The other day I overheard a student in my school shouting down the hallway to someone: "I'll leave the envelope out on my stoop!"
I immediately went up to her and asked what part of New York or New Jersey she was from. She looked surprised. "How did you know?" she asked, and then identified Brooklyn as her childhood home.
It was the word "stoop" that gave her away. I've been living in Maine for 18 years now, and it has occurred to me that people up here don't say "stoop." They say "steps" or "porch." I immediately made the rounds of transplanted friends from Texas, Minnesota, California, and Georgia, confronting them with the query, "What's a 'stoop'?"
All of them drew a blank. The Texan's innocent response was, "A dull-witted person?"
That was it, then. The stoop, or stairs, leading to the front door of a home, seemed to be the purview of people like me who grew up in the greater New York metropolitan area. It made me wonder how many times I had said "stoop," only to confuse the Mainers I was talking to.
Ah, the stoop. It wasn't just a set of concrete, stone, or brick steps fronting a house. It was a royal court where so much of my urban New Jersey neighborhood's business was conducted. It was the throne upon which Mabel Churney sat in her faded housedress, day after summer day, sipping iced tea, perched for an opportunity to report wayward kids to their parents.
It was where we played "stoop ball," bouncing a rubber ball off the steps to "fielders" in the street beyond. It was the quiet sanctum of my boyhood where, on early July mornings, I would sit and read "Archie" comic books while languidly chewing a box of Mike 'n' Ikes, waiting for my friends to emerge and join me.
Where on earth did this word originate? Did it come from the steps that constitute the stoop? Or was it derived from the image of someone stooping down to pick up the morning paper? My dictionary doesn't help. It states, simply and directly, that a stoop is "a porch, platform, entrance stairway, or small veranda at a house door."
This cannot, and never will, do the stoop justice. It does not take into account the central role of the stoop in the urban neighborhood, especially on hot summer evenings before air conditioning was looked upon as a necessity.
Congregating on the stoop was a social function that brought pleasures no dictionary's terse prose can appreciate.
Picture my neighborhood. Brick, shingled, and clapboard houses standing shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides of the street. No two homes exactly alike.
But all of them were fronted by a stoop that extended like a vast lap, bidding one to stay a while, sit for a chat, and observe and comment on the passing parade.
The stoop of my boyhood home was flanked by concrete balustrades, each of them crowned with a large cement urn in which grew and thrived my mother's sedum with its bright red blossoms.
Such decoration lent dignity to the modest home of a lower-middle-class family in those days.
It also gave our stoop a kind of regal flourish, befitting for those who felt inclined to hold forth on neighborhood politics, or for those who just wanted a friendly place to sit and rest.
Once, when I was 7 or so, I spotted a stranger, an old man, reposing there and ran back through the door to tell my mother. She took a peek, shrugged, and went back to her work. When I returned to the door, the man was gone, having taken his pause.
I wonder if they still build houses with stoops. I doubt it.
The trend, after all, has been for people to put more space between one another, rather than gather in such blatantly public places. In this light, the deck has replaced the stoop, and rather than being in front of the house, it is hidden around back, where no one but the inhabitants have routine access to it.
This is a loss and a lonely thing.
I think that even the solitary but companionable Thoreau, if he were with us today, would prefer the stoop to the deck.
These thoughts have been on my mind for quite some time now. So much so that when I went out to get the paper today at first light, I detoured around to the front of my house to take a look at my own situation.
There, flush up against the front door, was that single, modest brick slab, a mere pallet designed only for lifting a person through the door.
Nevertheless, I sat there, in the dim morning light and in the cold.
I closed my eyes, and I suddenly saw my family gathered there, and my relatives and friends, all laughing, telling stories, and sighing with pleasure at the relief afforded by the tentative summer breeze.
I gave a start. It was my teenage son, fresh out of bed, calling from inside the house.
"Dad! Where are you?"
Pulling myself together and closing my collar against the cold, I shouted back, "I'm out on the stoop!"
You'll never know how good it felt to say that again.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society