All around him, the crowd of a few hundred hushes. They form a dense semi-circled pocket. The man in question adjusts his stance, feels for wind and lines up his club. The only sound is a cracking beer can until he swings with the strength of a hammer meeting a wall stud.
His name is Kenny, and he isn't golfing. Not even close. We're in Schnitzelburg and Kenny and dozens of others are playing a game called "dainty." They've been playing for 41 years. I'd like to hope they'll play for another 41 years, but people like me might be snuffing out all the fun without even knowing it.
The World Dainty Championship is held each summer in this tiny Louisville, KY neighborhood. The area is filled with shotgun houses and local-centric bars. Chances are, it's the only place on earth the game is still played. Inexplicably, the championship is always held on a Monday and always at about 5 pm. Not exactly tee time at Augusta. But dainty is nothing like golf, which is no big deal except for one thing. And that thing is a shame.
The shame is that this charming ribbon of Schnitzelburg history will probably soon disappear.
It depresses the hell out of me.
But I'm not depressed at first. Because, while I'm there, the Dainty Contest is a blast. It reminds me of my childhood, growing up in a small town and making up games to entertain ourselves.
Here's the scoop on dainty: guys like Kenny lay a five-inch wooden peg on the street and, with one arm, swing a three-foot wooden broomstick at the peg. One arm is the rule, no exceptions. A successful start will see the little peg popped into the air and spinning wildly. Step Two then has the player swing the broom like a bat and try to knock the peg as far is it'll go.
The street is closed off and every five feet has a spray painted line. The contestants, like Kenny, crouch low and clip the small peg with precision not seen since Pat Morita catching flies with chopsticks. Like that Hollywood moment, age and patience are the key. In fact, age is a rule in Schnitzelburg. Dainty players must be over age 45 to compete.
A successful at-bat fills the air with a wood-on-wood crack that is more satisfying than hearing a triple in baseball.
Kenny is long and lean, balding with big black glasses. Kenny might be pushing retirement age, but you'd never know it after his turn clocked in at a whopping 83 feet. Frankly, in the hour or so I spent there, it was one of the few that made it anywhere. Dainty, if you didn't imagine from the above description, seems impossibly hard to master.
But when you do master it, like Kenny, you must feel five, not 45. For the time I was there, standing safely at the 120-foot mark, he is a celebrity. "Hey, this is Kenny," a woman says, introducing him. "He's the leader. He hit 83 feet!"
Frankly, I was almost more impressed that someone didn't know Kenny. Because, while this little slice of neighborhood fun is interesting, what's more interesting is the neighborhood itself. Schnitzelburg a small town slid inconspicuously into the city's Germantown neighborhood. That, itself, is nothing special. But it's the feel you get riding around its 10 or so blocks. Everyone genuinely seems to know one another. Not in a cul-de-sac wave at your neighbor kind of way, but in an honest way. A familiarity that says the people here grew up in this neighborhood and know each other's family history, where they work and what their favorite menu item is at the local grille, Check's.
Chief among these residents is the contest's MC.
Of equal dainty-playing age, the MC stalks the playing field's painted lines. He's boxed in on two sides by orange snow fence that keeps the spectators on the sidewalk. The MC announces the next contestant, usually tossing in a casual, unrehearsed bit that makes me wish I was his buddy, too. "Up next, hey, Foxy Roxy the karaoke queen." The MC announces when players have struck out (players get three swings to knock the peg into the field) and hollers out measurements all with his wireless mic.
And it's that familiarity that makes me love this lower-middle class niche of the city. Schnitzleburg residents have their own bars and restaurants. They all take pride in keeping their simple homes nice. They mostly all have deeper southern accents than the rest of the city for some anthropologically mystifying reason. Schnitzelburg reminds me of my own microscopic hometown. It's the kind of closeness and community I've seen fabricated so many times with great failure.
