Columns

Charity’s column: All is well and happening on a Shelter Island porch

I got Type A influenza in February, and although I was very glad to learn that the virus that caused my temperature to soar, my joints to ache, and my cough to hack was not of the corona variety, I still had to self-quarantine for a week and persuade close friends and relatives to take a round of Tamiflu just in case.

It gave me plenty of time to wonder, feverishly, how I would endure if COVID-19 entered my world.

I think as long as I can sit on a porch, I’ll be O.K.

A porch is a liminal space between the inner sanctum of home and the world; a place where a package can be left out of sight of the street, where a bill can be discreetly hung on the doorknob, or an envelope wedged between the storm and front doors. Where I can sit in a chair facing the street to observe, and where neighbors out walking their dogs can find me. My front porch is a post office box, a coffee shop where I am generally the only one being served, and the catbird seat.

Handwashing (lots of soap while singing “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” twice) is now my time for reflection, and on the second chorus — “I’ve a Yankee Doodle sweetheart, she is my Yankee Doodle joy!” — it occurred to me that my porch may be a valuable social-distancing device in a time of contagion. Seated in a bottom-pinching, thickly padded wicker chair, I wave down my neighbors and passersby. We exchange gossip, offer updates on the local fox, and the eight-point buck who swam across Chase Creek last October. We speculate on whether the guy around the corner will keep chickens again this year, and on the status of the feral cat population, all excellent ways to safely and satisfyingly socialize at a distance of more than 4 feet.

There are many good uses of a porch, but they have come in for a lot of criticism lately as a place to receive mail. Some homeowners even install cameras to keep an eye on nefarious porch activity, which is often perpetrated by squirrels and raccoons. I like the convenience and friendliness of mail delivered right to my porch, and many local businesses will happily comply, although it can complicate bill-paying.

For all of January and February, we had plenty of hot water for the shower and a reliable flame on the stove, so I knew we had received a propane delivery. What we did not have was an invoice, which generally gets hung on the front door. I found part of a wind-shredded envelope on the porch, but the part with amount due was missing until, coming up the stairs to the yard, I heaved the cellar door open and spied a flash of white in the bushes — the errant gas bill had been blown off the porch by a storm and wedged in the quince. I found (enough of) my gas bill to be able to pay it, and that’s what counts.

A porch can also be a community garden. My neighbor Melanie keeps herbs on her porch during the summer, when she and her husband Dave enjoy weekends that consist largely of reading on the porch, and looking up occasionally to admire Chase Creek and wave at passing neighbors. Occasionally, their enormous cat ventures off their porch (on a leash) and inspects the foundation plantings.

One fall weekend, when they were too busy getting things buttoned down for the winter to sit on the porch, Melanie asked if I’d like to drop by anytime to glean whatever I wanted from a pot of basil that had achieved tropical heights and leaves that could wrap a cigar. I got there on a Tuesday at dusk when they were not home, and stepped onto the porch with a pair of garden snippers in one hand and a large trash bag in the other to remove several pounds of basil leaves (it freezes well.)

I was eyeing the thyme but figured I’d better stop gleaning in case the next-door neighbor Bill didn’t recognize me skulking around in the dark with a sharpened object and a bulging black trash bag. I could end up in the police blotter.

For a place with very few sidewalks, Shelter Island houses have a surprising number of porches. Architect Carol Karasek, who pays attention to this, told me that often the traditional gable-front farm houses and most of the Victorians have porches as well as many of the “between the wars” precut bungalow-style houses from Sears and Aladdin.

Throughout our history, porches played an important role in attracting summer visitors, as one of the major draws of The Chequit, The Pridwin, Peconic Lodge, and The Manhansett House. which used the fancy Italian term “piazza” to lure well-heeled visitors to sheltered gathering spaces on this sheltered island.

The Baldwin Road home of Colleen Smith and Frank Emmett has a porch that they consider the best room in the house.

“It’s made for watching life go by on the street,” Colleen said. “Our neighbors sit out on their deck and we sit out on our porch and it makes you feel really good.”

Frank said one Halloween so many kids came down the block after the parade in the Center that they went through 240 bags of treats. When the school band, practicing for the Memorial Day Parade, marched around the block, neighbors came out to enjoy the show from their porches. In summer it’s the extra bedroom preferred by savvy guests, and for three seasons, a dining room where they serve appetizers.

On an early March morning Frank and Colleen’s porch was a glorious reviewing platform for the parade of bulbs and buds, which I enjoyed while keeping a hygenic 4 feet away. Colleen brought out five geraniums over-wintering inside, for the official opening. The 2020 Porch Season has begun.