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Nonfiction: Daddy's Front Porch


Bill was on the steps with the kids. Their Mama sat on the swing fanning herself with the newspaper. Across the street a girl in the neighborhood skated up and down the sidewalk on one roller skate. The lights on the block were just beginning to be turned on… —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Porches are as synonymous with American culture as apple pie. While not unknown in colonial times, they rose to nationwide popularity in the decades before the Civil War, and remained in fashion for almost one hundred years. Ironically, the very social and technological forces that made them both popular and possible were eventually responsible for their decline. —Renee Kahn, Pre-serving Porches

On lazy, boring, humid Chicago summer nights, the porch embraced us. With nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be, we lingered in happiness. Two, sometimes three, generations.

Daddy: Y'all kids need to bring the fan on the porch. Get a long extension cord. Plug it inside the socket by the door. Blow some kind of breeze on you.

Cousin Tammy: Uncle Julius, that don't make any sense. We need air conditioning.

Daddy: Give me some air conditioning cash, Miss Money Bags!

Cousin Beverly: It is hot, hot, Uncle Julius.

Me: Maybe it's too hot to be sitting on the porch.

Daddy: It's too hot to be inside, Jackie. That's heat stroke weather in the house.

All summer, every summer, every step covered. Full to capacity. Cousin after cousin after cousin baking on Daddy's front porch. No tan lines. The sun smiled on the back of the house. Only hot air blew our way. Mornings and afternoons, we sipped cherry Kool-Aid and coated our tongues with grape popsicles from the fridge. When the musical sound of the ice cream truck arrived, we rushed to the curb, stood in line, and emptied the pennies from our pockets. In the evenings, we slapped off mosquitoes and flies, licking orange dreamsicles, creamy chocolate fudgesicles, and ice cream sandwiches. We talked about everything. We talked about nothing. What I remember most is how we giggled. How kids do when they are having fun. A gut wrenching smile. A natural state of being. Summers on the porch on Clyde Avenue on the city's South Side. Full of laughter. Daddy made it so. He grinned so radiantly, neighbors chatted "that Julius is a good looking man. Always working in the yard. Taking care of his home."

Sitting on the porch at my father's house, we absorbed it all. Unscripted, raw entertainment. A juke joint, after-hours comedy club, go-to-spot for a laugh, controversy. Daddy commented on any subject sitting on the tip of his tongue and everyone passing by.

Daddy: That's why she got eight kids. Woman got no business wearing pants that tight.

Brother Tyrone: And you ain't got no business looking.

Brother Robert: He ain't the only one looking. Eight kids. Eight Mama's daddies.

Sister Suzanne: Y'all need to stop it.

Me: Let's go inside and watch TV.

Daddy: Girl, this is reality TV. Right here on the front porch.

Three girls with nappy heads skip by.

Daddy: They Mama ain't about nothing. Them girls be out here all day and night. Clothes raggedy. Hair uncombed. Pitiful!

On both sides of this declining South Shore neighborhood street are elderly brick, single- family homes. Clyde Avenue was once crime free. Kids could roam the block all day and night safely in my high school days. Gradually, that comfort disappeared. For years Daddy has kept a "pistol" …just in case.

A high school friend stops over to say goodbye.

Daddy: That girl ain't going to find no husband in college that's for sure.

Me: Why you say that?

Daddy: Hell, as ugly as she is.

Me: You need to stop talking about people. My friend is not ugly. She's nice.

Daddy: She may be nice, but she still ugly.

"Magical" is how the authors of the book, On the Porch: Creating Your Place to Watch the World Go By, described the front porch.

It slows you down, tells you to take some time, to read the paper, to sip a glass of iced tea, to watch the weather roll in.

We did it all! On rainy, stormy days, we dried out under the porch roof as Mother Nature cleaned the steps. On brisk fall and spring days, too. Leaves changed colors, flowers burst out of their winter beds; we grasped at snowflakes, munched on them and ran to the side of the porch to make yellow flakes.

