Tuesdays with Si
Every Tuesday evening, Paul Hamra leaves his jewelry store in Scottsdale and drives across town to Si Kenig's house in central Phoenix for his weekly Ping-Pong lesson.
Paul parks his Lexus in the driveway, knocks hard and loud on the front door, then peers through the window to see if Si is lying down. If he is, it will take Si five full minutes to pull himself out of his hospital-style bed and shuffle to the door. Paul helps Si dress in a polo shirt, Velcro-strapped sneakers and a black leather dress belt to hold up his gym shorts.
Si fixes himself some juice in an old glass jar with a bendable straw and makes his way, tripping and swaying like a drunk, toward the back of the house where, every Tuesday evening, he kicks Paul's ass at Ping-Pong.
Si will be 82 next month. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 16 years ago.
Paul is pushing 40. He's trim, healthy, in great shape. Even Si will tell you that Paul's got the best backhand in the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.
But Paul Hamra is no match for the guy they used to call The Wall.
Si and Paul don't talk when they play. Paul packs the pockets of his black tennis shorts with neon orange balls he scoops like popcorn from a big purple vat, and they volley. Balls fly across the room, bouncing off the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, the couch, a spectator.
"You're putting too much spin on it," Si tells Paul, his voice so muffled by the Parkinson's and a heavy Polish accent that Paul has to run around to Si's side of the table and have him repeat himself several times before Paul nods and they resume play. Si is practically deaf, so Paul is on Si's side of the table a lot.
Paul dances when he plays, flies from one side of the table to the other, arms waving, sneakers squeaking on the linoleum. Within minutes, he's panting and sweaty.
In contrast, Si is frozen. The balls travel 100 miles an hour, and Si will have marks on his hands and arms by the end of the night from the ones he's missed. But he almost never misses. Only his forearm moves as he reaches out to hit the ball. When he's really loosened up, his hips sway just slightly and his head bobs up and down. He looks like Night of the Living Dead playing Ping-Pong.
An hour later, the floor is covered with balls. Paul needs a break.
"Si, why don't you get a drink? Get a little drink," Paul hollers, reaching into his gym bag for a water bottle. At first Si doesn't hear him, and stands stiffly in his spot at the table, waiting for Paul to serve. Paul repeats himself until Si finally obeys, tottering over to the card table where he keeps his juice.
"When he gets stiff, I got to go shake him up and he's got to do a couple laps around the table," Paul says.
But tonight Si is loose, and he beats Paul in game after game. Now, Paul does spot Si five points and he makes it a little easier for the older man by hitting the ball to one side of the table only, so Si doesn't have to move a lot. But Si usually doesn't need the points. He still trounces Paul, 21-14.
Paul jumps up and down and twirls in a circle, throwing a mock temper tantrum. "That drives me crazy!"
21-14, again. Then 21-8. Finally, Paul narrowly beats Si, 21-19.
"Si, show her your muscle," Paul yells across the table. Slowly, Si pulls up the sleeve on his right arm and flexes.
They play two more games. Paul loses both. Si still hasn't broken a sweat. "Oh, Si, my arm is worn out," Paul says, walking around the table and wiping first his own, then Si's paddle with a chamois-covered sponge.
Si looks disappointed. The men collect the Ping-Pong balls with a net that looks like the kind you use to get leaves out of the pool.
Si sits down on the couch, and immediately nods off. Paul packs up his gym bag. Playing Ping-Pong with Si is a "lesson in humility," he says. "But it's a good lesson, I guess."
As quickly as he's dozed off, Si is awake. He makes his way into the kitchen to fix himself some ramen. Tonight's lesson is over.
The first thing you notice about Si Kenig's house is the smell, a combination of ultra-strength Ben Gay and dirty laundry. The second thing you notice is that Ping-Pong trophies crowd every surface, every bookcase, end table and dresser in the tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house. There are also Ping-Pong medals and certificates, and plaques of appreciation from the parents of Si's former students. Everything is covered in dust.
In the late '70s, Si took a job as a recreation leader at Encanto Park. He supervised the Ping-Pong tables, and Si was such a good player that his boss used to give a can of soda to anyone -- kid or adult -- who could beat him. He started teaching at his house, for 2 or 3 dollars an hour. Today the price is still cheap -- $10 an hour.
And the life lessons are on the house.
Nothing in Si's home has changed in the 27 years since Paul, then barely a teenager, took his first Ping-Pong lesson from Si. "Every speck of dust is still here!" Paul whispers, giggling. Even the pens by the phone are the same, Paul swears, except now they're all dried up.
Si has other students these days, mainly Sun City types. Paul is the only kid who still comes now that he's an adult. The kids, they grow up and stop playing Ping-Pong, Si says. "They're getting older, they're having dates, and they forget." That's a mistake, according to Si, because Ping-Pong keeps you in good shape.
Once in a while, Si's former students stop by to see if he's still alive.
"A couple of weeks ago, there was a knock on the door," Si says. He didn't recognize her at first, but she knew him. "She looked like a star, she was so beautiful. She has a baby, she got married." They live in New Jersey.
