Around dinnertime, when the sun sits low in the sky, lined up with the drooping branches of oaks, porches begin to fill with people. New Orleanians move outdoors as the moon rises and streetlamps light. Screen doors swing open and slam shut as people wait for cornbread to bake and collard greens to boil.
Driving through Central City your eyes catch the gleam of High Life bottles balanced on an old man’s knee, and glittery hula hoops that girls wind around their hips. To the left: a young father battles his five year old with a 2 x 4 sword. To the right: a middle-aged widow taps her toes off beat to the soft sound of a scratchy Ellington record playing inside. They wait for timers to ring, microwaves to chime, pots to bubble over. When the entire day is spent at a desk- on the couch- over the stove, the porch offers a sanctuary away from any work or obligations.
The dinner table, piled with bills, dishes, beads and books seems less appealing than the stoop out front, where the clutter is often minimal or at least made up of meaningful triggers to remind you of previous nights spent on a terrace. The function of the dinner table, a place once meant for eating-gathering-conversing, is lost in it’s clutter and position next to a heated oven on broil and a stove with four burners going.
Most days and nights in New Orleans begin on a porch. A stoop. A patio. A set of four, six, twelve or so stairs that offer access to the home: a way to move between front doors and community sidewalks. These stoops serve as major social throughways between the public and private living sphere: a playground for kids coming home from school- as a lookout post for a self-appointed neighborhood watch deputy – as a center for social life, eating and drinking.
In New Orleans a porch serves the purpose of extending the home beyond four walls and gives residents a place to escape the heat of a warming oven or musty dining room. The food-centered side of the home’s porch can be witnessed at any moment throughout the city of New Orleans as men and women chew red beans, shuck corn and await dinner dates under overhangs.
As a prominent architectural feature in the Southern home the porch is a historically and socially important space that inhabitants of New Orleans utilize daily. Popularized by the rise of a leisure class in the mid-1800’s the porch gained an important position in America’s architecture and social development. As a space outside of the home, people were inclined to move onto the porch and enjoy the warm seasons post-meal for classic Mint Juleps and desserts. Colorful flatware was unpacked for the spring and conversations with family and friends took place setting a warm tone for communal neighborhood interactions.
Today, as sunset approaches every evening a twisted bastardization of 19th century porch culture lives on- Tulane students suck on dollar popsicles and down cans of Dixie beer; young fathers chug Old English and watch their sons ride tricycles; my friends inhale unpacked Parliaments and slurp pecan ale in the rain. Despite the lack of sophistication contained in today’s porch ventures, the intention is similar: the preserve and foster a sense of community within a neighborhood. Whether the white-gloved hand of a Southern belle- or the ring/tattoo adorned hand of a Marigny old-timer, hands are extended across a threshold- the porch- to invite neighbors, friends and strangers into a part of the home universally known for socializing.
As important as their bedrooms and living rooms- an extention of their kitchen tables and back decks- the porch is a space that belongs to no one and everyone. Unlike beds in bedrooms or recliners in living rooms the rotating seating and space on a porch is open to all. It opens our living spaces to friends who won’t fit around a table, as well as strangers walking on the street who yell salutations on sunset walks. They’re hubs for locals to eat, drink and talk together as they host evenings full of laughter over cheap beers or afternoons full of lethargy and perspiration.
The porch is a place made comfortable by old men who spend their days, cane in hand, hat on head. Young women who rub their swollen pregnant bellies, pumping their bodies full of sweet tea. Children who need a place to let their Barbie’s dance or their pet lizards explore. The importance of comfort lies in the abundance of time spent in these spaces- morning, afternoon, evening and most days late into the night. The importance of comfort is signified by the construction of the porch as a social space that can host holiday meals, group dialogues and middle-of-the-night smokes.
At certain times of day- when you wake late after a night of binging or rise from an unplanned mid-day nap- window panes glow with the heat of spring sun. Early morning fog has burned off and your skin has glossed with sweat. It’s hot. It’s humid. The air is thick. At a certain point it becomes impossible- unbearable- to sit on a couch or lay in bed even in the skimpiest of clothes, because no fan spins fast enough. So, men roll their shorts to the crease beneath their muscular buttocks. Women pull their tank tops up to expose sweating rolls from years of ham hocks. And they move onto the porch.
Relief is found in the shade of an overhang. The roofs of porches provide covering from the evening sun or a spontaneous spring downpour. And it is a place where you can escape the heat of a musty house and extend living to the outdoors.
The stillness outside is comforting at the close of the day- creating an atmosphere of leisure and calm. No spinning fans or buzzing air conditioning units. No TVs or computers.
People walk slower in the heat- making room for hellos and friend spotting.
People speak slower in the heat- making room for drawn out conversations and contemplation of a day’s doings.
At the top of the steps: often a small card table, the plastic holed from dropped cigarettes, warped from the summer heat and stained with rings from years of sweating glasses placed atop it.
Surrounding the table: Metal folding chairs that creak no matter what position you take in them. Plastic lawn chairs with pools of cloudy water from the last rain stagnating in their seats. Benches, couches, stools- all salvaged from a thrift store or corner dump.
My own house’s porches are host to an array of seating arrangements. Split into four units our home hosts an open porch downstairs and a full length balcony upstairs. The two downstairs units are easily accessed by a set of four warped, blue wooden stairs split down the middle by a wrought iron railing. Above, a balcony overlooking the neutral ground has been decorated with Christmas lights that begin twinkling as soon as the sunsets.
Directly outside of my front door: two faded canvas folding chairs that are often filled with the rear ends of roommates and intoxicated friends. One weekend I found myself home alone for the first time in New Orleans. My friends came to keep me company- to calm my newly single nerves with food and whiskey. To get all of our minds off of work, school, lovers- and to turn each others thoughts to anything but. We turned the music up too loud, left dirty dishes in the sink, and migrated between the living room – kitchen – bedroom – porch for hours. After a dinner that came too late and was eaten far too fast, we moved outside. The kitchen full of empty plates, the couch too formal for what seemed to be turning into a different kind of night, it seemed appropriate to move the music to the background and move the stoopin’ to the forefront. I nursed my third cocktail while my friends spun cigarettes in their fingers. We dirtied more plates for newcomers, laughed loudly at admissions about strange crushes and pierced the night’s quiet air with dropped beer bottles slamming against the wooden deck.
In a way, porches are spaces responsible for the preservation of all simple memories such as these. The people moving in and out of the space may change, the bowls on laps may fill and empty, the steps are descended and ascended- but that “memorabilia” left behind holds significant memories and experiences that speak to the past in a unique way.
In the arms of my roommate’s folding chairs are mesh cupholders. Littered with old receipts from crawfish purchases and broken strings of beads these pockets are scrapbooks that stay spotting the porch with trinkets and memorabilia that allows us to recollect on times spent socializing outside.
A matchbook from La Crepe Nanou, the first place I tried milk punch
An LSU flag our neighbors hung in honor of their time spent in Medical school
Mardi Gras beads decorating our fence
Cigarettes that people will come back to
Beer that friends promise to finish
Spider webs, dead roaches, mosquitoes
The cup holders are always full, with anything from broken strings of beads to cups three-quarters full of warm whiskey and Amaretto. Scattered are bikes, small tables, empty glassware and wet books I left outside one night before a rainstorm. Balanced on the base of porch pillars are dirty bowls and skeletons of peeled crawfish.
This memorabilia from a night prior or an afternoon past suggests time spent with people. It proves the existence of friendships fostered on the porch of a welcoming home; it reminds of a space where conversations took place within a positive atmosphere infused with liquor, warm food and shrill laughter.