I guess every home has one magnetic gathering spot. The place holding memories of days of lost youth, stolen teenage kisses and childhood secrets. The front porch: A special place for mothers and fathers, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, visiting grandparents, and neighbors. A slice of American pie while we mingled and talked story.

In many ways, the front porch represented the American ideal of family. The porch, in essence, was an outdoor living room, where the family could retire after the activities of a long day.

Conversations with Daddy created the magical presence of home sweet home. The porch became one of us. Another character. An old friend on the block.

A cartoon story book is how the view from the porch looked on days when nothing but dozens of kids played outside. Often porch seating would be limited. First come, first seated. Everyone knew this. On jump rope weekends, the "L" girls, who lived four porches down on the left, got their pigtails braided early. By noon, the Double Dutch marathon started.

Girl #1: Just jump in whenever you ready.

Girl #2: I can't run in. I need to get inside the rope first. Then you can turn.

Daddy: Oh, girl, you can't jump no rope. Stop being a scary cat and run in. You can do it.

Cousin Erica: Be quiet, Uncle Julius. You can't jump at all.

Daddy: Leave me alone, little girl. I'm just trying to help.

From one porch to the next, hopscotch drawings covered the sidewalks. Kids roller bladed, flying high in the air on curb jumps. Boys played street basketball with an imaginary net, keeping score with loud cheers and applause from porch spectators. I always screamed at the top of my lungs to let my brothers win.

On Daddy's turf, anything went. The porch invited everyone to sit and chat. Despite my father's candid remarks—no politically correct toes to step over.

Whenever this "sissy fellow," the name Daddy gave him, would leave Mr. X's house, one of the Clyde Avenue originals, Daddy told whoever would listen, his theory about the block's new guest seen visiting the recently widowed Mr. X.

Daddy: Shame that man lived all that time with that woman and is as gay as the day is long.

Mother: Stop it, Julius! Let you tell it, every man is gay but you.

Daddy: Hush, woman. Mr. X is gay. That man done moved in with him. Think he was coming around before Mrs. X died.

At Mr. X's funeral, his boyfriend, as Daddy called him, leaned in Mr. X's coffin and kissed him smack dead in the middle of his lips. Mr. X's son went Leroy Bad on him.

"Man, what the hell you kissing my daddy on the lips for?" is what the block regulars quoted the son as saying. When the story made its way to Daddy's front porch, he let everyone know, "I told you so."

We porch talked during five of the twenty years when one man ruled the country's second largest city at the time.

Me: Daddy, is Mayor Daley always going to be the mayor?

Daddy: Sho looks that way. White folks keep voting him in office.

Richard Daley was mayor of Chicago for six terms. From 1953 until 1976 when he died from a heart attack. Daddy got it all wrong though about white folks keeping him in office. Blacks rallied strong behind Daley. Enough to push him to the top in his two closest elections. But black Democratic politicians turned on Daley just hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Daley issued a shoot-to-kill order in the wake of riots and looting on the city's West Side.

Seldom did we sidestep the sights walking up and down the block. People, noises (screeching tires, sirens, horns, screaming mothers, soul music) and gossip usually dictated our conversations. We also couldn't ignore the political history we witnessed in those idle, watching years spent on Clyde Avenue.

Daddy: These streets be a lot cleaner if Harold Washington hadn't died.

Me: You went to his funeral didn't you, Daddy?

Daddy: Yeah, I stood in line to say goodbye. Chicago ain't gonna get another black mayor. Washington was it.

Harold Washington was mayor from 1983 to 1987. His time was cut short by a massive heart attack. Washington collapsed at his desk in City Hall on November 25, 1987. He was sixty-five years old. His honesty on race and politics reminded me of my father.

A newspaper quote from Washington on the day he was reelected brought his significance to the front porch for me.

"Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Daddy: Harold should have laid off some of that pork. All that greasy food will send you to your grave in a heartbeat.

Washington's bio made good front porch chatter for Daddy. A black man who struggled like him, but made it. When Daddy talked about Washington, he spoke like a proud brother.

