They play without a net. Keeping score doesn’t really seem to be of interest; when the birdie hits the pavement, they laugh and smile, pick it up and resume their unobstructed volley. The thwump of the shuttlecock and twang of nylon strings picks up right where it left off.
They stand by the Cooper Union Library, about eight feet away from each other, adjacent to a row of Citi Bikes. They are small, old ladies with short straight hair and faded looking clothes. They blurt out quick words to each other—deceptively quick, like their game—in a tongue unfamiliar to me. I wonder if they talk shit, like my friends and I do when we stand on opposite sides of a net.
But there is no net, so there is probably no shit-talking, and this exercise remains as foreign to me as the language spoken by its participants. The point seems to be to prolong the game as much as possible, rather than placing the birdie outside your adversary’s reach. The closest thing I can think of is a game of catch—yet catch grows boring. The older we get, the more we rely on winners and losers for our fun. These women are not bored. They’re probably the happiest seeming people I see all day.
Their game is played early enough and on a random enough stretch of sidewalk that they’ve no reason to be concerned about heavy foot traffic interrupting their matutinal exchange. I cross their path at a distance, always rubbernecking as I pass by. Typically it’s around 7:20; typically my headphones are in; typically a swing or two lines up with the crack of an earbud-bound snare.
I spend the rest of my walk pondering what the rest of their day looks like. Perhaps some less-than-glamorous job—I’m conjecturing here, generalizing based on nothing more than their appearance, etc., but this is a thing we all do whether we feel good about it or not, though I don’t think any of us feel good about it, at least I know I don’t. But I do it anyway. I imagine their homes might be less than opulent, there are possibly some kids who might be hungry, maybe some mother or father or grandmother or grandfather who might be less than healthy. And now I’m doing another thing, here, where we attribute these grand sympathetic backstories to strangers we grow fond of after repeated surface-level exposure. I don’ think I’ve ever done more than nod in their general direction, maybe once, yet in my mind these women are good people.
Or so I hope. They seem it. And so I tell myself they are, and maybe I’m right, probably, who knows, but regardless they provide me with a wholesome feeling of good, a little nudge of a reminder that maybe it all ‘aint that bad. And if it is, do something to make it better. Because it probably isn’t that bad to begin with, and doing a little thing to make a not-really-too-bad thing just a little bit better might put things in perspective, might make it clear how far from bad things were in the first place. Wake up earlier and play some badminton—it’s simple. But we still sleep in and wake up unhappy, all while these two women smile, smacking a birdie back and forth.