It was a beautiful summer’s day in Central Park, and late in the morning, pickleball players filled North Meadow’s handball fields. There were six matches going on simultaneously, and the players were giggling and banging their fists between each point. On the sidelines, dozens were waiting for their turn to play.
But in Court No. 4, in the middle of the pickleball cell, there was a man alone who seemed to be in some distress. He looked much older than most of the guys out there, and he wasn’t even wearing a shirt. He seemed to be in good shape for his age, and was crouching on the floor, clutching a racquetball racket that had been modified with weird knobs and wires that didn’t connect to anything. It looked like a cross between an old Hulk Hogan and a Rodin statue melting in the sun.
But in fact, it was a man who needed to use the bathroom.
He was about to serve himself against a wall when a young blonde woman approached him. Suddenly: an opportunity. He would certainly love an opponent, but what he really needed was someone to hold the court while he ran to the men’s room. He knew that the moment he walked away, some pickleball player would put a net in his space. Then his day ends.
He was looking at the blonde with anticipation. “Do you know how I can join the pickleball tournament?” Then I asked, and I made a huge mistake.
To the dedicated pickleball players of Central Park, this is exactly the wrong guy to ask. His name is Paul Owens (or maybe Paul Rubinfarb or Paul Rosenberg); He claims to be 97, and his cryptic business card reads “Let’s Go Dancing”, while he lists a variety of genres such as “doo-wop” and “1950s red-light mambo”.
All they know for sure is that his life seems to revolve around getting to North Meadow Recreation Center as early as 7 a.m., just before the day’s parks department employees, just as the first pickleball players began pouring in. And that is when he stakes his claim in the middle of the courts and, in a way, holds the pickles hostage. They are taking up a space originally reserved for the proletarian sport of handball, historically favored by teenagers of color, he contends. (He himself is a former handball player, but like many of his seniors, he has switched to racquetball, which is more forgiving on the knees.)
To anyone who asks why he persists in spoiling the fun, he hands out a ransom letter-style flyer decrying the “aggressive, well-to-do pickleball elite”.
On this hot Saturday, try to explain the ongoing battle to the well-meaning woman. He needed it to hold court on his behalf, but he hadn’t quite mastered the Elevator level yet. He finally said, “I’m resisting gentrification.” “These are not nice people. They are this invasive thing.”
In fact, Pickleball is similar to kudzu. That it is “America’s Fastest Growing Sport” is well established. There are a bunch of professional courts at Wollman Rink – they can be rented for $120 an hour! — though the average New Yorker tends to gravitate toward unadorned pieces of concrete for other hobbies. This has caused problems. Last October, in the early days of the pickle blast, a woman filed 311 complaints about the sudden appearance of two unaccredited courthouses in the West Village. Three days later, I reported that the number of courts had tripled. “Please send help!” I appealed.
fights It almost exploded When a man calling himself “The Pickle Doctor” launched clinics on the Upper East Side around that time. In Central Park, the players sometimes talk about “racquetball,” or try to get him to switch to pickleball, though they’ve mostly learned to ignore him. This passive-aggressiveness may just be a function of the neighborhood. As Jared Fell, a board member of the Inner City Handball Association, told me: “It would never happen in Coney Island. Someone would get shot.”
Pickleball may be new, but this is an old struggle. Handball itself was the hot new thing. Irish immigrants used to play against the wooden fences in far south Brooklyn before the city built hundreds of stadiums in the late 1930s. The club’s matches at Brighton Beach Baths and Castle Hill Bowl would attract thousands of spectators, who enjoyed the stadium seats. It was not until the 1960s that the city began paving an area in Central Park next to the handball courts that had once been used for horseshoes.
Eduardo Valentine still remembers walking there from the South Bronx for the first time, in 1971. “A big Irish fireman took me there,” he said. The guys there played with a solid black ball called an ace and did not allow young Mr. Valentine to play without gloves. He became obsessed, in part because everyone was welcome there, in contrast to the more competitive courts of places like West 4th Street.
