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From sundown until the last wino bites the pavement, the intersection of Broadway and 96th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side is like Dodge City on a Saturday night. Subway cowboys spilling out of the bars whoop it up on the street. Painted ladies and panhandlers lurk in the shadows, hissing and beckoning. Thumping music, shattering glass, mad laughter, shouts—the night sounds rumble and clatter through the high-rise canyons like those of a wagon train rolling in from the Bronx.
And when the blood is running hot and the stakes are heavy, there can even be a shootin' match right out of the Last Chance Saloon.
This was the case late one recent night when a grim young stranger and his sidekick appeared at the crossroads of the wild, wild West Side. Down a flight of cement steps on 96th just off Broadway, through a battered swinging door and into a crowded, cavernous cellar they came, spoiling for a showdown. The sidekick ducked into a back room where a group of men were playing poker. Speaking in hushed tones, he flashed a roll of bills. One of the men rose, fingered the money and nodded.
"He's game," the sidekick whispered to his young companion, helping him remove his leather jacket. Then, from a folded copy of the Daily News, the young stranger unsheathed his weapon—a table tennis paddle.
Instinctively the onlookers gathered around championship table No. 1, buzzing with the news: the Kid was challenging the Master, the deadliest, most legendary sharpshooter of them all.
And suddenly there he was, the Master himself, emerging from the back room like a dark avenger. He was wearing black razor-creased trousers tucked into black riding boots, a black silk shirt with billowing sleeves, black-rimmed glasses and, his talisman, a black cap rakishly cocked over his right eye. The ensemble hung on him as if it was still on the hanger—at six feet tall and barely 135 pounds, he had the beaked, bony look of a bird of prey, an eagle coldly eying a plump pigeon.
Calling for his "bat," a black antique Hock Special, the Master served a warmup ball that the Kid eagerly smashed past him with a big muscular forehand drive. Impassive, the Master kept hitting to the same corner, and the Kid kept smashing away. The suspense was too much for one spectator. "How many ya gonna give 'im?" he cried. With an air of lofty indifference, the Master muttered, "Oh, 18 sounds about right."
"Eighteen points!" the crowd gasped. The Master was spotting the Kid 18 points!
And so the shoot-out began, the Master winding up to serve just as he had in the warmup. Same stance, same motion, same top-spin flick. Aquiver with anticipation, the Kid rolled to his right and cocked his forehand. Only this time the serve shot to the opposite corner and bounced twice before the Kid could untwist himself. "The old Pavlovian setup," snickered one onlooker. Score: the Kid 18, the Master 1.
Wary now, the Kid chopped the ball back until he could position himself for his roundhouse right and then—bam! Instantaneously the Master short-hopped the smash and, like a recruit snapping off a smart salute, drove it back before the Kid had finished his follow-through. The harder the Kid slammed the ball—bam! bam!—the harder it came back. Flustered, the Kid hit a desperation shot that nicked the edge of the table and fell away at an unreturnable angle. The Kid 19, the Master 9.