A tip from a friend living on the other side of town, Charlottenburg, was ironically responsible for my first encounter with Prenzlauer Berg-based Dr. Pong, despite living in the area myself. Don’t let the name fool you: Dr. Pong is a cosy Berliner bar. But what makes Dr. Pong most extraordinary in a city with an overwhelming abundance of extraordinary bars is its main attraction, its big ping pong table!
In my defence, Dr. Pong is easy to overlook when passing by, especially during daytime. The glass panes on its windows are layered on the inside with a mundane, almost opaque white plastic foil that at the very most hints at renovation work in progress. There are no overt signs indicating what this place is or what it’s called. Those with an alert vision might take notice of the DR. PONG name inscription—the only external clue about this obscure place—made up of small black sticker letters in bold on the middle glass window, which is actually part of a door that remains closed throughout the winter, but opens every summer to relieve the exhausted, sweaty, drunken table tennis champions from the heat of the summer weather and the game with an occasional soft breeze of city centre smog.
An uncanny shadow theatre for sharp-eyed passers-by
At night though, the light coming from the other side of the windows allows Dr. Pong’s façade to flirt with semi-transparency. Patrons lean against the glass, casting their shadows on the white plastic wrap. They chat with each other, drink, and smoke, creating an uncanny shadow theatre for sharp-eyed passers-by. Further behind, faint ghostly shadows dance circles around the barely visible ping pong table, before all but the two finalists are out of the game. It only takes one miss for one shadow to dissipate in the back of the room.
Ever since it turned out that I live ridiculously close to Dr. Pong, I’ve had my fair share of phases during which I had the time and energy to allow Dr. Pong to seduce me like a Siren to its magical interiors with this mesmerizing shadow spectacle, even if it was only for a couple of goodnight tequila and table tennis shots at 03:00 a.m. before crashing to bed. Good times.
But there I was, standing outside Dr. Pong after midnight on a weekday, half-ill, coughing, and about to be seduced once again.
The main door opens to a small vestibule, whose cream ceiling and walls are covered top-to-bottom with graffiti tags in all possible colours, making it look like an immense abstract Jackson Pollock mural. The closed sliding door on the right in this little antechamber is the real entrance. I could already hear Bohemian Rhapsody playing from the speakers, mixed with tipsy hollers, sing-alongs, and the familiar click-clack of the ping pong ball bouncing on the table.
A bright yellowish light akin to a morgue
I’m aware of the alive-and-kicking popularity of Dr. Pong in the indie Berliner nightlife scene, but still, for a Wednesday night at 01:00 a.m., I was positively surprised to find that there were at least ten people inside. A few girls and boys in their early twenties were playing table tennis in a circle under the roof lamp that fills the room with a bright yellowish light akin to a morgue.
The rest of the patrons were sitting around on mahogany-look school chairs with industrial metal legs, idly watching the game. Most of the empty chairs were organised in stacks in the two corners of the half-way ochre, half-way olive green wall, meaning that it wouldn’t be too long until the bar called it a night. The room, surrounded by medieval-looking plastic heraldic flags in funky colours that hang down from the walls, looked bigger now. The invisible, coarse smoke that permeated the atmosphere and my lungs giving me a coughing fit alluded the advent of smokers’ hordes earlier that night. Everything around me was oozing the Berliner decadent charm that made me fall in love with Dr. Pong in the first place, along with its one-of-a-kind, übercool ping pong bar concept.
A bearded former customer-turned bartender and two young girls singing along with Freddie Mercury
Thirsty for beer, I went straight to the bar, only to remember once I was there that I wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol. There were three people behind the counter: a bearded former customer-turned bartender in his late twenties, and two young girls singing along with Freddie Mercury. They all greeted me with hearty smiles.
I wanted to watch the game, so I took my sad Club Mate and went back to the table tennis area. A couple of people had already left the circle—and the place in general—in the meantime, and the remaining ones were playing doubles. Their poor technique revealed them as beginners, but they were getting the hang of it. The bartender came in to pick the empty beer bottles left behind on the floor. He was wearing a black T-shirt, indigo jeans, camel brown leather tennis shoes, his trademark black elastic headband that brings some order to his long, wild brown locks, and a scarf around his neck that was the same lime green as his eyes.
“2o more minutes!” he called out to the players, briefly interrupting their game.
“I only need 5 minutes to kick their asses” one of them replied in a heavy Irish accent and resumed playing.
I decided to finish my drink at the bar. I sat on a tall scratched leather-look barstool in fire engine red, next to a guy whom I have come across several times in Dr. Pong. My best friend and I had nicknamed him the “Matrose” because the first time we ever saw him he was wearing a sailor cap, the flamboyance of which he exchanged that night for the comfort of a warm grey beanie. He was sipping his beer and took slow, lonesome cigarette puffs every now and then.
Nobody was on the other side of the bar. The bartender was still tidying up somewhere, and the girls were dancing in front of the empty DJ console, accompanied by the sound of punk. Behind the bar, the worn-out ping pong bats which customers borrow for a two-euro deposit were now piled in yellow plastic crates next to the refrigerator with the soft drinks. A bit further to the right stood as always the iconic framed autograph of a famous German ping pong champion, posing with his bat and bursting with self-confidence and congeniality.
“Timo Boll”, the bartender told me, pointing at the signed photograph I was staring.
“KILLING IN THE NAME OF!”
The girls’ head-banging in ecstasy under the sound of Rage Against the Machine gave me a mild startle and convinced me that it was time for a sick person to go to bed. As I was putting on my heavy winter jacket, my eyes met with those of another Stammkunde who was walking past me, a guy with a strong resemblance to Mark Renton from Trainspotting. He paused for a second to say hi with a pat on my shoulder and chit-chat, explaining that he had smoked too much weed that day. Meanwhile, I was struggling to remember his name.
Then, I felt the table tennis ball bouncing against my leg; I turned and tried to shoot it with my right foot to the “Matrose” who had in the meantime joined the game, only to send it further away from where he was and under a stack of chairs.
“Danke, sozusagen”, grunted the “Matrose” in a passive-aggressive tone as he was bending to find the ball. He then returned to his game.
I took a last look at the room and wished everyone a good night before I closed the sliding door of this little parallel Berliner Wonderland behind me and headed back to reality.
Eberswalder Str. 21, 10437 Berlin
By Evdokia Prassa
Picture by Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Evdokia Prassa is a freelance writer. You can contact her at evdokia.prassa at posteo.net.