On a cold and unremarkable November night about 10 years ago, I arrived from India in Knoxville, Tennessee. The first thing I noticed about my new home was its massive front porch.
Long and unfussy, it stretched along the entire width of the red-brick Craftsman bungalow. It had an old wooden floor and on one side furniture half-swallowed by shadow. More than anything, I was struck by its deep sense of ease, and how familiar it felt. I’d grown up in a small town in India, in a bungalow with a veranda not unlike this porch. Standing on it that freezing night, I suddenly felt a little less cold.
The template of the Craftsman bungalow was the British colonial bungalow in India, with its low-pitched roof, overhanging eaves, and — in my view, its most outstanding feature — a large veranda. Indeed, the very word bungalow is derived from the Bengali bangla, while veranda comes from Sanskrit (varaṇḍaka or rampart) and Latin (barra or barrier).
So this historic American Craftsman cottage in East Tennessee had semantic and architectural roots that snaked back to my home. And this handsome porch has been my refuge and mainstay. Seated with my laptop and tea, I have watched the magnolia in the garden flower into pale white fondant every spring and the fig tree’s upholstery crumple from bright green to freckled yellow in the fall. Family and friends who visit, whether from Bombay, New York, or California, adore the porch and insist on eating meals there.
Now, more than ever, during this long and anxious coronavirus crisis, I am utterly grateful for our porch.
We wave to neighbors as they walk their dogs and kids; we Zoom and FaceTime; we watch others on their porches knitting, playing guitar, painting rocks, drinking beer, Zooming and FaceTiming. It provides a sense of community in a time of social distancing. The neighborhood organization has come up with ingenious in situ porch events that astutely call for lots of cocktails. Friday evenings, neighbors perform a coordinated porch howl — for the héros de la résistance, the health workers, but also to let off steam.
You could not ask for a more perfect COVID cloister. A porch comes with an inbuilt cordon sanitaire that is both gracious and foolproof, without the prissiness of white picket. It allows you to social distance in an effortless and non-hostile way. You can stand on the porch and have a perfectly civilized conversation with a friend outside without either party having to edge backwards. Even the most cautious hand-washer isn’t averse to a porch-to-sidewalk chat. Sidewalks, in fact, are absolutely essential to this hosanna. Without them, a porch loses more than half its appeal.
Sadly, the porch has become less and less popular, since the advent of air-conditioning and television prodded people inwards. The faceless double garage door now fronts miles of suburbia. Even families that do have front porches often prefer the privacy of the backyard deck.
But now more than ever the porch is having its moment.
In the American South, with its punishingly hot summer months, the front porch has long been a source of nostalgia. Inevitably, the idea of the Southern porch evokes Gone With the Wind images of plantation mansions with columned verandas and wicker furniture. These exist, of course, but are easily outnumbered by the tens of thousands of much beloved ordinary porches — sagging boards, creaking swings, old rockers, peeling paint, etc. — fronting middle-class and working-class homes all across the South.
Porches feature in the novels of Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Agee, as well as in country music. Listen to ‘Sittin’ on the Front Porch Swing’ — the melancholy recalls the porch of Dolly Parton’s ‘dirt poor’ Smoky Mountain home, her first stage, where, as a little girl with a tin can for a microphone, she sang to a wilderness of fireflies.
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Or, as Tracy Lawrence’s hit country song ‘If the World Had a Front Porch’ puts it, the porch is the place where you can grab a nap, steal a kiss, squabble, shell pinto beans, churn ice-cream. It’s where the bulldog had her puppies — you can’t get more folksy than that.
The porch is not just a room, but a window, a bridge, a crossroads. That is its appeal. A space that is private yet open. It is something America needs to tackle COVID and other more persistent maladies.