Paul, too, has left Si and Ping-Pong from time to time. He was serious about the game as a teenager, then quit altogether for three or four years. After that, he played and took lessons, but sporadically. About two years ago, he found Si again.
At first, Si admits, he wasn't so happy with Paul.
"I don't like quitters," he says one night, scooping up balls after a lesson.
Paul confirms that. He remembers that when he was 18, he told Si he was taking a break from Ping-Pong. Si was mad. "He said, 'If you quit table tennis, you'll quit other things in life.'"
But now Paul's not a quitter. He comes to the Phoenix Table Tennis Club on Mondays and Wednesdays, and to Si's every Tuesday. Si is proud.
Si and Paul are volleying one recent Tuesday night when Bill Kenig pokes his head in the door. Bill is Si's son. Also a former Ping-Pong champion. Now he does hair in Scottsdale.
"Okay, I fixed the toilet," Bill yells.
No answer from Si, who continues to volley.
Si stops, looks at Bill.
"I fixed the toilet."
"Good for you!"
Si keeps playing.
Bill settles in on the couch and tells some Ping-Pong war stories. He was Si's first student. Si would make Bill play for hours; if Bill could beat his dad by 15 points, he could drive the car for an hour. Ten points, half an hour. "He was a man of his word," Bill recalls. Even if it was 11 p.m. on a school night, Si would take Bill out. To this day, Bill loves to drive at night.
Si's passion for table tennis began long before he moved his family to Phoenix. He played as a kid in Poland and later in Munich, Germany, where he lived after World War II. "When it's cold, people do things indoors. What can you do? They didn't have bowling," Bill says.
Bill has fantastic tales of his father's wartime antics. Si, who is Jewish, escaped Poland alone as a teenager, sneaking aboard a train to Russia. There he lived with an older woman and worked in a meat plant until the woman reported him to the authorities and he was forced to join the Russian army. Si shows off the scar on his head from an encounter he had with some shrapnel in Stalingrad.
Eventually, Si returned to Poland and then to Germany, where he lived in a commune and met his future wife, Sara. He wanted to go to Israel, but she had relatives in the U.S., so they ended up in New York.
Bill's first Ping-Pong memories are of standing on a milk box so he could reach the tables at Washington Baths in Coney Island. Years later, Si made a deal to buy a small market from a guy in Brooklyn. The guy told him about how he was moving to sunny California to strike it rich, which sounded good to Si, so he gave up his $100 down payment and moved Bill and Sara across country.
Bill recalls playing on concrete tables in Santa Monica, with the wind whipping the balls away. They lived in Los Angeles until Si lost the lease on the small hamburger stand he ran.
Si remembered visiting Tucson once; the weather was nice. So the family relocated to Phoenix. They arrived on June 10, 1964, Bill says, laughing. The temperature was 110.
Si bought a tiny house across the street from the Encanto Park golf course and put a Ping-Pong table on the back patio, which was later enclosed.
He's the longest continuously playing member of the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.
Paul Hamra is a joiner. He belongs to the American Legion, the Young Republicans, the Singles Gourmet Club. He's an Elk. He even goes to Temple Beth Israel synagogue once in a while, although he's Catholic. All good places to schmooze potential clients for his jewelry business.
But Paul won't find many customers at the Phoenix Table Tennis Club, which meets in a west Phoenix church gym. And Si's in no position to buy a fine Swiss watch like the $7,000 platinum Rolex Paul wears.
It's hard to tell if Si even understands what Paul does for a living. He's never been to the small, elegant store that Paul and his brother Jeff run in Scottsdale. Sometimes Paul will pull a check from a diamond sale for $30,000 or $40,000 out of his pocket and show it to Si. One night he brings photos from a recent trip to Beverly Hills. Paul and his pretty girlfriend flew over for the première of Tag Heuer's new line of sunglasses; there was a party at the Sky Bar afterward.
But the older man doesn't seem so impressed. Si is more concerned with sales of paddles and balls. He used to sell equipment at the table tennis club, but his health is so poor that Paul has taken over the small side business. Most of the profits go to Si, Paul says.
Paul's father, Jim Hamra, recalls that Paul played Ping-Pong as a little boy in northern California, beating six-foot-four men and anyone else who would dare come to the table. When the Hamras moved to Phoenix in the mid-'70s, Paul found the table tennis club -- and Si. He started taking regular lessons and won some trophies.
The Hamras sold turquoise jewelry at Park 'n' Swap on the weekends, and Jim recalls that Paul was always a natural salesman. He eavesdropped one day as Paul, then a seventh-grader, prepared his younger sister Denise for a sale. "She had no idea what to make of people coming and talking to her. I can remember him taking her aside and saying, 'Just talk to them. Look them in the eye and smile and tell them it's silver and it's Indian made.'"
Paul and Jeff always loved watches, and in 1986 the two opened Hamra Jewelers. You might have seen their ads on cable television. Paul's still the salesman; Jeff handles the business side.
Starting the store and keeping it going occupied almost all of Paul's time for several years, but he never stopped playing Ping-Pong -- he always travels with a paddle -- and never forgot Si.