Imagine: Daddy picking up the paper off the porch on the morning after Washington won the Democratic primary in 1983. The headline read like a victory for all southern black men with memories of the Jim Crow days. I can see him smiling from the inside-out. This is a portion of what Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko wrote:

So I told Uncle Chester: Don't worry, Harold Washington doesn't want to marry your sister.That might seem like a strange thing to have to tell somebody about the man who will be the next mayor of Chicago. I never had to tell Uncle Chester that Mayor Daley or Mayor Bilandic wouldn't marry his sister.

My dad and Washington shared a lot of facts. The paper pointed out the most glaring and I suspect the most endearing to my father.

Washington was born in an era when they still lynched people in some parts of the United States. By "lynched," I mean they took a black man out of his home, put a rope around his neck and murdered him by hanging. Then they went home to bed knowing they were untouchable because the sheriff helped pull the rope.

Washington was a politician who climbed the ladder of success one slippery step at a time. He got a GED, then went on to law school. A former Congressman who spent 36 days in jail in 1972 for tax evasion. Black folks loved him. He was about making neighborhoods better. While Washington made an impression on Daddy with his works, Barack Obama made an impression with his words.

Daddy: You won't believe who came by here today and shook my hand? That young guy running for Senate sat on the porch and talked to me for 15 minutes.

Brother Robert: Who—Barack Obama?

Daddy: Yeah. We had a good lil chat.

Brother Robert: What y'all talk about, Daddy?

Daddy: I told that boy he should run for president.

My father took enormous pride in his block. His refuge. His hard earned piece of white America. He was a Baton Rouge, Louisiana street kid who longed to be free. Sitting on the porch signified freedom for colored people back in his day. Daddy could spend hours looking at the grass. Never a yellow, brown or burnt spot. Royal green, always, until snow covered its face. An in-depth report on porches, and yes, there is one, said this:

The most striking cultural signifcance of the front porch is its connection to nature and the land surrounding it.

For many, the American dream is the home with the white picket fence. The evolution of the front porch proves it was an American cultural object as well. It fell victim, however, to changing times. After World War II, the American front porch and apple pie no longer mattered.

The primary technological change that spurred this developing abandonment of the front porch was the proliferation of the American automobile. The technological development of air conditioning further aided in the decline of the front porch.

Daddy's front porch dates back to 1915. Walking distance of several city beaches. Downtown is only a half hour drive. Prime real estate. Fifty years ago, neighbors in this formerly predominantly white neighborhood huddled as friends. Front yards stayed manicured; no missing chunks of concrete or broken windows; kids used the alley as a short cut to the next block; no nightly crime tape to tear down. Those days drifted by without any fanfare.

On a cool spring day, crime walked right up to Daddy's front porch. Two "teenage punks," as Daddy labeled them, came from behind him and demanded his car keys.

"Them niggers better be glad I didn't have my pistol on me," he said.

Pistol? Who uses that word anymore? Only my half-city-halfcountry dad, who lives alone in a neighborhood where semiautomatic guns are common household tools. On his side of town, pistols are probably sold on the same shelves as BB guns.

"Did they hit you, Daddy?" I asked.

"Nah, Jackie. I blocked their hit," he answered unconvincingly.

His physique, sadly, is no longer that of a 21-year-old. Only he is blind to this. Daddy lives on bonus time. I've seen the black and white 1953 photo of him in his twenties; his straight posture; how his confident-woman-melting smile lit up the camera lens.

My father no longer stands at full flag. He droop walks, like men in their eighties do. He is not bent over, looking at his toes when he moves, only slightly folded. He is still handsome. High cheek bones. Jet black in skin color with shades of gray sprinkled throughout his hair and mustache. He smiles like a man who would never tell a lie. My mother would be quick to yell, "he lies through his teeth."

Not everything changes. Daddy's front yard still has the same flowering tree and crisp green grass and a healthy green bush. Unfortunately, the spring tulips became too much work. Not so the maintenance free, huge, glass rocks that took their place. Daddy found what my mother tagged the "ugly looking things," years ago in an alley. Or maybe on a job while working as a scale mechanic. His growing pile of foreign items has become part of the porch's charm. The American flag he found flies on military holidays. A collection of rotating fixtures has visited the porch, including an assortment of religious statutes and artifacts. More alley pickups.

