Social distinctions were virtually nil. Gauche was measuring the net with a $100 bill (the net is 6" high, a bill 6?" long); chic was wearing a clean pair of sweat socks. Reisman's had to be the only sporting club in the land where a millionaire shirt king arrived by chauffeured limo to play a barechested black on welfare. Whatever ideological differences Louie the Commie had with the Marquise de St. Cyr, who was the terror of the luxury-liner Ping-Pong circuit, were expressed by their appearance. Louie toted a bag emblazoned PEOPLE NOT PROFITS, the Marquise wore a full-length mink and sneakers.
Housewives traded backhands with U.N. diplomats. Schoolboys took on retired stockbrokers. Cabbies battled paraplegics in wheelchairs. And Reisman, never to be outdone, once played a chimpanzee that wore short pants and stood on a chair. "That ape had a lot of native ability," says Reisman.
The appearance of other celebrity primates—Dustin Hoffman, Art Carney, Bobby Fischer, Walter Matthau, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Zero Mostel—added occasional glitter. Yet for all that, for all its rich Runyonesque flavor, what made Reisman's truly special was not its role in Broadway folklore but its contribution to the game.
In its own wonderfully grubby way the Riverside Table Tennis Club afforded a very vital sense of community to a disenfranchised sports minority. Down in that timeless, all-embracing netherworld, a country that dismissed table tennis as a mere rec-room diversion seemed very far away. The lower depths were symbolic of both that neglect and the irrepressible desire of a group of skilled athletes to excel against the worst of odds.
In time, in fact, Reisman's obscure basement became a Taj Mahal of table tennis in the U.S. On any given night a dozen or more of the nation's top players could be found there. Through a wide range of younger whips right down to the small fry who would just as soon demolish their elders as look at them—if the kid could see over the table—the club was a proving ground for the best table tennis talent in the country. Tim Boggan, who teaches English lit at Long Island University, Brooklyn Center, when not editing Table Tennis Topics, likens the nurturing process at Reisman's to taking a graduate degree in life. "There was the very real feeling," he says, "that you never had to leave that Ping-Pong parlor to find the whole world."
That world came crashing down under the wrecker's ball three years ago, and Reisman suddenly found himself back in the real world. For a year he scuffled around the neighborhood, squeezing the tomatoes at Murray's Market just like the workaday folks and living off a killing he made by importing and selling 96,000 dozen Chinese table tennis balls. He took up golf. Accustomed to rising at 3 p.m., he discovered that his new avocation not only imposed disorientation—i.e., regular hours—but also resulted in a strange affliction, sunburn.
"I didn't mind losing my fluorescent tan," Reisman says. "What hurt was that our whole subculture had disintegrated." A nightshade among sunflowers, he realized. "I had to return to my roots."