The Enduring Tradition of “Porch Sitting”
In the dystopian world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, front porches as we know them are a distant memory: “My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well,” he writes. “But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong KIND of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.”
Thankfully, no one has yet run off with all the porches in the real world, and while some have bemoaned the fading American tradition of “porch sitting,” I think the vitality of the pastime all depends upon your definition of porch. While the space in front of your house might not necessarily be grand and covered by a roof, it’s still a place to find community.
In my personal experience, the culture of the porch is still alive and well — at least in the cities I’ve lived in. And summer nights are when all such frontal projections, no matter their relative grandeur, truly come into their own.
My childhood was my only experience with a “proper” covered porch. We lived in the country, so there was no people-watching; rather, I thought of it as a safe, private extension of my home and spent many summer evenings, free of homework, reading C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien by the porch light, with a steady background cacophony of crickets.
One evening, though, my sense of safety was shattered when I looked up from my book to see a snake slithering towards me — in my mind’s eye, it was enormous. Later my father discovered the unwelcome intruder was a copperhead that had taken up residence under the porch.
In my early 20s in Baltimore, I used to sit on the stoop of my midtown rental at night, trying to catch a breeze and chatting about the heat wave with the (very sweet and friendly) transgendered prostitutes who worked my block.
Once, a neighbor brought out his pet python — what is it about me, porches, and snakes? — and let me hold it. I was enthralled by the snake’s cool, dry skin — such a contrast to my own, rendered warm and sticky, thanks to the muggy Baltimore August. As a bonus, having a snake snugly wrapped around my shoulders was one of the only times I didn’t get asked for change or hit on by passersby.
By far my favorite porch memories are from my time in Brooklyn, where they called the little space in front of your house an “airy gate,” perhaps because the only thing separating you from the sidewalk was a single creaky metal gate.
In the summer, the porch sitting began as people trickled home from work, and got into full swing as the sun was going down. I would sit out with my dog, Pete, who loved everyone and was loved by all in turn, sip my wine, and catch up on the gossip — the neighbor’s husband cheated on her again! — learn what everyone had eaten for dinner, and of course complain endlessly about Mayor Giuliani.
The downside to all this was that if you had somewhere to be in the evening that wasn’t your airy gate, you had to block off time for chitchat because you’d never get down the block without a bit of catching up.
Now I live in South Philly where — perhaps in a fit of literalism — they call what I know as the stoop the “steps.” And people spill off of their relatively small steps on summer evenings, having beers and reminiscing about whatever point in their history they’ve identified as the “good old days.” Because my steps face full sun, and I’m not, truth be told, much of a summer person, I usually listen to the lively conversation from the shade of my bedroom window, at least until the sun goes down.
Whatever type of porch I find myself living with in the future — humble or grand — I will always endeavor to live by John Sarris’ advice: “Make your front porch a part of your home and it will make you a part of the world.”