This country just hasn’t been the same since: 1. Porches became little patches of pavement, and 2. The government made us put those dopey deadman switches on all the lawn mowers. Right now, we’ll deal with porches. We’ll leave the lawn mower thing for later. (And I will come back to it.)
Time was, most houses had a great, big front porch. The porch was where the children played; the mamas, grandmas and aunts shelled the peas; young couples courted; and the husbands and wives could get away for a few minutes in the evening without abandoning the children sleeping inside. Porches were more than that, though. They were subtle transitions from the house to the rest of creationthe reviewing stand for the ongoing neighborhood parade, the observatory with a framed view of heaven.
When new people moved into a neighborhood, all they had to do was take a walk, and pretty soon, they’d find themselves invited up onto a neighbor’s porch for a visit. Spontaneity is good. Calling ahead to make a reservation takes a lot of the fun out of visiting. Like Woody Allen said, 90 percent of life is just showing up. Porches gave people more chances just to show up.
Take the porch away, put a rude little concrete platform in its place, stick an automatic garage door and a backyard deck on a house, and you sever some connections among neighbors. In porch-less suburbs, you see the neighbors’ garage door go up and down, you see their cars come and go, you see their lights click on and off, but you don’t see any real enough neighbors. Just scale-model Lego-town neighbors. There’s something mighty uncivilizing about that. Consider this: There is not one decent porch in all of New York City.
A few months ago, we met our daughter’s first pet on our front porch. A giant black-all-over cat (gums, footpads and all) wandered up onto our porch and started rubbing up against the family legs. I tried to ignore it. Most days, the cat would bring a fresh-killed squirrel up onto the porch and eat everything but the tail. Wife Brenda and daughter Jess started feeding him, and Brenda built him a little cardboard-box-and-blankets bed behind the porch swing. The cat still caught squirrels, but he started leaving the entrails. After a few weeks of regular cat food, he would leave the head, feet and all internal organs. The cat started sneaking in the front door, like a thieving gypsy. I’d toss him back out on the doormat. My experience says a cat in the house guarantees frequent allergy attacks, picking hair off my favorite chair with duct tape, and cussing over clawed-up furniture.
Brenda and Jess started letting the cat stay inside when I wasn’t home. Pretty soon, the cat had a name. He was Misstoffelees, named after the dancing black pussycat that sets up the big whiny finish for the play Cats.
Misstoffelees didn’t make me sneeze. He didn’t shed. He didn’t shred furniture. Best of all, he kept the car-scratching neighbor cats out of my yard. Brenda went to Target and got a litter box and a scratching post/perch for our mudroom. Misstoffelees had a Christmas stocking. He got a collar with a bell, and some toys. He started sleeping at the foot of Jess’ bed.
He was in.
But wouldn’t you know, last week, a neighbor rang the doorbell at 9:30 p.m., after visiting hours. Jogger neighbor Jay delivered the bad news to Brenda: Misstoffelees was mashed flat in the road in front of our house. Brenda dutifully collected him and wrapped him up. Then she woke me up. I went out in the cold rain and planted Misstoffelees under the hornbeam tree in the back of our garden. My wretched pet luck persists, and I’ve now buried my first loyal small-mammal buddy in Nashville.
Misstoffelees was an extra-good cat, and I’m proud to have known him. Without the front porch, he would never have made it into our house. Our porch visits gave us a chance to look him over, warm up to him, run a character check. We had ourselves a little courtship before we said, “I do.” Slow and easy is the natural way to do things. Even the Big Bang didn’t happen all at once; you can still hear the sizzle.
If you see us in the porch swing, wave.
Walter Jowers can be reached at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com