In the amber light just following sunrise, nestled in the cradle of Downtown El Paso that is San Jacinto Plaza, a young man hits a ping pong ball across a table. Save for the collection of purposefully arranged orange cones, no one is on the other side. The witness to this interesting scene, Joe Gudenrath, Executive Director of the Downtown Management District (DMD), felt it was interesting enough to share.
Joe Parker, 28, the gentleman that has been seen practicing his table tennis game in the heart of downtown, was not easy to track down. With a little patience, a few unanswered Facebook messages and finally a call to his place of work, the Hope & Anchor bar, Mr. Parker finally returned my call. With sparsely updated social media, an occupation as a bouncer, and an imposing stature, I was concerned that my tenaciousness might be met with a less than enthusiastic reaction – I was wrong.
Mr. Parker asked to meet me in the very orange, yet photogenic café adjacent to San Jacinto Plaza, the Coffee Box. Immediately, the tall, bearded, Parker was enthusiastic and talkative.
Right off, I ask about the table tennis at San Jacinto Plaza, “I’m not trying to go pro or anything, but if an opportunity presented itself, I wouldn’t say no. I’m just trying to get as good as I can get,” he said.
Parker, an El Paso native left the city at a young age, “I was born here but my father’s job as an Air Defense software engineer, took us to Huntsville, Alabama, then later to Baytown, Texas where he got into Pastoring,” adding, “He then took a job in Saudi Arabia, when I was in 5th grade, after prayed about it and talked to all of us.” Parker is the youngest of four siblings.
“I was so excited because it seemed exotic, and I’ve always been a super extroverted, friendly person,” said Parker.
While in Saudi Arabia, Parker was introduced to the game of table tennis as more than just a passing game. “I got tired of getting beat down at the rec-center. The guy in charge there, a Filipino named Jun, sort of became my mentor. I just went to him and asked what I needed to do in order to get better,” said Parker.
“He then trained me on how to hone my accuracy, and better my game but I came up with the orange cones to practice my serve because the first serve, return, and third ball are the three most instrumental events in a rally,” said Parker.
Parker returned to El Paso almost a decade ago, but had not come to appreciate downtown until recently, “I live within walking distance from San Jacinto Plaza. I’ve also been coming to the Coffee Box for the better part of a year, but one day I noticed the fences were down at [San Jacinto Plaza] and I remember walking through it all and loved it. I saw the table tennis tables and knew right away that, that’s where I would be spending most of my time,” Parker said with a smile.
“I started with 50 ping pong balls, and now I’m down to about 20,” said Parker.
Because Parker grew up away from El Paso for most of his adolescent and teenage years, he admits that there will always be a foreignness to how he feels, which is ironic for someone so self-admittedly keen on making new friends. Downtown, and more specifically a feature of San Jacinto Park, to its credit has succeeded in offering an individual the opportunity to be part of a community. “I think the tables will create a community of amateur players and will evolve from there,” said Parker.
Parker opened up about what table tennis means to him, “Being able to play consistently downtown, is a huge centering tool for me, because it’s part of who I am. I’m in the moment and only worried about the next shot… it’s my sanctuary.”