The reason it doesn't fail here is easy: Because Schnitzleburg has always been this way. Since before they held the World Dainty Championship and before its sponsor, Hauck's Market, opened 100 years ago (Wentastic Fact: I went into the aged general store once to get a candy bar. It's the kind of place with raw wood floors and dust covering the Snickers. An old man was sitting by the door, drinking a Budweiser and holding a cane), this neighborhood has had this amazingly warm, tight, community.
But people like myself are threatening it.
I didn't realize it at first, but once I did, that's when the Dainty Championship stopped being fun. That's when I wanted to go home and turn down the lights and drink.
The spark that lit this guilty fire inside me was, oddly, bologna sandwiches. For the Championship, Hauck's offers a meal deal -- for $1.50 you can have a bologna sandwich, dill pickle and a bag of chips. Hauck's, supposedly, is known for its bologna on white. Longtime Schnitzelburgers were enjoying these delicacies in every direction.
The only spectators not eating one, it seemed, were people like me. And that distinction is where the danger starts.
The crowd is made up of a lot of guys in mustaches -- young fellas rocking them ironically and Schnitzelburg residents who've worn them for decades. A lot of young guys are sporting cutoff jean shorts, probably because they'd seen a band or someone from New York doing it. Schnitzelburg guys wear jean shorts because, well, it's hot. There are a lot of tattoos as well. Young dudes with tatted up, brightly inked arms are mixed against men with faded ink from military service or street gangs long forgotten in favor of domesticity.
So similar, but still, not so much.
All this comes to a head with bologna. Hauck's is selling it cheap, because it is tasty and costs nothing and people like it. Meanwhile, across the street, a new restaurant is also slinging a bologna sandwich.
However, this new joint, owned and operated by people roughly my age and cultural background, are fixing dishes that pay tribute to the neighborhood's German heritage with chic, gourmet flair.
Pretty cool, right? A real help to the community. A positive boost of neighborhood adrenaline, yeah? But they charge nearly ten times as much as Hauck's. Their bologna is from farm-raised, organic pork, situated between a brioche bun and served with sides like chilled barley salad. Not a pickle or bag of wavy chips in sight. Real Schnitzers wouldn't be caught dead at the restaurant's tables.
And right there, on plates filled with bologna, is why this wonderful little tradition is going to die. And, in all likelihood, this charming, warm neighborhood will get a pine box all its own. People like me are to blame.
We're not trying to ruin Schnitzelburg, but we are anyway. We are 20- and 30-something and looking to buy our first home and live close to the heart of the city. Germantown and Schnitzelburg offers Louisville's most affordable homes short of places where bullets and meth fly through the air.
Everyone is friendly. But the long-time residents don't talk to the newcomers pushing fancy jogger strollers. We're all segregated, watching dainty players trying to avoid that massive oak tree that hangs over the street, gobbling up little wooden pegs like comic strip kites. We just don't have much in common, aside from location.
The Kroger down the street is jumping on the bandwagon. It once featured cracked linoleum floors, stacks of light domestic beers and bottles of teriyaki sauce that were probably years out of date. The store expanded and remodeled and now has faux-wood flooring, an extensive microbrew selection and a really nice Asian foods department with, like, four different kinds of curry. They're doing this because people at my station in life love (oddly) pushing carts over hardwoods, debating the merits of the world's IPAs and Thai food. And Schnitzelberg will keep shifting this way. There's no stopping its momentum.
Because, as dainty players move further and further beyond age 45, young people looking for cheap housing will continue to populate the neighborhood. We're not exploiting anyone and, really, opening a hip German-heritage restaurant is good for the area. Soon, nobody will remember how to play dainty and nobody'll know that Foxy Roxy is the karaoke queen, because when Check's is replaced by a Belgian beer bar, they won't want someone belting out Heart's greatest hits.
There will be no MC to encourage us to clap for Kenny "You know, Zap Parker's boy" because nobody'll know anyone else.
We don't mean to ruin the neighborhood. We're just being ourselves, but in the process, we're snuffing out something wonderful and warm.
This essay and others appear in Wensink's collection Everything Was Great Until it Sucked (Lazy Fascist Press).