Going balls out for Berlin-style ping-pong with American Tripps
The only thing lacking is a haze of cigarette smoke curling over the lone ping-pong table bogarting the cosy dance floor of Project One. A polite jostle of players, perhaps 25 strong, rings the table, shoulder to shoulder. Each one clutches a paddle in one hand, and, more than a few, a drink in the other. The game is “Berlin-style” ping-pong (also known as rundlauf)—a participatory style of play in which every participant gets a turn serving or receiving as the circle shuffles one spot at a time, counter-clockwise around the crowded table.
And despite the resolutely smoke-free Californian air and the proliferance of decidedly un-Germanic striped sweatbands worn by the regulars, it’s easy to imagine the scene in general transplanted to a basement in Prenzlauer Berg, right down to The Fine Young Cannibals on the sound-system. Welcome to American Tripps.
Trust the Germans to come up with a group variation on an ostensibly individualistic pastime. And trust a San Franciscan enamored of the practice (Allan Hough) to be the one to transport it overseas and invite the neighbors, in this case the faithful readers of his Mission Mission blog, to play a few rounds. And then a few more. Now nearing its six-month anniversary, American Tripps has attracted a core group of loyal followers and a slew of curious first-timers to each of its nomadic ping-pong parties, held in a variety of bars and art spaces in and around the Southerly neighborhoods.
Although the general demographic is skewed heavily (about 3-to-1) towards “dude-ness,” the testosterone in the room is far from frothing over. Clearly at the end of each round there will be a winner, and a table’s worth of losers, but this statistic seems of little concern to the people patiently standing in line, waiting to be eventually eliminated. At American Tripps it’s very much about playing the game, not so much about whether or not you make it to the final round. At least that’s what I tell myself each time I miss the ball (almost every time), or volley it into the DJ booth at the back of the room (once). Achtung, baby!
Thankfully there are better players, and at each tournament a half-dozen or so wind up dominating most of the final rounds, which are played at frenetic top speeds in contrast to the leisurely strolling that defines the first part of the game. For instance, at Lower Haight's D-Structure store the week before, the unassuming-looking Tim Walsh (the drummer for neo-psychedelic ensemble the Stepkids) rose to the top more than a few times, while the genial Peter Allen (whom I secretly dubbed “The Mayor of the Lower Haight”) maintained a decent game through almost every round while greeting close to every single person who entered the room, dancing ecstatically to Jimmy Cliff, and coordinating his sweatbands to his Wing Wings t-shirt.
Of course being a good player doesn’t guarantee you’ll get far in any given game—pitting oneself against an entire room full of strangers is a great leveler. And so leveled, you might discover the best parts of the evening don’t even involve the game at all, except as an excellent ice-breaker, or as Allan Hough puts it, “the grand prize is that everybody had an epic time all night.”
I’m sold. Now where do I find a set of sweatbands?