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A Neighborhood of Porches

(From July 2011)

It is a neighborhood of porches. Deep, wide porches framed by white columns and balustrades that are the perfect spot for a sandaled foot to rest.

And resting – taking a load off, settling in for a chat with a housemate or savoring a solitary scotch as the slow summer evening fades toward its demise – that’s what these porches are made for.

For cooling off when it’s too hot to do anything else. For conversation when it’s lonely inside.

They make the perfect interface between the private world of one’s home and the public space of the sidewalk and street, the whole wide world right out there just a few feet away.

Houses get built today with patios and decks in the back, behind fences. Not this neighborhood, which dates to the early 19th century when company was welcome.

It’s true that there are some lovely houses on the street that don’t have porches. There’s the one that’s being repainted this summer, even though the owners wish they could wait another couple years to pay for such a massive job.

Another porchless house, built in 1822, looks squarely out onto the world from its New England antiquity. A Boston Bruins banner has, since the Bruins’ unlikely capture of the Stanley Cup, been replaced with a brighter and (it must be said) more aesthetically pleasing bunting of red, white and blue.

But it’s the porches that distinguish this street from the others in town. They link the neighborhood to a lost America of quiet villages.

One where people talk with their neighbors. Where there’s still an annual holiday block party to which everyone is invited, even new arrivals such as myself. Where the block party has spawned an impromptu series of porch parties, which are announced by emails that engender a kind of small-town flash mob.

In contrast to the subdivisions, these porches hold the (perhaps illusory) promise that it’s a street where an eight-year-old can ride her bike down the sidewalk a couple blocks and still be under the watchful eye of a neighbor – a woman, say, who’s having a glass of iced tea before going in to fix dinner. Or a man who’s picking prematurely fallen apples out of his front yard, so that he won’t mash them next time he cuts the lawn.

A breathless bevy of joggers make regular appearances past these porches, joined by aerobic walkers and more leisurely strollers.

A married couple of my acquaintance comes in from the country of an evening, to walk up and down the street for a taste of village life.

They amble past a neighbor stretched out on the wicker couch of her porch with a book of philosophy. Across the street a pair of summer residents seated in lattice-back rockers takes their evening meal. Two trees shade the porch where they are perched.

Did I say it was the porches that distinguish the neighborhood?

Well, maybe it’s the trees, too.

Of course the arboreal display isn’t as dramatic as it was in the 1950s. Back then giant elms stood astride this street, their massive limbs reaching one another over the asphalt to form a shady green tunnel. The elms are gone now. But the street’s older residents recall their grandeur and remind us newcomers.

There’s still that old apple tree standing out there near where I’m writing this on the porch. I’ve been mashing the apple tree’s early-summer failures when I mow the lawn.

But the apple is good for casting a gratifyingly wide shadow, as the intense summer sun begins to drop westward toward the rooftop of that small cape across the street. You know, the one with the rust-colored old fruit trees of its own. Near the stately maple, gracious now in midsummer but really only warming up for her autumnal brilliance.

Beyond the maple is an enormous evergreen, between those two houses with slate roofs and copper flashing. The evergreen is the kind I used to climb as a kid. When all I wanted was to escape the world and sway, empty-minded for once, in the capricious wind.

I want to sneak over there today and climb that pine. But I’ll have to get to know the owners first — lest my presence 25 feet in the air, outside their second-story window, become the occasion for them to call the police.

So I’ll linger a few more minutes this morning here on the porch, contemplating the passing world and waiting for the unfolding of the day.

Perhaps I’ll take a swim in the New Haven River after work. A walk down the street to imagine where the old elms were. At some point I’ll sneak over for a creamee.

But all that will have to wait. It’s awfully comfortable right here on the porch.

 –        30 –

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