It's the early stages of my favorite season in St. Louis: just after early spring, but before summer's dog days comes porch-sitting season, when I try to spend some time every day in idle, outdoor contemplation. I come from the real South (not this weirdo sorta-Southernness that Yankees are forever trying to enforce on poor St. Louis), so it's hard-wired in me that just about any time of year could be good for porch sittin', but meteorological reality being what it is, we're right in the thick of the Midwest's ideal time.
Porch sitting is particularly rewarding in old, urban neighborhoods, where the density yields enough interactions to provide a constantly unfolding show. In my neighborhood in particular, I still marvel at the number of houses to either side of me (and across the street) that fall within earshot. On a still night, what teenagers six doors down imagine to be private moments of angst drift right up to me, on my second-story front balcony, with such clarity that I have to try hard not to snort derisively. (Yep, I'm now so old that the trials of teenagers make me roll my eyes.)
Porch sitting is a way of being neighborly that doesn't take a lot of effort neighborly being just another form of nosiness, after all. Sit long enough out front or out back, and you'll know soon enough who goes to church and who doesn't, who can't live without Ted Drewes every single summer night (that'd be me), who lets their dog poop in everyone else's yard, who is an expert parallel parker, who's surgically attached to her cell phone, who entertains the ladies late into the night. My vantage point a large balcony off the front of our brick, two-family flat allows me a lot of discretion, since I'm above eye-level for folks walking on the sidewalk or to and from their cars; I get to see people in unguarded moments.
The allure of watching the world go by my front porch is the same appeal that long airport layovers used to hold for me, before the ever-tightening noose of security excluded all but passengers from the gates. I used to love time spent in an airport, where it seemed every possible emotion on the spectrum of human behavior could be found, given enough time. Women and men crying at the prospect of separation, parents and children overjoyed at the moment of reunion the airport had it all. So, on a more local scale, does my streetscape.
A few days ago, standing on my back porch when I got home from work, I listened to what developed into an hours-long conversation between a neighbor and her boyfriend, one which murmured along for a while, then rose to a heated pitch, then subsided and started all over again. At one of the more emotional parts, the man lashed out that his girlfriend had done something or other (that part was mumbled), then at top volume, "all so you could go and [have carnal knowledge of] some other guy. Damn, baby, that shit hurts!" It stopped me in my tracks, that raw outburst, and I slunk back into my kitchen, not wanting to hear the rest.
It's not always tragedy, though: I sat as near as I could to motionless one evening earlier this spring when the kids walking from a house down the street to the girl's car pressed themselves against it and kissed madly for several minutes under the streetlight. I had all our pets gathered around me that night for warmth, and I was sure that, at any moment, something would set the dogs barking and I'd be found out for the voyeur I was.
Two years ago, I got so addicted to porch sitting that I prolonged the season far into the fall, and kept dragging out more accoutrements: a gooseneck lamp that I plugged in under the screen door, tiki torches lashed to either end of the balcony for warmth and a quilt my grandma made that weighs about a thousand pounds. I sat outside for hours reading until it got too cold, even with just my head poking out.
This year, I think I'll return to the simple setup: no artificial light beyond the streetlight, and no lofty goals like reading the Great Works or writing deep missives. Instead, I'll just watch the life of my street, my little part of the city, and take note of its ebb and flow. I'll try to keep the dogs from picking fights with other dogs two stories below them. Eventually the heat and humidity and mosquitoes will make porch sitting miserable for a time, and damn, baby, that does hurt. So enjoy it while it lasts.