Saturday, January 10, 2009

August 2006: Porches

On August 8th, I was driving home from the train station listening to NPR as I normally do in that short leg of my commute. They were announcing the next installment of an, apparently, on-going series “Summer on the Porch.” I started giggling and thinking of Professor Such-and-So, at some Mucky-Muck University, babbling something like, “In my many years of studying the porch, both front and rear, as an iconic part of American Culture, I must conclude that… blah blah Freudian blah, yadda yadda dichotomy yadda…” at which point I would have lost interest, fallen asleep, and ran the car off the road.

Immediately after this thought, a flood of memories poured in. I understood the real purpose for the series, of which I did not hear a word of the six part series. And Bingo! I knew what my August letter would be about.

When I think of porches, I think of front porches, porches that face the street. They are extensions of the living room onto, well, the street and visible to all passersby. The City of Detroit, where I grew up was definitely a front porch kind of town. The porch in those days, the late 1950’s and 1960’s was a family gathering place on lazy summer afternoons or after dinner. Others would do the same. You would wave and nod at neighbors if you were in one mood or invite them over if you were in another.

Over time, the family room and deck (basically a rear porch) have replaced the living room and front porch. Pity. Living rooms are generally in the front of the house. Living rooms opened to vestibules, foyers, or the more plebian front hall onto the porch, the front porch, and thus to the outside world. Family rooms, by contrast, tend to be in the back of the house and open onto patios, decks and rear porches. They do open up to the outside but in a more reclusive way i.e. away from the street.

Certainly, neighbors could be on their patios and decks. You could still nod and invite them over. But that happens much less, from my perspective, than it did in the front porch world. With front porches, the houses were closer and communication from porch to porch was not so difficult. People walking by could stop and chat. With the migration to suburbia and the rear of the house, the houses were also farther apart and without the network of sidewalks to enhance a sense of community. In the back, fences and landscaping add to the sense of separation and privacy.

The most memorable porch growing up was at my grandparents’ house in Detroit. My Mother’s parents, Azniv and Levon, lived on the corner of Stoepel and Fullerton in Detroit, a block west of Livernois. Both Livernois and Fullerton were “busy streets” as parents and grandparents impressed upon us. Theirs was a sturdy two family brick home. My grandparents lived on the first floor. The front porch was not very big but had a majestic feel to it. It had a cement floor and brick pillars and wall. The ceiling was also cement being the floor of the porch of the upstairs flat. The brick wall was 2-3 feet in height with a cement tongue like spout or drain for when it rained or when they hosed down the porch.

On this porch, my grandparents had a “glider,” basically an outdoor sofa that rocked or glided back and forth. These steel framed cushioned beauties were de rigueur for the porches fifties and sixties. My grandfather, Babo as we called him in the Armenian way, loved to sit out there. Sometimes, he would smoke an El Producto, most times he would have the Hairenik, Armenian language newspaper, close at hand. He never said much, being a quiet humble man, but he loved being near his grandchildren: me, my sisters and cousins. We were certainly active and talkative enough so his quiet enjoyment of it all fit right in. There were cars whizzing and people walking by. We sat on that porch in the summer months with Babo, getting to know each other, and growing up. We watched the neighborhood changed, as Detroit changed. It all culminated with the 1967 riots that accelerated a “white flight” that was already in progress.

My grandparents moved to Dearborn. Their house on Steadman had a front porch. I do not ever recall sitting on it. Outdoor life had moved to the backyard which my grandmother’s amazing green thumb had transformed into a flower and vegetable wonderland.

When my grandparents lived on Stoepel, we lived a few miles away in Detroit, first on Freeland and then moving a few blocks to Strathmoor. The Freeland house was another two family dwelling and we lived on the first floor. In contrast, the porch was wood with wood railings. The deck was painted that ubiquitous battle ship grey of the day. My sisters and I used to play on the porch. Mostly, I recall a game my Mother taught us and enjoyed, button-button with which we amused ourselves. You would try to get which hand the button, or more often a penny or little stone, was in and either moved up or down the six or so steps. Whoever got to the top first, won. I do not recall just sitting and watching the world go by.

I do recall painting the porch with my father in September of 1967. Actually we were painting the entire house. We had already moved to Strathmoor but kept the Freeland house as a rental property. It was shortly after the riots. But as the weather was glorious and the Detroit Tigers were battling the Red Sox for the American League pennant, everything was great. It was as if the riot, of just a month earlier, never happened. I remember, clearly, being on the porch, the transistor radio beaming the rich broadcast of George Kell and Ernie Harwell, the excitement of two contenders battling it out for the pennant. Even though the Tigers came in second place, one game behind the Red Sox, that time on the porch, painting with my Dad… well household chores and teenage memories do not get much better than that.

