Norfolk State College: The Ping Pong Man

“We gon’ kick yo ass, Mister Ping Pong Man. You done done it now, yo ass is grass!”.
– “Yeah, let’s get him”. Stagalee was about to leave the Grandy Park Recreation Center not sure exactly what he should do. It was time for him to go home for the day, but the Liberty Park boys were gathered just to his left, they were standing in the street staring him down. To his right were the Grandy Park girls, these 15 to 18 year old girls were just as notorious as their male counterparts. They, too, stood in the middle of the street. The girls were all dressed in what could best be described as the group uniform, Chuck Taylor all star sneakers, white knee-high socks, miniskirts and either a jean jacket or a mink coat. The minks were of various lengths. Each of the girls sported a switch blade knife which they menacingly flicked opened and closed, as they stared at Stagalee, waiting for him to leave the safety of the rec center.


Liberty Park
The Liberty Park neighborhood of Norfolk, VA. (Photo @1964 Courtesy of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority).

The year was 1971, VA-44 (I-264) was still under construction. The Norfolk Scope arena had not long been completed. Dr. J. was a Virginia Squire for the American Basketball Association. Norfolk’s urban renewal was in full swing and Stagalee was there fresh out of Remington, Virginia. This was only Stag’s second day on the job. He had been assigned to the Grandy Park area in order to fulfill his work/ study program obligation at Norfolk State. Through the program, Stagalee received a $500 check for school tuition and a $20 a week salary. Begging for food in the Student Union building was never again an issue after this program began in the second semester of his freshman year. Grandy Park, as it was known, wasn’t that bad of an area. There were some nice homes there, it appeared to be a very nice neighborhood. The problem with Grandy Park was its close proximity to Liberty Park. Liberty Park was, well, it was the projects. Liberty Park was one of the first federal housing projects in the country. It was constructed to be “a defense housing project for 800 Negro families… developed by the Federal Public Housing Authority of the National Housing Agency”. By most accounts, the neighborhood began to deteriorate from the moment construction was completed. Students at Norfolk State were warned to stay away from that area, they were told that gangs roamed the streets and that no one was safe. Stagalee was being confronted by two of those gangs right now, one male and one female. He decided to take his chances and turned in the direction of home and started walking down the street, in the direction of the girls. The Liberty Park boys began following, the girls encircled Stag, tossing out profanity laced threats all the while. One of the girls turned to the boys, who were about 20 paces behind and yelled, “We got this, we don’t need ya’ll to handle him!”. The boys stopped and turned back up the street.


Mr. Ping Pong Man
A likeness of Mr. Ping Pong Man demonstrating his abilities on the table. Photo courtesy of Tumblr.com

Just yesterday he’d been treated like a celebrity. When he arrived at the rec center for his first day of work one of he kids asked him if he knew how to play table tennis. Of course he did. Stagalee spent almost every waking hour in the ping pong room at the student union building on campus. His prowess on the table was well known among those who frequented the basement of that building, which housed a room for ping pong, the chess room, where the chess club met, the restaurant / greasy spoon and several other rooms that were of no importance to Stag.

Stag had been listed as the best player on campus for a full week, the title was a difficult one to achieve and an even harder one to hang on to.

Stagalee took ‘next’ on the ping pong table at the rec center and never relinquished his spot the entire night. That’s when the kids began calling him “Mr. Ping Pong Man” and bringing in their friends from the street to watch him play. He was a big hit at the center. But that was yesterday.
This day he was assigned by the center’s director to referee a basketball game between the rival teams of Liberty Park and Grandy Park. That news meant that any calls made against Liberty Park could be his undoing. But he had no choice. “Twe-e-e-e-e-e-t!”, Stagalee blew his whistle in the final seconds of the fourth period. “Foul! Number 43 Blue!”. The call was against the team from Liberty Park, the fifth one of the night on that particular player. The rules stated that the player had to be ejected from the game for fouling too many times. The threats had already been coming since the first foul in the game, but kicking out their best player and causing them to lose the game? Well, that brought on even more taunts and warnings of impending violence toward Stag.
Today and every day after, he was escorted out of the neighborhood by the same group of girls. The threats flowed, the switch blades flicked, the girls were always waiting outside to walk him to the end of the block and the fence that separated Grandy Park’s Kimball Terrace from Brambleton Avenue. Stagalee noted to himself that the girls, nor the boys for that matter, seemed to ever venture beyond the fence. Stag would slide through the fence opening and onto Brambleton then walk the remaining two blocks to the house where he and his room mates stayed on Willoughby. But he could not figure out why those girls seemed to respect an invisible force field that held them inside their neighborhood. Being a college freshman meant that Stagalee was no more than a year or two older than these girls. But they may as well have been decades and worlds apart. As they walked, between taunts, Stagalee tried to relate to them by discussing their aspirations. He tried to get the girls to see beyond the now, beyond the fence. After a while the girls talked about life after high school and Norfolk, even considered the possibility that they might one day attend Norfolk State College (now N.S.U.).


