The South. Below the Mason-Dixon Line. Dixieland. The Land of Cotton. Civilization. The Promised Land.
What comes to mind when you hear all (or most) of that? All sorts of iconic images, I’m sure. Fields of cotton and tobacco as far as the eye can see? Huge white ante-bellum mansions with driveways lined by hundred year-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss? Rickety farmhouses propped up next to even more rickety tobacco barns? Swamps? Marshes? Possums? I could go on, but I’ll spare you.
What about front porches?
Front porches with rocking chairs, bench swings and hanging ferns. Front porches that are hopefully screened in so that mosquitoes the size of aircraft carriers are kept away from their sweaty prey. Front porches with ceiling fans that are no use whatsoever during Southern summers.
You have to realize that, in the Great Southern Scheme of Things, air conditioning has only been around for a relatively small amount of time. Southerners were used to getting out of their sweltering houses for even the smallest chance of a fresh breeze. So, by the time air conditioning technically rendered the porch useless, Southerners had other uses for their porches that they weren’t quite ready to get rid of.
In my humble opinion, there were and are three primary uses for porches separate from cooling off: (1) Genuine amiability and neighborly love; (2) Romantic surveillance; and (3) Gossip, dirt and scandal.
Let’s take neighborly love first because we all know that’s the least frequent occurrence. Yes, some folks are just people-people. I married a raging extrovert, so—although this particular personality type is about as rare as a unicorn—they do exist. There are folks who are genuinely happy to see Gladys walking Peaches the Pug, the kids waiting on the corner for the school bus and even the mailman who delivers their bills. Although I can’t understand this particular personality type because of my ultra-introvert personality, I think it’s great that there are still neighborly neighbors in the world and it gives hope to us dismal Howard Hughes types.
Now, romantic surveillance is one porch use that may be on its way out. Kids these days don’t “court” anymore. (Social Security check, please!) They Skype, text, sext, call, hook up, hang out, bum around, rave and whatever else you want to call it, but it sure as hell isn’t courting. For starters, I NEVER left the house with a boy that my parents hadn’t vetted completely and taken a mug shot of in the event the authorities had to get involved. I was tracked with the precision of a yet to be invented GPS chip. Now teenage girls run off to meet scary men they think they married on ourchurchoftheinternet.com sight unseen.
Back in the days when things made sense, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that a guy would go over to a girl’s house when her parents were actually home. Boy and Belle would visit and maybe even watch a movie with the doors open, lights on and parents within stepping distance. Truth be told, the best place to get a little (very little) privacy was out on the porch swing where a couple was still monitored, but at least had a sporting chance.
Porch chats were common conduct when my parents were dating. Of course if you think Grandma Willie let one un-monitored second pass, you would be sorely mistaken. Dad’s fond of telling about the time that Grandma decided his visit had taken long enough, so she went out on the porch and said, “It’s time for bed.”
My foolhardy father quipped, “Well, then I guess you’d better go on then. Night!” as he proceeded to sit unmoving in the swing.
It was nothing short of a miracle that my father lived to meet my mother at the altar.
So, that leaves us with news, gossip and scandal (c’mon—admit it—this was the one you were waiting for). Almost every single Southern street has an Intrepid Porch Reporter: “Unfair and unbalanced, you decide!” The IPR is the individual who knows when you left for work and when you got home. They know about your pizza delivery preferences and who lets their dog poop in every yard but their own. They know the Homeowner’s Association Codes and the zoning ordinances by heart and they aren’t afraid to point them out to you. The joy of their existence is the opportunity to witness a Walk of Shame from the neighbor’s front door to the unfamiliar car parked in their driveway.
The IPR position may be filled by a man or a woman and it certainly isn’t out of the ordinary to have more than one IPR in the same neighborhood. IPR’s tend to be a little older seeing as only a retired person could keep such a close handle on things and what could be less threatening than a little old lady or fella sitting in their front porch rocking chair? Well, if you were raised in the South, you know the answer to the aforementioned question is the Gambino Crime Family.
When Scott and I moved to Smithfield, things were so chaotic with the beginning of school in addition to performing the usual irritating details of moving out of town that I didn’t really have a chance to properly introduce myself. We had Nekkid Jim on one side of us (please refer to the “Nekkid Neighbors” blog post for further clarification) and we had Miss Edie Pie on the other side.
Yes, Miss Edie Pie. That was her name. I should have known to get right over and introduce myself because she was an older lady and she had a big ‘ol front porch. By the time Scott and I got to talk to her, she knew that I was at Campbell Law School, that Scott was commuting back and forth to Wilmington until he could find something closer, she knew that our Dalmatian was seven years old and suffered from arthritis.
You’re probably thinking that she could have easily gotten the aforementioned information by speaking to other folks who had already met us, but we hadn’t met a single soul. To this very day, I am completely stumped at how Miss Edie Pie got her deets. Having such an amazing hawk eye living next door to us could have made for three miserable years, but she was awesome and a total hoot.
The only hiccup occurred when it came to her husband, Melvin. It was clear that Miss Edie Pie loved her Melvin very much and that she missed her Melvin very much. The fact that she consistently talked about Melvin in the past tense—in addition to the fact that we never saw anyone else at the house—lead us to believe that Melvin had gone on to the Great Beyond. Imagine our surprise while Scott was working in the yard one day when an elderly gentleman came up and introduced himself as the late, great Melvin.
We quickly realized why Miss Edie Pie didn’t let him out much: Melvin was a talker and he had a whole passel of stories about his courtship of Miss Edie Pie in addition to other matters Scott probably would have preferred to not know.
To Melvin and Miss Edie Pie: The sharpest knives in the drawer and the biggest front porch I’ve ever seen. If the CIA never attempted to recruit the two of you, it was their catastrophic loss.