Now, 67, Mr. Valentine has lived several iterations of life in North Meadow. He remembers when racquetball was all the rage in the 1980s. Then came Rollerbladers in the ’90s. He met his wife – a first-level handball player named Miriam – at the end of that era. By then, the scene had grown old, and some players were starting to need knee replacements after decades of diving on top of concrete. Miriam Valentine started playing with bat in 2005, even as North Meadow’s favorite ball became the softer ‘big blue’. She became a tennis pro as well, and is now considered by some to be among the best women in town.
Mr. Valentine’s usual Saturday is a racquet sports marathon, in which he and his wife play against one of her sons, even though she has raised three boys and two girls on the court as a teenage mother. Other dedicated seniors sneak out on e-bikes at noon with coolers full of primates and sandwiches. (North Meadow is probably one of the only places in the United States where one can see serious athletes taking a smoke break between games.)
Occasionally someone will appear and offer to play hands versus paddle. Mr. Valentine remembers a man who used to play on his high school’s handball team and was now a coach at the same school. He was responsible for teaching the next generation, but could not find enough interested students. “The fact of the matter is that handball is running out,” Valentine said. “This new game is not a fad.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that Mr. Valentine took up a paddle. He immediately hooked up, and bought a net which he dragged onto the handball courts, where he begged people to play with him. More and more players were drawn to the courts after being driven from other places around New York and hearing about Mr. Valentine’s willingness to get involved. Now he’s the unofficial mayor of a community with a group chat called UpperWestside Pickleball that has over 2,200 members. Although his wife and some die-hard handball and racquetball players played pickleball to warm up before the real competition began, this undoubtedly caused some dissension in the subculture he came from.
Paul took up tennis more authoritarian position. And just as North Meadow has constantly reinvented itself, so has it. Census records show that he was born Paul Rosenberg, and that he was probably 77, not 97. By his own account, he grew up playing handball with his father, an importer-exporter, in Williamsburg. And as it turns out, this isn’t his first jaunt as an avatar of a dying New York subculture.
In his past life, he was part of the ballroom dancers scene. Until then, he marched to the beat of his own drum. “TCPs limit me,” he told a reporter in 1992 who noted that he would spin on his own like a graceful figure skater. The reporter attributed his quote to Paul Rubenfarb, the name he was given when he led group rides for the New York City Cycling Club in the same era. (One former member recalls that he stood out as someone who rode a hand-held “Frankenbike” and commanded tangos during ride breaks.) He’s reappeared as a regular at community board meetings around town, even successfully petitioning to expand the Red Hook Historic District, according to For the Brooklyn Paper. (The same publication noted that he failed to do the same at Greenpoint in 2011.)
Now it’s Paul Owens, and he’s turned his energies into something incredibly specific: kicking a pickle ball off a tiny piece of sidewalk in Central Park. “I read all these biographies of people who went through many stages in their lives,” he said. “Your life is a story, like a movie. The strange thing is that your view of your life changes.” He admits that he felt betrayed that Mr. Valentine left these newcomers on their land. “Eddie is the only man with the clout to give them a court, which is very tragic, because he was my personal friend,” he said.
Meanwhile, on that last Saturday, it was as if the Pit Bull had gotten up early for nothing. The other handball players were all in a tournament on Long Island. There was plenty of room for everyone, but that didn’t stop him from standing right in the middle of the pickleball games, forcing the participants to name their courts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. Corners are hard to reach, so when he’s training, his ball often spins in the middle. Play. That seems to be the whole point.
He would say to the blonde woman, “I want nothing to do with them.” “These guys are like the mafia.” He was practically trying to force the paddle into her hand.
“Just one game,” he said tenderly.
The woman managed to politely extricate herself. She walked straight towards the actual organizer of the tournament. She had never played pickleball before, but the organizer encouraged her to come back next week and learn the ropes.
Meanwhile, Paddleball Paul, in shorts and trainers, was watching from all over North Meadow.
He never said to anyone: “I think I’m not convincing enough.” “But that’s just the story of New York: endless waves of change.”
Then he came back to hit the wall alone.