A Perfect Perch

As the weather warms, my chilly seasonal affect begins to defrost as well. I put my house in order once again -- cleaning out the trashed basement, sprucing up the yard and carrying the winter's inevitable collection of clutter, old newsprint and recyclable milk jugs to the curb.It's a great time of year, bringing to mind all sorts of spring-y aphorisms. "Out with the old, in with the new." "'Tis the time that tickles a young man's fancy." And perhaps this movie-ready slogan, "Spring: The promise of summer waiting to be fulfilled!"At any other time or season, such sugary clich�s would surely drive me back indoors.But not this time of year. It's almost summer and it's time to get back on the porch.Yes, summer is the season of the porch. Front porch, back porch, covered, screened-in and wraparound -- the porch comes in as many flavors as ice cream from a Good Humor truck. But to me, the porch is a necessity of living space, a thing I would never choose to live without.I know I will always live in houses with porches. To me, the porch is the crowning jewel on any sufficiently homey home; a glorious buffer zone that is not quite in, not quite out. In the tiny rental where I live, the porch is my favorite part of the house. While all the other rooms are just a little too small, or a bit too dark, the porch is just right: A 10 feet-by-7 feet area of screened-in bliss.Less than a room but more than a mere stoop, the porch is our connection to community, the neighborhood, and the street on which we live. Houses without porches sit dull and abrupt, harshly transitioning to the lawn or pavement surrounding them. But a house with a proper porch is well adjusted, striking that careful balance between privacy and community. It's healthy.My favorite kind of porch is a covered porch. The porch I often inhabit on summer Sunday mornings has this special feature. It also has screened windows, cozy indoor/outdoor carpeting, and a front door that locks. Despite its small size, I have been able to fit a rattan couch and chair into its humble confines. Over the years, I've also added a pewter art deco-style hotel ashtray stand, a big wooden record player from the '40s that I use as a coffee table, about a dozen Catholic inspirational candles, a concrete gargoyle, a vintage AM radio and a plant.There's no question about it: This is a cool porch.By design, I hope my porch will present an appealing setting for visits with friends, family and other guests. But, by definition, porches have always been social. Although not quite a public space, the porch invites public interaction through proximity. Seated on our porches, we become approachable to our neighbors. We send the message that we are comfortable with our place in the community, not just behind the closed doors and windows of our homes.Regular porch use also implies a voluntary acceptance of communal responsibility. Perched on a folding chair, dislocated car bench or any other porch-bound seat, a person on their porch has a privileged, porch-eye view of the street around them. They become the de facto babysitter of the young kids playing jump rope on the sidewalk. Or the temporary security guard eyeing the out-of-town neighbor's house across the street.I recall one nippy, porch-based evening seeing three fire trucks whiz by my house. I grabbed my shoes from the porch floor and raced down the street. The duplex down the block was burning to the ground, and everyone who'd lived inside was now standing in the street. They watched the fire fighters kill the blaze, while neighbors gathered with warm blankets to console them. Said one middle-aged woman arriving in a bathrobe, "I was just sitting on my porch when I smelled smoke."Despite its social role, the porch can also be intimate. Since most porches are relatively small, they foster close conversation. For some reason when I throw a party, the kitchen starts off as the most popular room in the house. But by the wee hours, the two or three remaining guests invariably gravitate to the porch. Hey, you haven't talked drunken philosophy and politics until you've done it on a porch at 3 a.m.Perhaps more than anything else, the porch is functional. Often a porch becomes a microcosm of the house attached; a miniature version of a living room (just add a chair), a bedroom (haul in a couch), a dining room (a milk crate or cardboard box will do) and even a kitchen ($10 hibachi grill). If weather permitted, some of us could live on our porches. I must admit that I've slept out there a couple times.Some folks forget the lowly porch, choosing to ignore its purpose and its place. The sad signs are obvious -- no furniture, no books -- just empty floor boards behind an empty screen door. Or worse yet, there's the porch turned makeshift storage shed, complete with lawn mower, wheelbarrow and miscellaneous gardening equipment. But I fear such folks have squandered more than just a porch -- they've forgotten themselves.So this summer, do yourself a favor. Do your neighbors a favor, too. If you've got one, spend some time on the porch. It's an essential part of the season. Do it with a friend -- you'll feel better afterward. And if you live in an apartment, there's always the balcony.

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