Regular subway riders will be intimately familiar with the expansive canon of unexpected and arguably annoying transit behaviors: A birthday dinner party on the J train, replete with shellfish; rat owners openly feeding their furry wards Chinese takeout on the 2; dogs sitting in seats as if they were small, overworked humans who need to give their aching paws a rest; people littering their neighbors' seats with their flu detritus; we could go on but do we need to? You know this, you live it.
Anyway, our particular subway etiquette alignment system is a richly tailored and surprising tapestry, into which new horrors/delights must be factored and categorized as they arise. The well-organized brain is maybe less subject to spontaneous combustion in the middle of an over-crowded L car, as they say, and better able to process the nightmare parade that is your average morning commute.
So, with that in mind, subway ping pong: good or evil, what do we think?
If you have never witnessed this concept, count yourself lucky, because it has been a thing on at least one documented occasion. On Saturday night, award-winning poet and memoirist Mary Karr, of all people, captured a semi-spontaneous sports moment on a 6 train: Athletically outfitted couple boards car, busts out portable ping pong table, begins reasonably spirited match. Karr's clip shows only 10 seconds of action, but it's a busy 10 seconds: We watch the man land shots from both seated and standing positions, between which he moves fluidly, and without interrupting the pace of the game; the woman, meanwhile, shuffles deftly from side to side, her movements purposeful and mostly contained.
— Mary Karr, Author (@marykarrlit) June 29, 2019
Naturally, the only sounds we hear in the footage are standard-issue train sounds, plus the pop and smack of the ball. No one in the car says anything to the couple out loud, at least not in the span of Karr's snippet, which does not shock: New Yorkers wipe their mental memory cards in real time, typically ignoring egregious stunts. (Surprise rat attacks excepted.)
Twitter is another story. In the comments that quickly collected under Karr's tweet, opinion split. Karr herself captioned the video "#I[emoji heart]NewYork," and some people seemed to agree. "This is fun, I like this. Cynicism is so tired," one Kyle wrote. Popular opinion, though, did not work in the couple's favor. "I hate hipsters," one user groused. "So this was done purely for YouTube views I take it," another—correctly, I imagine—wrote, with an audible eye roll. "People who do this kind of grandstanding on public transit are selfish and entitled," another added. "Man-spreading is bad, but this is next-level fuckery."
"Throw them in a well," one particularly bold and blood-lusty user proposed.
While capital punishment seems extreme for performative subway antics, surely you can understand the root of this frustration. Trains run habitually late, they are overcrowded, whatever the announcer is trying to tell you over the intercom system has been muddled beyond repair by thousand-year-old speaker systems—it's our special hell, and ideally, we all just behave ourselves and suffer in silence, so as not to pile on. According to the lawful among you! According to others, like for example people who enjoy showtime (they exist), a little entertainment lightens an untenably tense mood. Subway ping pong could conceivably fall into that chaotic camp—no one got hurt, that we know of, and nobody nearby seemed outwardly irate about the spectacle. Let's parse.
Good v. Evil
For those unfamiliar with what's lately become a handy meme, the alignment system allows us to map character identity: People—and, in this new Internet context, things—are good, evil, or neutral, and within that, lawful, chaotic, or neutral.
"'Good,'" according to this Dungeons & Dragons explainer (because, yes, D&D relies heavily on the alignment system), "implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings," whereas "'evil' implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master." Neutral people, by contrast, "have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others."
Now, our sporting subway pair: Not a whole lot of altruism happening here, because anytime you're going to carry a medium-sized table down steep subway stairs (thereby inconveniencing commuters who might be trying to hop on a train in a hurry) and unfold it in the middle of a train car, your top concern is probably not your fellow passengers' well-being. No, your top concern—even if it does involve amusing the people around you—probably has more to do with your ego. Look at how zany we are, playing ping pong in a moving subway car; is anybody filming this; will our improv group end up on a hyperlocal blog for a cool 15 minutes of viral fame?
Also! Note the positioning of the table. Sure, our pong stars allowed their fellow riders' leg room by setting up shop between two doors...thereby blocking egress and entrance routes, and definitely invading the personal space of that one guy who finds himself in the path of the woman's pivoting backside.
True, nobody and nothing got literally murdered during this match, but where is the regard for passenger eyeballs that might be endangered with one vigorous backswing and an ill-timed, simultaneous train lurch? Invisible, to me. Plus, in sports, "to kill" one's opponent means to gloatingly triumph over them, thereby establishing the long-running rivalries that keep franchises afloat. Seen in this light, the sentence "some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient" could be taken to mean the dick who scores a thousandth goal at the end of the game when the losing team hasn't even gotten one, or the athletic couple who just can't help but throw down the gauntlet on the subway, so unquenchable is their thirst for competition.
All this to say: evil. Very little concern for the dignity of other sentient beings on display here. Yes, they have given the people a thing to watch and make into a shareable content unit; no, no one asked for this.
Law v. Chaos
So, now, law v. chaos, where do we land? According to the same D&D explainer, "'Law' implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability," sometimes characterized by "reactionary adherence to tradition" and social order. Chaos, on the other hand, "implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility," sometimes involving "recklessness" and "irresponsibility," sometimes bettering society by allowing people to "express themselves fully." Neutral sits in the middle: No intrinsic pull toward rebellion or obedience; probably honest, but possible to cow. Neutral is characteristically passive, and staging a game of table tennis on a Saturday night subway is, obviously I think, active.
The MTA Code of Conduct, i.e. the law, expressly prohibits "any act which interferes with or may tend to interfere with the provision of transit service, obstructs or may tend to obstruct the flow of traffic on facilities or conveyances, or interferes with or may tend to interfere with the safe and efficient operation of the facilities or conveyances of the Authority." Subway ping pong—a non-traditional practice—is played in direct disobedience of MTA guidances, in a manner that some may categorize as reckless (see: the potential danger to surrounding straphangers, the potential danger to the players themselves) and therefore, as irresponsible. Which is to say, chaotic. Consider this athletic edit on the D&D definition for this alignment: "A chaotic evil character does whatever his
greeddisplaced need for competition, hatred of inactivity, and lust for destruction athletic victory drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable."
The clip doesn't show us the match's conclusion, so I can't speak to the hot-tempered part, but...I think this all tracks pretty clearly. Therefore: Subway ping pong is chaotic evil, as you probably knew at the outset, thank you for your time.