Carl Byrd hasn't picked up a ping-pong paddle in more than 10 years, but he's dressed the part of a champion. Wearing wristbands, leather gloves, a T-shirt, and cotton pants, the Chicagoan jokes that his clothes are designed to intimidate opponents and to detract from his lack of skills.
He needn't worry. Minutes after warming up, Mr. Byrd and his partner handily win their first game and high-five each other as he gleefully calls out, "Who's next?"
He and thousands of other Chicagoans are braving blustery winds and oppressive heat this summer to play ping-pong on 300 tables set up in park plazas and public buildings across the city.
Outdoor ping-pong might seem an exercise in futility in the Windy City. But this is a town that has always treasured public connectedness - from sprawling Grant Park to its necklace of museums along the lakeshore. Ping-pong in public places is another way for people to meet.
The game "crosses every border, from little kids to senior citizens, families can play together," says Lois Weisberg, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs.
In many ways, the idea is an attempt to generate some of the buzz created by last summer's wildly popular exhibition of hundreds of creatively painted fiberglass cows. City officials hope ping-pong will inject the same sense of fun and community.
"The cows just gave people a nice, uplifting attitude about their lives in the city," says Ms. Weisberg, who came up with the ping-pong idea. "I was trying to think of how you could take that one step further, where strangers could really interact with each other."
Byrd and friend played their match at an outdoor plaza surrounded by high-rise buildings and the city's famous Picasso sculpture. Other tables have been set up in office lobbies, city parks, museums, hotels, and at O'Hare Airport.
"It's good recreation, and it brings out the competitive nature in everybody," says Byrd in between games. "Chicago's a competitive city, so it's fitting."
Chicago Ping Pong 2000 will culminate with regional competitions and a championship tournament on Sept. 23-24. City officials don't expect the ping-pong festival to rival the cows as a tourist attraction, but by the time the tournament is over, Weisberg predicts that Chicago will have started a lasting trend.
"I don't think it's going to end," she says. "I think, particularly in companies' lobbies, they're going to see how wonderful this is for employees as a break."
Residents are already taking the sport seriously. Joe Alonzo, a city planner who just got off work, recently contemplated his leather dress shoes in between games. "It's a liability, but hopefully I can overcome it," Mr. Alonzo says. "What's really difficult is the wind," he adds, as a sudden gust whips ping-pong balls off nearby tables.
Alonzo says the game is bringing fellowship to Chicago, judging by the smiling businesspeople he's observed playing in office-building lobbies. "It's a fantastic idea," he adds.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society