A writer and French Quarter tour guide discovers a time-tested culture where small pleasures bring great satisfaction.
- by Glennis Waterman
Whether it’s an elegant, wrap-around veranda, a simple gabled entryway or a humble stoop in front of a shotgun house, the front porch is so integral to New Orleans life that architects and planners involved in post-Hurricane Katrina recovery dubbed the term “front-porch culture” to emphasize its importance.
While hunkering down during the COVID19 crisis, I spend a lot of time on my front porch. I live in the Bywater, about a mile from the French Quarter and three blocks from the Mississippi. The area was developed in the antebellum days as riverfront plantation owners divided their properties and sold off small parcels to working class immigrants. My neighborhood is a mix of Creole cottages, shotgun doubles and early 20th century bungalows. My house is one of the latter - a Craftsman bungalow with a deep front porch, flanked by Doric columns.
Since March 22, when the state of Louisiana declared a “Stay at home” lockdown, I’ve spent my days sitting in a turquoise plastic chair on this porch. My house faces east, so the early morning sun streams in through the stained glass of my front door, splashing crimson across my living room. By the time I make coffee and butter my toast, the sun has risen high enough for me to sit in a shady corner while enjoying the sun on my bare toes.
The weather this spring has been heartbreakingly beautiful. I watch the play of clouds against the sky. The air smells of citrus blossom and jasmine, or of sun-warmed concrete suddenly rain-wet. Mockingbirds and cardinals sing sweetly while balancing on power lines, and swallows dive-bomb the crows atop the magnolia trees. I sometimes wonder if the universe has decided to give us this gift while we endure the crisis; other times I wonder if it’s taunting us for having ignored its beauty in our earlier, too-busy lives.
My house is what we call a “double” in New Orleans – two mirror-image units under one roof. My immediate neighbor is a woman about my age, Lanie. Her best friend lives across the street with her partner. Though our front porch has become a shared social space, I spend a lot of time out there by myself, in my turquoise chair, reading and watching people.
Now I’m home all day, I’ve learned my neighbors’ routines. Mo, an artist who lives in the next block, makes a daily pilgrimage to the corner store on St. Claude. She is impossibly skinny, almost emaciated, and the only time I’ve seen her wear shoes on her callused feet was during a prolonged cold snap two years ago. She stops by to offer a handful of parsley from her garden, or to share a tale.
A lot of people have dogs. There’s a stumpy-legged basset mix named Watson, Murphy, a St. Bernard, several pit bulls, little terriers in rhinestone collars and a teeny-tiny black chihuahua whose owner is a large and imposing man, whose face blooms with a sweet smile when I admire his dog. There are bike riders, dads with their kids in tow; one boy wears a helmet with a spiky red mohawk.
I’ve also come to know the postal carriers, and delivery workers from Fed Ex, Amazon and UPS. Handymen and yardmen drive by in pickup trucks hauling two-by-fours and mowers; an ice cream truck bleats its electronic song. The trash collectors shout and catcall as they leap on and off the truck and choreograph intricate ballets, spinning the trash bins.
COVID has inspired many gardeners, and Lanie is one of them. In a small plot about the size of an area rug, she’s planted bright begonias and caladiums. A purple-flowered buddleia attracts monarch butterflies. On the broad front steps leading to our porch is an array of potted flowers, herbs, and vegetables – a vigorous tomato plant threatens to take over my side. Passersby admire the flowers, and then, when they see me, compliment their beauty. I thank them on Lanie’s behalf. On her side, a Cajun hibiscus flaunts its huge ruffled flowers. On mine, deep violet petunias are white-spangled like a constellation of little stars.
Directly across is a family with three kids. Each morning I watch the mom, baby on one hip, wrangle the two toddlers – a flaxen haired little girl and a sturdy boy - into a stroller for their morning walk. On the river side of our house, there’s a family with a seven-month-old girl. In the next block, a newborn, and down on the corner is another baby. Some mornings, I can hear babies crying from three directions.
Ryan and Jason live in the gray house, and next to them are a couple from Colorado. On my side, toward the lake, is a couple who just moved here from Brooklyn the week the lockdown started. How strange it must be, to move into a new city at the brink of a shutdown. Yet they’ve been welcomed into the universe of our block in a way that might not have happened under “normal” life.
Front porches can look like performance stages. My neighbor Dave plays his guitar Friday nights on his. Everyone comes out to listen. A couple of Dave’s friends from uptown brought folding chairs to sit on the sidewalk. Mo stopped on her way back from the corner store, and Ryan put out a chair for her. Dave’s wife gave us all homemade cookies.
By the end of the 20th Century, many Americans abandoned their front porches, perhaps due to the advent of air-conditioning and TV. But here in the South, especially New Orleans, porches continue to be a vital part of life. The urban planning activist Jane Jacobs writes how front stoop sitting allows for “eyes on the street,” which helps keep neighborhoods safe from crime. New Orleans writer Chris Rose wrote that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "if you went out on your front porch and popped open a beer or brought out a cup of coffee, inevitably, people would begin to gather.”
The front porch is featured in works by many Southern authors such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers as a place where family stories and secrets are revealed. It is also a space where people could conduct domestic business in comfort and civility without violating accepted boundaries of class or race. Where visitors feel welcome even while excluded from the intimate home.
This liminality is particularly important now, during the COVID crisis. While no one expects to be invited indoors these days, you can visit friends on their porch. Here in New Orleans, we conduct a kind of peripatetic Happy Hour, cocktail in a go-cup, maintaining social distancing from the sidewalk.
I am a lucky person – healthy, retired, with a secure income. I don’t have to worry about a job, or how to feed myself. My family – though in distant cities – are in safe circumstances. But there have been moments during the lockdown when I’ve experienced deep despair, fear and sorrow. Such moments often come before sleep, when I’m alone and wondering how long before I’ll ever feel another human being’s touch again.
Yet in the morning, the bright splash of crimson sunlight moves across the floor; the coffee maker steams, and I take my cup out on the porch. Across the street, the little girl squeals and her brother rides his scooter. Leslie from up the block walks by, a broad-brimmed straw hat on her head and an orange bandana as a mask. A train whistles from down by the levee, and a monarch butterfly flickers in the air before alighting on a spray of deep purple buddleia.
We’ll be okay. We can wait this thing out.
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Glennis Waterman came to New Orleans in 2015 and never looked back. After a long career in professional theatre production in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and on the road, she retired. A self-described history geek, she now works as a licensed tour guide for the City of New Orleans. She is a recent MFA graduate of the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans.
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