Masterpaint theater: front porch, back porch

`IT'S supposed to be nice this weekend,'' my wife said the other day. She's not usually given to meteorological observation. I waited to see what was coming. ``We should probably paint the front porch.''

She made it sound easy - the way you might say, ``We ought to run downtown for the paper.'' Our house, however, has what can only be described as a generic Maine front porch - as wide as the building itself, deep enough to store two canoes side by side, and glassed all around with 15 large, two-paned, wooden-framed windows. I know. I counted.

There was no getting around it: She was right. The inside was merely drab, the way paint gets after years of dust and cobwebs. But the outside was a shambles on the way to becoming a disgrace. The once-white trim was grayed with age - peeling and flaked where the afternoon sun baked it, and weathered down to unprotected wood where the snow had lodged all winter along the window ledges.

Such putty as had survived lay cracked and rutted, curling away from the glass in rock-hard strips or clinging in corners with desperate, chisel-confounding malice. The screens looked as though they had last seen whitewash during the Depression, and one of the panes was broken.

So with the Saturday dew still on the lilacs, I got out paint and brushes - and the putty knife, the assorted bits of sandpaper, the paint scrapers (two), the straight-edged razor blades (left over from wallpapering), four screwdrivers (just in case), the hammer (to add persuasion to the screwdrivers), and two ladders (for effect). Marshaling them in the front yard, I settled down for that solitary, long-distance sail that house painting always becomes.

As it happens, I rather enjoy painting. It's a bit like driving: It demands enough concentration to forestall deep logic but leaves enough space to let the mind wander among its intuitions. But I did begin to wonder whether the generic Maine porch wasn't perhaps an idea whose time had come and gone. We had a private deck out the back. Would we really get much use from this public one? Besides, it was a beautifully cool, sunny day: For all that I was content to be outdoors, I felt slightly trapped, cut off from the wakening bustle of a small-town Saturday.

``Looking good!''

I squinted toward the sidewalk at the familiar voice. They had paused on their walk downtown, the couple and their children from a few doors up the hill. Any port in a storm, I thought, climbing down to chat for a moment on the edge of the lawn. They were on their way to breakfast, and we talked about the virtues of hired painters until the children, hot on the scent of cinnamon buns, tugged irresistibly on the leash of parental responsibility. I went back to the irresponsible putty.

Before long I heard a car idling in the street. ``You're working pretty hard, stranger,'' called the passenger. She'd just returned with her husband for the summer from the South; my wife had helped them pack up last fall, and my daughter had agreed to baby-sit for the one thing they dared not put in storage, a sprawling black teddy bear about the size of Monhegan Island. The three of us chatted in the sunlight about the virtues of maintenance-free dwellings until we felt embarrassed at how much work I wasn't getting done.

By noon the project was developing a certain rhythm - and I was beginning to notice that working on a generic Maine porch was hardly solitary. The dogs came in and out. Several folks I hardly knew waved and spoke as they walked past. A friend returned some sheets she had borrowed for a surge of weekend houseguests. My daughter's friends came by, chatting amicably as they hopped over the tools and went inside. A neighbor offered his power sander; several pickup trucks honked on their way to the dump; a couple I hadn't seen since a late-evening dog-walk after the last blizzard paused as they were strolling home.

And that, I thought as I cleaned up the tools, is what front porches are all about. I'd always thought of them as places to sit ``of an evening'' (as they say in these parts) and watch the world pass by. They are. But they're something more. They're places to sit and be seen.

To our privacy-craving age that sounds strange, almost immodest. Yet that's what builds a sense of community - that willingness not only to see but to be seen. Too often, trapped in our busy shells of aloofness, we think of front porches only as places where the nosy keep their unsleeping vigil over a world of gossip. Sometimes they are. But they're also for those who, by the very act of sitting there so publicly, invite conversation with the passers-by - who as much as say, ``I'm not thinking anything that can't wait: Come share an intuition.''

And what are communities, after all, but sets of shared intuitions? Man cannot live - not, at least, in small-town Maine - by back porches alone.

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