If you've attended any of the Jelly NYC Pool Parties since they started five years ago, you'll recognize this guy. The mysterious shirtless man who presides over the dodge ball games every Sunday is known only as Dodgeball Tom, the ubiquitous organizer of/participant in the hotly contested games. We've always wondered what his story is, so on Sunday we cornered him for a long chat about his passion for the dodging of the balls, the future of the Pool Parties, and his absurd struggle with the Man over the dodge ball in East River State Park. The interview, which was conducted at the All Saints Pub in the park, began auspiciously when we nearly ripped our shorts as we sat down on the deck floor.
Oh great, did I rip my shorts? Let's see... No, you're good!
Really? Phew. Yeah, those are nice linen shorts.
Thank you. Actually, let us talk about shorts. I remember you started out with Corona shorts... Now, you're probably going to think I'm some sort of shorts stalker dude, but if memory serves it started out with Corona, then evolved to the Old Glory shorts. Can you explain the progression? And last week you were dressed like a lifeguard, so I want to talk about that too. When I started out, the only two bathing suits I owned were a Corona bathing suit and an American flag bathing suit. I realized the American flag would be a little bit easier to brand because I wasn't getting sponsored by Corona or anything. I certainly could pull off the American thing on the regular. Last week was a departure; this past Halloween a bunch of friends and myself all went as various cast members of Baywatch, so seeing how the pool parties were no longer in the pool, it really was a stretch on the name, so we decided to make fun of it and all dress up as members of Baywatch. We had the costumes anyway and hadn't been using them, so.
They looked pretty regulation, like they were legitimately what lifeguards would use to save somebody. The whistles and the fanny pack and the rescue cams are all legitimate lifeguard gear, and the bathing suits are American Apparel, so I don't know how legit that is...
They look legit, and it was raining so hard that day I was concerned that you might be called upon to rescue someone. Well, I also rock that outfit at the Rock Yard; I'm the lifeguard on duty for the slip-n-slide each Saturday.
Where?The Rock Yard, the new Jelly parties that have been on Saturdays. There's only been two so far, one yesterday and one two weeks ago, and there's another six of them going into September.
How did you get mixed up in all this? I attended a pool party, there was dodge ball, I love dodge ball. It was the first year, I think it was the second one ever. The guy who was running [dodge ball] really didn't know what he was doing and seemed overwhelmed so I lent a hand and ended up taking it over.
And that guy, nobody hears from him no more, right? No, that guy works for Open Space Alliance still, he's a really nice guy, there's no hard feelings between us. He definitely appreciated the help and understood that it could've been done better. So he passed the baton willingly.
The sad new Charlie Brown dodge ball court at East River Park. (John Del Signore/Gothamist)
I bet he did. Your passion for dodge ball, when did that start? It's just a great game. I hadn't been a regular dodge ball player since elementary school I suppose. But once I saw it at the Pool Parties I realized that it was my favorite sport.
Did you shine in elementary school? I was all right! I don't have any memories of heroics, but yeah, I've always been very athletic.
Dodge ball was the only sport I really excelled at, which I attribute to the fact that I was overweight, so I was used to dodging insults and punches. I felt like I had a sixth sense about where the balls were, and there was talk of going pro, but I just had other things that interested me. Have you thought about trying to turn this in to a career? Well, I run dodge ball all year round in Brooklyn. I run Brooklyn Dodge Ball, and it's all year round, indoors in the winter and at McCarren Park at the handball courts during spring and fall, and we come here to really get things going in the summer.
Where do you dodge balls in the winter? In the winter we've been playing at North 7th and Bedford, at a Catholic School down there. But it's been sold, so we'll need to find a new place this winter.
Are you getting rich off this? [Laughs] No, more often than not it's losing money. But it's fine.
And why is your identity a secret? Well, my full name is not something I divulge anymore, because I've been teaching for the last two years.
Teaching dodge ball? Teaching high school math, actually.
None of your students know about this? No, not yet, hopefully never. It would definitely blow up in my face. Just the whole not wearing a shirt all the time and dressing like an idiot.
Don't you think it'd be a great way to bond with them? I'm not there to bond with them. That's not my job. My professional life and my personal life are extremely, extremely separate. Radically different.
We've been going to the Pool Parties since day one, and we loved it. It was such a bummer when it ended; it just seemed like this perfect reclamation of a public space that had fallen into disrepair. How did you feel about it ending and how do you feel about this location at East River Park? I loved the pool parties in McCarren Park. They were the closest I've come to a utopia. They were, I suppose, my Woodstock. It was tragic to see that end. I'm not a supporter of the decision to turn it back into a pool, especially because of all the years that it's going to go unused, if the project ever gets on schedule. We'll see. This space is all right, but I definitely loved being at a city park as opposed to a state park. The state has no idea how to run with an event like this. Every week it seems like they're fearful of problems that don't happen.
Like what? They always seem paranoid and disjointed. They're not helping us put on an event, they're battling us.
You're talking about the state park police? Yeah, the state oversight, the park people. Also, Open Space Alliance used to be an ally, and they've grown into a hindrance. There's almost sibling rivalry between them and Jelly. They're supposed to have a similar mission, and they don't. They want to get rid of Jelly in every form.
I've heard they've really sidelined Jelly. Jelly used to be able to make money by getting a cut of the concessions, but no more, huh? No concessions. They also have made it impossible for us to give away certain things. We are not allowed to give away beer and alcohol, even for VIPs. I would say they've really handcuffed Jelly in a lot of ways. It used to be a golden ticket to have a VIP pass, you'd drink for free!