Mad dog
As Stagalee walked down the street he noticed a dog chasing a little girl around a street light. Photo courtesy of TheWeek.com

After about a month of working at the center, Stag was walking through the neighborhood on his way to work when he heard screams coming from down the block. He looked up and saw a large dog chasing a little girl round and round a street light. Stag immediately began running toward them, yelling at the dog, trying to get its attention. The dog didn’t notice Stagalee approaching the little girl did and ran directly toward him with the dog snapping at her heels. Stagalee picked the little girl up and put her down behind him. The dog approached at full speed and jumped on Stag’s chest. The dog began excitedly licking Stag’s face. He hadn’t been trying to bite the child, he only wanted someone to play with. But this was a huge dog, and the little girl was terrified

At the same time Stag was petting the dog and trying to get it off of him, the little girl had run into a pool hall behind them screaming about the dog. The occupants of the establishment rushed out into the street to see what was causing the commotion, pool sticks in hand. Just as Stag got the dog under control, the men came at Stag, clutching the girl in a protective fashion.
– “Is that your dog?”
– Hey you! IS THAT YOUR DOG!?!” another person asked.
“No, that’s not my dog, I’ve never seen this dog before today”, Stag replied anxiously.
– “If you want to live to see tomorrow , you better take your dog and get the hell outta here!’, they were moving in toward Stag, ready to pounce
Then Stag heard a girl yell out from down the street, “Wait! He didn’t do nothing, he pulled the dog off the girl, we saw the whole thing!”
It was the Grandy Park girls, they’d witnessed the entire episode from several blocks away and were running toward what was now a throng of people ready to attack Stag for what they presumed had happened.
“That’s the Ping Pong Man” (they never bothered to learn my name, Stagalee thought himself, they don’t even know my real name).
“He works at the recreation center, he’s OK.”, they said, “We know him, he saved that little girl from the dog, ya’ll should be thanking him”.
The group of people took a collective step back and just as they had done so many times in the past, the girls surrounded him, but this time to protect him, maybe that’s why they’d been escorting him all along, for his own protection. The girls continued to walk Stag to the rec center each day after that and were waiting for him from then on to escort him out of the neighborhood, even though it was no longer necessary. They spent that time talking about what the future might bring, the switch blade knives never came out again.
And from that time forward, Stagalee was treated with respect and admiration in the neighborhood. Not only did the kids look upon him as somewhat of a hero, but the adults treated him as a respected member of the community as well.
= “There goes the Ping Pong Man!”, they’d say.
– “Hi Ping Pong Man” or “‘Bye, Mr. Ping Pong Man. C’Ya tomorrow!”.

Mr. Ping Pong Man, the boy from the sticks of Faquier County had found a home away from home in the projects.

English Leather

Loodie Mae Jenkins sat down and turned on the television. It was just about time for “Soul Train” to come on and like she did every other Saturday morning before 11 a.m., she took care of all her chores in time to watch it so her mother would leave her alone. So far, 1969 was proving to be a great year for music. “But I wish they “hadn’t taken ‘Milt Grant’ off the air, I liked Milt Grant”. Loodie Mae had this crazy idea that she might see somebody she knew on the show, even though it went off the air in ’61. She didn’t know anybody from D. C. or couldn’t remember ever seeing a single black dancer on the show, but she still thought…


Parlo
Loodie Mae knew Parlo Silby was running from something, she just didn’t know what it was yet.

“What the heck was that”, a streak went by the front window and startled Loodie Mae back to reality. She jumped up and ran out to the road to see who it was. All she could see was the back of someone running down the dirt road as fast as he could, a strong stink of English Leather Lime cologne hung in the air, she hated English Leather cologne. He was beating feet a mile a minute, “What has he done this time?”, every now and then Parlo would look back over his shoulder, but never slowed his pace. “I guess I’ll find out Monday at school”, Loodie Mae went back in, sat down and continued watching the show.


Yellow Cab
A cab pulled into the driveway.