When I go home, I reminisce with a heart of joy about the old porch sitting days. We'd sing with or without the record player. On sunny, feel good weekends, we grooved to Aretha Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C-T. In the late 70s as our white neighbors were escaping city life, our isolated lives were rocking to the song Black & White by Three Dog Night. Whenever a gangster walked by, the porch crew broke out in Jim Croce's Bad, Bad Leroy Brown song. Regretfully, we had too few steps to debate a war killing black boys who were looking for college money. So, we sang and clapped to an upbeat tune about how the Vietnam War was good for absolutely nothing. To Daddy's despair, we fought the powers that be by rapping our frustrations to songs with heavy social messages and little melody.

The front porch is all Daddy's now. I no longer run up the chunky seven flight of steps in my cute cheerleading outfit, rushing in the house to fix a hot dog, only to return moments later to devour it while watching the block come back to life when the neighborhood kids returned home.

With the exception of a few, the Clyde Avenue families clung to their porches. Day and night, swapping at dozens of flying, crawling and biting insects, rehashing the latest neighborhood news. Who did what and to whom is what we talked about.

Daddy: That "K" boy was out on the porch drinking beer the other night. He only 17 or so.

Mother: Is there any gossip you don't talk about, Julius?

Porch Crew: (in unison) No, No, No, No, No…

Television didn't matter much in the era of hippies, civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate. Everyone knew everyone's steps. The bad, shaky spots. The favorite seats.

Sister Suzanne: Jackie, let me sit on the bottom ledge. You know that's where I always sit.

Me: I'll move, but you owe me!

Daddy usually sat on one of the porch ledges too. This way he could easily strike up a conversation with neighbors and put the fear of God in strangers.

If any unfamiliar kids walked by, they got the 4-1-1 drill.

Daddy: Boy, what you doing over here? Don't you live on 76th and Luella?

Boy: Yes, sir.

Daddy: Then get your black behind back on your own street. Don't come over here, starting no trouble. Keep that mess on Luella.

Daddy was surprised whenever crime visited Clyde. "That kind of stuff usually happens around 79th and Yates," he told me.

On Sundays now, Daddy sits on the porch pews. What a contrast from the past when he wanted nothing to do with the Lord's house. Growing up, Daddy sat on the front porch and waved goodbye as his wife and children left for church.

Daddy: Y'all have a good time. See you around midnight.

Mother: Funny! I expect to see you here when we get back, Julius. Have Sunday dinner ready when we get home.

Daddy: You the funny one. Y'all have fun.

Church was an all-day event for us. First, Sunday School. Afterwards, worship service, and then bible study. A relentless and unending tradition Mother never let us miss.

During our hallelujah time, Daddy was at his favorite tavern spinning records. Two-three hours of that, he came home and put on his porch sitting clothes. Khakis and an old tee shirt; holes didn't matter; neither did shoes if he wasn't going to walk around. He'd hit the stairs, center front, holding court. He would be greeted until the sun went down.

Adults passing by: Hey, Julius!

Kids passing by: Hey, Mr. McLean.

The perfect location during block parties—our house sat in the middle section. Street races could be judged fair and square when sitting on the steps. The plastic tables loaded with BBQ, hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, potato chips, also in close range. Streamers ran from one house to the next. Neighbors celebrated the end of the school year; the start of summer; relieved the winter was over.

Since the 90s, the porch has become the ideal place to duck or run inside during a drive-by. The view remained the best asset.

Daddy: We need to keep this house in the family. This a good house, good street, even if niggers around us going crazy.

And "go crazy" happened many times. The porch was where neighbors cried and remembered Mrs. P's grandson, shot dead in the alley two blocks away.

Neighbor #1: Sho gonna miss that child.

Neighbor #2: He the first one of us to be killed.

Neighbor #3: What a fine boy.

Neighbor #4: So cute. All that pretty hair.

Neighbor #5: Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Daddy: That boy was always in trouble.