And the blowjobs! I never got to enjoy any of those.
I didn't think so... You were always busy with the dodge ball. I remember looking over at you guys and thinking you had the right idea, because at least some of you had knee pads. Thank God the All Saints venue has come through this year, because otherwise there really wouldn't be any perks for those of us who help out for free to make it possible.
Do you think the Jelly Pool Parties will be here next year? No, I don't, at all. It won't be at this venue.
I'm fine with that. They're fascists here! Every state park in New York is like this. Jersey, too. Even the individuals who run it! The powers that be. I don't want to name names or anything, but some of them seem to be handpicked to be the people with the most disagreeable personalities. There are some things about the park that I absolutely love, but when it comes to them working with Jelly, it doesn't seem to work at all. It's sad, because it should. It worked so well at McCarren Pool. They were hand in hand.
I remember the last day at McCarren pool, and the last dodge ball game. You were out there playing, and on the opposing team there was a little kid wearing the same shorts. He looked like your Mini Me. Yeah, a little guy with blond hair and blue eyes.
Yeah. And he took you out! Yup, and then I retired my shorts! I took that bathing suit and haven't worn it since. Put it up on my wall. Put it at the center of the court on my shoes.
Dodgeball Tom after being eliminated in the final McCarren Pool game. (John Del Signore/Gothamist)
And now you just wear underwear and go barefoot. I have new underwear today, new Captain America underwear that has a target on it, for when things get rough, tell them to hit me in the junk.
Is that a legal shot in dodge ball? Oh yes.
And head shots are okay? Head shots are not allowed if you're standing upright. But if you put your head down at all, then it's okay.
Have you ever had people bitterly contest a call, and take it way too seriously? Oh yeah. I think many of us, probably myself included, have at one time or another taken it too seriously. But we're quickly checked by the crowd and our peers. It's just so much fun it's hard to stay sour.
This dodge ball court here looks a lot smaller than the one at the pool, is that correct? Oh yeah. I'd say the area here is about a third of the size of the one at the pool, maybe less. That's also been a nonstop battle with the state.
Because of liability? No, it's actually comical. Where we're set up is on concrete, and there's a small, maybe two foot high rim around the whole slab, with various openings in it. We're talking about 'opening' as meaning the absence of a two-foot tall wall. And there are three of them right where our dodge ball was supposed to be; 30 x 40 feet. It's now 20 x 30 because there are three openings there and we're only allowed to block two of them. Because they're considered emergency exits. They are considered emergency exits. Exits from the one and a half foot tall concrete wall. We would all be hall monitors and make sure everyone got over the one and a half foot wall if you let us make a legit-sized dodge ball court.
An example of the emergency exit. (John Del Signore/Gothamist)
Have you ever had any celebrities play dodge ball? Yeah, I think one of the highlights was getting ?uestlove out. The was one of the highlights of my dodge ball career. Also, one of my major accomplishments this past winter was that I knocked a kid unconscious playing dodge ball.
Way to go. Did he have any brain damage? No, but it made the New York Times, which was awesome.
The incident itself? No, but it got a clip. I was also in the world record breaking largest dodge ball game ever, so I got a shout in the Nocturnalist column. They cited me having knocked out a kid with a dodge ball. It was a stinger though, we don't play with stingers in the regular league.
Can you explain what a stinger is? A stinger is a dodge ball the size of a soft ball. In some leagues there's six regular balls, which are eight inch balls, and two stingers. We play with six eight inch balls and one ten inch ball, which is the awkward yellow one. We don't play with stingers. But in this particular game there were stingers. I hit him right in the temple. I didn't mean to, he ducked his own head. It wasn't a head shot.
If you mess with the bull you might get the horns. There you go. He was a very accomplished dodge baller as well, it's not like I was picking on a newbie or anything.
Are there official rules? Is there an official governing body for dodge ball? There are two governing bodies, neither of which are the rules we play by, but they're battling each other and they're both trying to unify dodge ball into a single set of rules, to get into the Olympics I think is the ultimate goal, which I would love to see. If curling can be in there, I don't see why dodge ball can't be.
Is there a major reason why they're divided? I know there's American surfing and Hawaiian surfing, but neither teams are fundamentally culturally different. Is there a reason why there's two separate ones? I don't know much about the surfing analogy, but I guess there's probably two groups that came up at nearly the same time, and neither wants to yield to the other one. I don't know, I'm sure there's money at stake.
Would you try out for the Olympics? I think I've passed my prime. I love dodge ball, but I wouldn't put myself in the top 1% of players or anything like that.
Where would you like to see this next year? The first thing that comes to my mind is the pool, but that seems extremely unlikely as it is. I have heard rumors: Bushwick Inlet Park sounds like it could be pretty magical. It's not a state park. Again we'd be with teaming up with Open Space Alliance. Hopefully we could get back to a nice partnership with them.
If not, what if you just settled the whole thing with a game of dodge ball? Winner gets complete control of the site. OSA dodge ball? That would be over in a heart beat. Jelly would destroy OSA in dodge ball. And we have, actually. At the last party last year, we played OSA and the sound techs. There were about fourteen of them and six of us. We destroyed them. We were left standing with five Jelly guys, and only one got out. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, it was great.
The last day of dodge ball at McCarren Pool, sniff. (John Del Signore/Gothamist)