"Occasionally, I would go visit Si," says Paul. "He would say to me, 'Paul, you have so much potential. Why did you stop coming to play table tennis? Remember what I told you when you were a kid. If you find something you like, even if you don't play it as much, still stick with it because you have a natural talent. It will help you down the road. When you're older,' he said, 'all the money in the world won't mean anything to you. Your health will be more important.'"
A couple of years ago, Paul realized he was starting to get out of shape.
"I missed the sport and I missed Si. I went to the club and I asked some people, 'Is Si Kenig still teaching?' 'Yes,' they said, 'he's over there playing.' And I looked up and, sure enough, there was Si."
Paul signed up for Tuesday night lessons. Now he's lost weight, and he's found that playing Ping-Pong with Si even helps him out in business, teaching him patience with older clients.
"I have to spend three hours with some customers where normally it would take me 30 minutes. My brother Jeff can't do that, he doesn't have the patience. I'm the one who gets called to the sales floor. I'll sit down for three hours and I'm okay with that. I realize it's an older person and you have to have a little bit of empathy."
Plus, Paul can use all the help he can get with his Ping-Pong game.
Paul was on a team that finished third in the Phoenix Table Tennis Club intramural tournament this spring. But after some prodding, Paul admits he didn't do so well himself. He chokes in competition.
"Everybody gets so serious," he says. "They get serious like I get serious when I make the big sale."
When he's warming up, Paul's game is nearly perfect. But as soon as he plays for points -- even against Si, during a lesson -- he gets impatient, trying to smack the ball past his opponent. And, because Ping-Pong is such a delicate game, the result is often his own lost point.
"If you played in the tournament like you play here, you would win," Si tells Paul as they finish volleying.
Si is determined that Paul will overcome this problem. "Paul's got a beautiful backhand, but he abuses it. He hits too hard," Si says.
He tells Paul to take his time.
Immediately, Paul begins losing game after game to Si.
"You're falling apart," Si tells Paul. And it's true.
Paul wins the sixth game, 12-10 (tonight they're only playing to 11 points), then loses the next one, 11-3. He wins a couple more, Si wins a couple more, then, as usual, Paul calls time out.
"Let's take a break for just a second," Paul says. "Ooof, Si, you wear me out."
"You're supposed to win easily," Si says.
Paul remembers when he'd get tired as a kid, Si would tell him, "Anybody can be good. The hard work makes it up."
Tonight, Si says of Paul, "I like a person who is a fighter, won't give up. Now he is. . . . You see, he's going to make it, because everyone changes and he changes for the good."
Paul recalls that one night, after the paddles were put away, Si told him his feet hurt. So Paul spent 45 minutes digging out Si's ingrown toenails. Then Si asked him to trim his fingernails.
Sure, Paul said, pretending they were in a beauty salon. Pull up a chair, tell me your problems.
Si was quiet. Paul teased him, he remembers: "You're lucky! No problems!"
If only that were true. Si has lived by himself for three years, since a stroke put Sara in a nursing home. He gets lonely, he admits. And he falls a lot. Sometimes his teeth fly out when he falls; a few weeks ago, he cracked his bridge in half.
Si's been on the maximum dose of his medications for several years. A dose is supposed to work for three hours, but Bill says it now only works for one, and it makes Si sleepy. Si has an appointment with a neurological surgeon soon to see if he's a candidate for a brain implant that would control his shaking.
Most people in Si's position would be immobile by now. It's Ping-Pong that keeps him going, everyone agrees -- including Si.
"The doctor says there's not another man like me, to have this 16 or 17 years and still fight," he says. "Somebody calls for a lesson, I say come on over, no matter how tired I am. I never refuse."
Once he sits down, Si says, he's stuck in the same place for 5, 10, 15 minutes. But when he plays Ping-Pong, he thinks only of the game.
"I'm playing because I like it. I'm playing because to wake up in the morning and play makes me feel good."
More and more, Paul has been helping Si out, and not just with selling paddles and balls. Paul brings Si home from the table tennis club on Wednesday nights, helps him undress. He installed a louder ringer so Si can hear his phone.
Paul says his parents have inspired him to help take care of Si. Paul's father had a heart attack several years ago, and since then Paul has tried to treasure his time with his dad. He felt the same about Si when he caught up with him two years ago and saw how he was deteriorating.
"I realized that Si was slowing down and I realized that this would be maybe my one last opportunity to spend some time with him, and I never wanted to look back and say, 'Oh, I wish I would have continued taking lessons and keeping up with what I started.'"
"I've been around sick people and I realize that people who sometimes can't help themselves really appreciate what you do to help them. It's one thing to donate money to charity, but it's more of a reward when you directly help someone in need, when you have that physical contact," Paul says.
Si has other students and friends, and, of course, Bill, who visit and help him out, but it's clear Si can't live alone much longer.
Paul asks Si if he's afraid of going into an old-folks' home, as Si calls it. When he retires, Si says, he wants to go to a home with a big gym. He'll donate his Ping-Pong table, so he can keep playing. And he'll play with the other people who live there.
"So they forget the troubles they've got."
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