About ten minutes later Loodie Mae watched as a car crept slowly up the road, it went past the house and on up the hill. In less than a minute, the car came back down the hill, it pulled into her driveway, stopping short of coming all the way to the house. It looked like a cab, it had “Ballentine’s Cab Co.” written on the side. What the heck was a cab doing way out here? Loodie Mae had never heard of anyone catching a cab to Remington, from anywhere! A man got out of the taxi and looked around, he looked upset. He walked over to Mr. Jenkins, Loodie Mae’s father, who was busy working under his old ’58 Chevy Impala. Loodie walked through the kitchen, to the back porch and stood by the screen door to listen in, she stayed quiet and out of sight. The white man began speaking, “How ya doing?”, Loodie Mae’s father returned the greeting and waited to hear what was coming next. The man spat out a big wad of tobacco on the graveled driveway and continued,
“You didn’t see a colored boy run past hear did you?”.
-“No, why, what happened?”
“Boy stopped me in Warrenton on second street and asked me to bring him to that house just over that hill there (he pointed up the road). I told him it would be $5 and he said ok. But when he got to the house and got out, he said he was going inside to get the money. ‘Cept he took off running down the hill in this direction without paying his fare.”
– “I never heard of such a thing!”, her father said, “That’s old Mrs. Gaskin’s house, she ain’t got no kids. What’d he look like?”
“Colored boy, ’bout yea tall, dark, wearing jeans, a striped tee shirt and tennis shoes, I guess”.
Loodie Mae knew exactly who it was, she kept quiet.
– “Well that could be just about anybody, no I wish I could help, but I don’t know who that is”, Loodie Mae’s dad looked back at his Impala, impatient to get back under it, that muffler wasn’t gon’na patch itself, “Wish you luck”.

The man looked past him and checked around the property before heading back to his cab, Loodie Mae stayed out of sight on the porch.
Fussing to herself, “Parlo Silby, did he really need a ride that bad? He could have thumbed back home”, Loodie Mae had thumbed a ride herself once. Parlo was just lazy, as far as she was concerned. She went back and finished Soul Train.

That Monday morning Loodie Mae was sitting in Black History class listening to Parlo brag about his weekend escapades. He claims he’d gone on a shoplifting spree all over Warrenton. He’d stolen a Peter’s sports jacket from H.B. Carter’s, a pair of Chuck Taylor’s from Rankin’s Hardware store and a bottle of English Leather from Rhode’s Drug store, which was now stinking the entire room up as he spoke. Loodie Mae had heard enough, she was tired of Parlo, he’d been a trouble maker ever since he moved here from Washington, D.C. She recalled the first time she’d seen him at Taylor, he was wearing a canary yellow silk suit, with canary yellow silk socks and a pair of canary yellow Stacey Adams alligator shoes. He made a point of letting everyone know that his outfit wasn’t just yellow, it was canary yellow. He said he’d gotten a five-finger discount on everything he had on that day. The next day he showed up all in purple, the nerve of some people. Parlo didn’t make himself easy to like, as far as Loodie was concerned he made everybody and every thing look bad. She didn’t have time for this, she’d be leaving for Howard University in the fall, after she graduated from Fauquier. She was going to be a school teacher and she was going to get to and save all the Parlo Silbys before they turned bad like this one.


English Leather
Rhodes Drug Store kept a running ad in the Fauquier Democrat for men’s exotic colognes.

Warrenton, Virginia was a quiet little, sleepy town in the center of Fauquier County. People from there didn’t particularly like outsiders and Parlo was an outsider. Loodie Mae was just like everybody else from that county, she didn’t like outsiders coming in messing things up, bringing in their outside ideas. She especially did not like Parlo silby.

Just as Mr. Wilson was getting class started, the classroom door opened and the principal walked in with two town police officers and the cab driver who’d been by Loodie’s house the other day. Mr. Campbell pulled Mr. Wilson outside into the hallway and they talked for about a minute. The cab driver came back in and moved slowly up and down the aisles looking at each boy, then moving on. He went back to the front of the class and shook his head no. “Oh my goodness”, Loodie Mae thought to herself, “I know we can’t all look that much alike”.

She couldn’t take anymore, she spoke up, “He’s right here”, she pointed behind her to Parlo Silby, “This is him! He jumped out of your cab mister and he stole all those things from uptown, he was just telling me about it”.
The cab driver took a better look at Parlo and agreed, “Yep, that’s him alright, that’s the boy!”. The police officers came down the aisle, told Parlo to stand up and come with them. They quietly escorted Parlo out of the building. Loodie Mae turned to the front of the classroom, took out her black history book and opened it to the chapter on Sojourner Truth, she sighed a sigh of satisfaction and muttered under her breath,
“I hate English Leather”.