Neighbor #6: Think they going to put him away at the funeral home on the corner?

Neighbor #7: Yeah, make it easy.

Daddy: I'm tell you now. Don't take me to the corner funeral parlor. Take me back home, back down south.

Mother: You better make sure your insurance policy is paid up. Otherwise, you going to be laid out right on the corner.

The porch breaks out in laughter.

By the new millennium, the laughter and conversations happened amongst a mixed generation. Only a handful of the originals stayed put. The old X family's house belongs to a new set of characters. In several other homes, the children have grown up and moved on. A few leftover parents either died or now live in nursing homes.

Sit on the porch with Daddy on a rainy day and the story of each house will be brought back to life. He knows the block's history, the scandals, and can probably find the buried bones too.

Daddy must have learned early on the value of a front porch. At his mother's shotgun house in Baton Rouge, we'd hang out on the steps there too. Grandma Lizzie's front porch also sat in the center of the block. In arm's reach of the neighborhood store. She, too, absorbed life on her porch on Myrtle Street in the state capitol of Louisiana. The front porch told it all. The same as our house.

The world, as we knew it, zoomed in, out and around us as life ticked by on the steps of Daddy's front porch on Clyde Avenue. We stepped away only to walk to the 69th Street beach, before any signs of a decaying inner city sprouted roots.

According to city data, white people started departing from the South Side in the early 60s. The city's finest hour of integration ended as the age of Aquarius faded. The neighborhood shifted back to the Black Belt. A name assigned to the South Side when blacks from the South started the Great Migration North.

Black-on-black crime became a neighbor's biggest fear in the new Black Belt. As the murder rate of black youth reached ugly numbers, part of the neighborhood was known simply as "the hood." Porches throughout South Shore sat empty with shades down. Residents in the neighborhood retreated indoors. The first visible decline of the front porch on Clyde.

Daddy: That's the second time that Lexus circled this street. Mrs. T's bad-ass boys selling dope outta that house. She know it and don't care. Hell, she probably in on it too.

Let Daddy tell it, he could spot a bad apple a mile away.

Daddy: Too many grown people living in the house on the corner that crazy Asian woman owns. Too many cars parked out front too.

Pick a day, any day, Daddy's probably out on the porch. He'll stand on the steps in the winter—looking left to the corner, then right, to the other end—quick glimpses to check on any danger. On good weather days, he's primed and ready for conversation.

He's always eager to talk about his outdoor improvements. The gigantic, clear, shiny glass rocks—almost mini boulders— came in the early 80s. Another junkyard-find along with the plastic flowers in the pots on the ledges. No one needed to worry about dying plants. Carpet arrived in the 1990s. Tacked and stapled on every step—extra carpeting Daddy rescued from dying in the alley. Beige, household carpeting on outdoor steps that never got vacuumed.

Mother: This is the worst of all foolishness.

Daddy: Make no sense to throw it out.

Sister Suzanne: But it makes sense to keep it?

Daddy: Jackie, make sure you sweep the stairs before you lock up the house?

Me: Why don't you buy a vacuum cleaner, Daddy?

Daddy: Broom just as good as a vacuum cleaner, girl. Just sweep the steps.

Later, the chores included dusting the worn out pews my minister brother threw away. It made sense to Daddy to rescue them too.

Brother Tyrone: Daddy, what you going to do with those pews? They're no good. Someone will come to the church and pick them up.

Daddy: Yeah, me!

That's the story of how Daddy got extra seating for his front porch.

Had Daddy been sitting in the pews on the day of the robbery, he would have seen "the punks" before they struck. Instead, he sat on the ledge near the bottom step with his back away from foot traffic. The criminals caught him off-guard.

Daddy has sworn he will not sit on the porch again unless he's packing his pistol. Reality TV? Season after season, on Daddy's front porch.

Nobody thought about the front porch when most Americans had them and used them. The great American porch was just there, open and sociable, an unassigned part of the house that belonged to everyone and no one, a place for family and friends to pass the time. —Davida Rochlin, Home Sweet Home

First appeared in Hawaii Review, Issue 84