Porches and the vocabulary of liminal spaces

Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost wrote. On a family visit to South Carolina late last month, I was reminded that good porches make good neighbors, too.

On a perfect spring evening, warm and uncharacteristically unsticky, it occurred to us that the perfect place to adjourn to after dinner was not the living room, but the front porch of the grandparents' renovated gingerbread Victorian. And so we went out to sit and rock and swing and chat and keep an eye on the passing scene. It was a connection with the neighborhood we wouldn't have made had we stayed inside or gone out into the backyard.

A porch is an example of what sociologists, artists, and other students of human behavior call a "liminal space" - a transitional space, in this case, between the private space of the home and the public space of the street. A table at a sidewalk cafe has a similar dual identity. So, on a larger scale, does an airport: Once there, one has left home but not yet really embarked on one's trip.

A porch may conjure up notions of comfortable sociability and relaxation, but the word is cousin to "port" - as in harbor, as in gate; as in door; as in porter, in the sense of gatekeeper. "Portal" is another member of this family, a fancy Latin-derived term that has found new life in the age of the Internet. Not long ago it usually referred to a grand and imposing entrance to a building. Nowadays it's more often a website positioning itself as an entrance to other sites on the Internet. Note how the "gatekeeper" function lives on in cyberspace.

Another relative, in a more distant branch of the family, is "portcullis," the heavy metal (in the original sense of that phrase) grate that can be let down to close off the entrance of a medieval castle. Porches may be about opening up; a portcullis is definitely about closing down.

The porch of the old South has a conceptual relative in the big cities of the Northeast: the stoop. This is a Dutch-derived term that worked its way into North American English. Seldom does a stoop have much in the way of seating options, and "kids hanging out on the stoop" may suggest a less positive experience than porch-sitting.

But there is a connection between the two, and it has been made by (among others) Frank Dmuchowski, a proud son of Brooklyn, in an essay posted online. Describing the role of "the Stoop" in the life of a very small child, he writes:

"When you were old enough to go solo from your apartment, the Stoop provided a safe haven from which to venture onto the sidewalk and to the world. You were not able to stray too far from the safety of the Stoop's harbor until you clearly demonstrated mastery of the skills needed to navigate the sidewalk. You were watched and closely supervised, not only by members of your own family, but also by both neighbor adults and older kids on the block."

The feature of the postwar suburban subdivision in which I grew up that came closest to Dmuchowski's stoop was, oddly, the grape-stake fences enclosing our backyards. "Privacy" was an important concept in those days, for the adults, anyway. For us kids, though, growing up with no climbing trees to speak of, the fences provided an outlet for our exploratory urges. The upper horizontal rails - maybe about six feet off the ground, flat, and easily wide enough for our little feet - made for elevated pathways that let us go from one backyard to another. The fences thus made for what homeland security experts call a "porous border."

What had been built to close us in ended up connecting us.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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