The front porch of our Strathmoor house was cement with wrought iron railings. My parents put up an aluminum awning replacing the canvas awning. The canvas awning looked good enough in the summer months when it was up. But in the winter, with the awning down, only the skeletal piping structure remained. That always looked ugly to me.

That Strathmoor porch was a great place to sit on a summer evening, reading on a lazy summer afternoon, or to relish the cool humidity of a rain shower. We were close with our Greek neighbors, the Holorises. They would often be on their porch. We would get together sometimes, simply wave to each other from porch to porch or meet up at the Good Humor truck as it rolled up ringing its little Pavolovian bells.

We had bought the house from Leo Atkinson. He was retired and, I believe, a widower. He moved in across the street with his neighbor and friend Jack Callum. Jack was close to retirement but still working for General Motors. I remember both of them sitting on their front porch every day after Jack had retired. Leo was reading the Bible, from cover to cover. We would wave across the street from porch to porch.

There was a girl. She was about the age of my sister Nancy though I cannot recall her name. She lived across the street and down the block. She would ride her bike around and around her block… non-stop, seemingly all day long. After she mastered basic biking, she graduated to a rather odd hobby of reading a paperback while she was pedaling. She was quite good at it. We were amazed watching her go on and on, reading and pedaling. Somewhere in the second or third summer of practicing this amazing feat, the inevitable happened and we got to see it from our porch. She ran into a tree. Thankfully, she was not hurt too badly. Thereafter, she kept her reading and riding hobbies separate.

During one memorable thunderstorm, my sisters and I were just sitting in awe of the ferocious thunder and lightening. A bolt of lightening struck the maple tree of the McCormicks, our neighbor on the other side. It sounded like a canon, scaring the living daylights out of us. We heard the majestic tree snap and watched the greater part of it fall, slowly, in our direction landing a few feet in front of us. There was a great long moment of silence and then all at once, we were talking and jabbering about what we just saw. The city removed the tree in short order and eventually replaced it with a sycamore. The shade profile and view from the porch was never quite the same.

Since leaving Strathmoor in 1969, wherever I lived, the front porch was at best decorative. We may have placed furniture on the porch giving them an inviting appearance but mostly it was just for decoration. On any nice summer day, the front porches of our Detroit homes were used more than the front home of all suburban houses I have lived in put together. Life simply moved to the backyard, the patio or deck.

Of course, it is partially structure defining behavior, or in this case, architectural design defining behavior. The suburban front porches are generally smaller and not really built as living space. Partially, it is socio-economic. As we moved up, crept up, economically from lower middle class to whatever we are now, life moved from the fronts of the house to the rear. As stated on the first page, time spent in living rooms and front porches are now spent in family rooms, kitchens, and backyard patios, decks or porches. The same seems to be true wherever I go. In Latin America, folks of less means tend to congregate street side on stoops or literally on the street. The more affluent have porches in their high rise flats or beautiful courtyards inside their stand alone homes.

In my current abode in Wilton, CT, the separation is to the extreme. I have a great screened porch in the rear. My lot is two acres and heavily wooded due to the reforestation of the past fifty years. When on the porch, I am totally isolated. In the summer, I cannot even see another house. The only passersby, besides birds, chipmunks, and squirrels, are deer, the occasional flock of turkeys, and the rarer sighting of a fox and maybe even a coyote. None of these faunae stop to chat.

I have written parts or all of these e-letters on the porch. I wrote May 2004, August 2004, and July 2005 stand out in this regard. In fact in the May 2004, I was reflecting on my Great Uncle Rouben and I wrote about a memorable August late afternoon sitting on thefront porch with him and Uncle Charlie. We were all smoking pipes and chatting.

Oddly enough, I was not able to use the porch to pen this letter. The house is being painted and the porch was simply not available.

One of my favorite things to do on any porch is playing music. I love to sit, practice and even entertain myself. About ten years ago we had a memorable session on the porch. I played oud, David Attarian played accordion, Garo Lehmejian played guitar, Judy played dumbeg, and the inimitable John Berberian played violin. That was a day to remember.

This past Memorial Day weekend we had a house full of people. After the barbecue, desert, cigars, after it was dark and about an hour before the party would break up, I got my oud and my songbook. I played and sang. We all sang. We sang in Armenian, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. We were all Armenians but from Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and, in our case, born here. It was great and simply one more in a long list of porch memories.

I hope you read this sitting on your porch, front or back, enjoying the weather.

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in case you want to access and listen to the NPR series “Summer on the Porch”

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Many people liked my January 2006 letter on pension plans. There is an article in the August 28, 2006 New Yorker entitled “The Risk Pool,” pp. 30-35 that provides even more, and better, insight on the subject.

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