A Friend of the Family

“Is it time for you to go Mr. Amos? OK, I’ll walk you to the door”. My cousin Clarence stood up and reached out his hand to take the hand of his friend. I was too young to remember, but according to Clarence, Mr. Amos stood about six feet tall, so Clarence had to reach up to grasp hold of his fingers. Any physical description comes from how my cousin Clarence described him to me. Clarence slowly and somewhat sadly walked to the door with his arm outstretched to hold his friend’s rough dried hand, he opened the door, moved to the side to let Mr. Amos out then said, “Goodbye Mr. Amos, I’ll see you tomorrow”. For a good 3 minutes he stood watching at the front door, watching his friend walk up the road and out of sight on pass the trees, brush and briars. That much I remember, I remember seeing Clarence standing at the door waving goodbye to Mr. Amos. When my cousin finally turned back to us he said, “Let’s go play at the well”. We all went out to the well and played for the rest of the day, we played until time to go in for supper. This was the routine that played itself out almost everyday since Clarence had arrived. It was summer and Clarence was spending a few weeks with us, he lived in Sioux City, Iowa and he came to visit in the summer months at least two or three times when I was young. This year was different, immediately after his arrival, Clarence met Mr. Amos out at the dirt road and brought him directly to the house. After that first day, Mr. Amos came down the road to see Clarence every day. They seemed inseparable, Clarence seemed happy, they were best friends. I was only two or three years old, so as I said, I don’t remember much but, according to Clarence, Mr. Amos must have been about 70 or 80 years old. He was an old dark, leathery-skinned black man with white straggly hair, who lived just up the road from us. We had never been to or seen his house but he was a regular at ours while Clarence was there.

When Mr. Amos was at the house we didn’t get much of a chance to play with Clarence. He stayed at the table or in the corner of the living room talking to him. Sometimes you could hear him telling his friend what he’d been doing all day but mostly it was Clarence telling Mr. Amos to go here, go there, do this or do that, apparently Mr. Amos was quite accommodating. His visits were so commonplace that we barely even noticed when he was there and when he wasn’t anymore, he practically became a part of the family. But once Clarence said his goodbyes we would find plenty of things to keep us busy. He, Ba-jean, Bay-Ray and I spent a lot of time playing on the swing set out by the well or Clarence would don his shirt and shoes when we’d see Mrs. Nita and her son Johnny Arstino walking up the road on their way to see her parents. Johnny would stop and play with us while Miss Nita stood out in the road talking to our mother, we knew they’d be there a while so we took advantage of it. This was all before Miss Nita learned how to drive, so she went by quite regularly on her way up to visit her folks. One day we saw them walking up the road in front of the house so we ran out to say hi, “Hi Miss Nita, Hey Miss Nita”, we all chirped as we ran out. Clarence blurted, “Hi Miss Nita, Hi Johnny! Hey Mr. Amos!”, he ran out, quickly pulled his friend toward the house, disappearing inside so they could go sit in the closet with the door shut and talk, they did that a lot. Miss Nita spoke to us and Clarence, but didn’t acknowledge Mr. Amos at all, she continued on up the road to the farm. This is the same farm where we played rock walk and the farm where years later, Raymond and I would find ourselves stuck in the mud, fighting for our very lives.

It had been almost two weeks since Clarence arrived for his visit and my mother was starting to become concerned about him and his new found friend. At first she didn’t seem to mind this odd relationship, but when Clarence pulled Mr. Amos from the road to ride with us to go shopping and had us move to the back seat to make room for him in our station wagon, this was more than a body could stand. (How did Mr. Amos know we were about to go grocery shopping? They wondered) It was then she decided it was time to do something. Nowadays, a similar situation would probably warrant getting the authorities involved, maybe even social services or worse. A friendship of this kind would probably not be allowed to flourish today, let alone exist at all, but back then it wasn’t considered that uncommon, some people thought it was normal. But the problem wasn’t Mr. Amos, the problem was Clarence. But Mom never had to say anything about Mr. Amos, for some reason he just stopped coming by. Just as he seemed to have appeared out of nowhere he left just as abruptly.
Because you see, Clarence was the only one who could see Mr. Amos. Clarence was the only one who could hear Mr. Amos. Mr. Amos wasn’t real, Mr. Amos was Clarence’s imaginary friend. That’s right, he was imaginary, imaginary to everyone but Clarence.

I recently ran into cousin Clarence and I asked him about his childhood friend. To this day Clarence swears that he could not only see him but could describe what he wore and how he talked. I’ve since learned that the new owners of our old home place created a haunted trail this past Halloween in the woods where Clarence first saw Mr. Amos walking, the same path that I feared to walk on as a youngster is their haunted trail today. My only warning to them is that, if you are on that trail and you come upon an old dark leathery-skinned black man with white straggly hair, just nod and keep on walking. Don’t pause to make eye contact, don’t stop to talk, He may just be old Mr. Amos, he may just become a friend of the family.
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