Anderson Valley AdvertiserApril 21, 2004

Mobile, 1929

Front Porches

by Eugene Walter

In my childhood, the porch was a concept was well as a place, and people used them. Everybody would sit on their front porches shelling peas and exchanging the neighborhood gossip. Nowadays, nobody is friends with anybody. You never see anybody gossiping on the front stoop because there is no front stoop. There are no front porches. We have air-conditioning instead. And there's no neighborhood gossip because nobody knows their neighbors and everybody's watching television. And worst of all, nobody has time to shell peas anymore. But the Mobile I grew up in was a place where human relationships were all-important — before the almighty dollar had taken the place of God, and where, above all, people had time to talk and tell stories, where people grew things and had animals. The old downtown front porches were like open-air parlors.

And there was furniture: a whole world of wicker or rattan chairs and divans and tables and plant stands and swings big enough for three people. How I wish some young composer had heard, as I, the different sounds of porch swings. Everything from rattle-squeak to crunch-budge-tink. With a bass accompaniment of shuffling feet, often bare.

If my grandmother sat facing the street, that meant that she would "receive." Other ladies across the street, next door, or passing by could come up on the porch and talk to her.

"Mary Winston! Get off that hot sidewalk! Come up here and rest in the shade a minute. Want some iced tea?" my grandmother might say.

If she sat sideways, in profile to the street, it meant that you could greet her and speak to her from the sidewalk, but not come up on the porch. If she sat with her back to the street, she was invisible. It meant that she was reading the paper or hadn't done her hair yet. You wouldn't say anything to her. That was the whole downtown code. Nobody knows how it developed — that was just how it was. All the ladies were like that.

And there was a whole lady language of gestures and pantomime because ladies don't shout from across the street. I can see old Mrs. Marx passing — "I'll call you at two o'clock" — she would say without words, only gestures. There was an entire gesture language dealing with stoves, ovens, telephones, shopping, the end of yesterday's rumor. I remember Mrs. Austin appearing once in the porch of the house catty-corner from us and, after waving for attention, simply nodding vigorously. It turned out she was affirming yesterday's rumor of a pregnancy.

One of the Bayou Street favorites was the ebullient Melanie Marx, a remarkable creature of endless energy, enthusiasm, and sheer good humor. A prankster, a punster, a puncturer of pomposity. I remember, when I was very small, the first time I saw her. She had a handful of Lilliputian zinnias, a form new at the time. "Did you ever see such colors?" she cried, rushing up the front steps. I was under the swing, making something out of matchboxes. "Just look!" I hope that's the phrase engraved on her tombstone, blessed lady. "Just look!"

Miss Minnie J. Cox was another character. She always wore black, black. Black hat and a walking stick. And she always had some tale of woe. She'd come by saying, "Well, say a little prayer for Miss Minnie J. Cox." She'd tell her tale of woe, and then she'd leave to go tell the neighbors on the other side. She'd say, "Well, say a little prayer for Miss Minnie J. Cox," as she'd leave.

There was the most effective telegraphy system from porch to porch. Two Model Ts could bump in Bienville Square, and in ten minutes that news would have reached Spring Hill. Who had crashed into who in Bienville Square.

"Oooo, Miss Annie, did you hear?"

"What's that?"

"Bienville Square! Judge So-and-so ran into the back of that lawyer's new Model T, right there in Bienville Square!"

She's on her way with some fresh eggs to the lady next door, who's in bed with fever, and over the back fence she says, "Tell Miss So-and-so that Judge So-and-so busted into So-and-so's new Model T right there in Bienville Square."

Downtown to Spring Hill in ten minutes. And that's how they did hurricane news, too.

For me, every morning on the front porch was Carnival. There was a passing parade of street vendors and peddlers of all kinds pushing their wagons and carts down Conti Street. Their cries would fill the air. You have to remember there were no sounds of radio. No sounds of television. There simply was no racket. Between passing cars, a silence fell that would only be broken by certain wonderful sounds, like the cries of the street vendors.

"Got the good sweet melonnnnnnnnnnnnnnns!"

"Corn! Corn! Too sweet to eat!"

"Snap beans that snap themselves. Soft and tender!"

"Waterme-e-e-e-e-e-lonnnnnns! Ripe just right! Ripe just right!"

The oysterman came down the street with his pushcart full of ice and oysters covered by a great burlap nap that smelled part wet dog and part rowboat, an umbrella on a pole quaking over all. His cry was the best of all.

"Oy-oy-oy-oy-ster-man, manny-man, manny-man, manny-man! Get your fresh oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-sters man, manny-man, manny-man, manny-man!"

You'd hear all these cries from every direction. Gershwin did a little bit of it in Porgy and Bess. It was just heaven. We used to rush down to the curb just to hear it.

If you wanted to serve crawfish, you called some of the little po' boys in the neighborhood. Ma-Ma would call and she'd say, "Now day after tomorrow I want four dozen crawfish." Broad Street had a ditch down the middle then for the crawfish. And those po' boys would deliver them. See, everything was mixed together. I mean, people who were wealthy, people who were modestly endowed, people who were working hard, people who didn't have anything, and blacks, who were servants. They were all sort of mixed up in downtown Mobile. Miss Minnie J. Cox had a huge house on Broad Street. Sitting in this avenue of oaks, you know. Facing the ditch. And then next to her was a ship captain who wasn't anywhere near as well-off as she was. Then a block away on the other side of Spring Hill Avenue were all the tiny little houses of black servants, who only walked a couple of blocks to work. So it was all social classes and colors together. And if you wanted crawfish, you just called the little po' boys.

The lightwood man who sold pine knots for the stove and fireplace sang out, "Lihiiid-ud! Get yo' liiiiiid-ud!" These were oily pine knots for starting fires in stoves and fireplaces because all you do is put a match to them and they blaze. We had to have them year-round because of that wood-burning iron stove.

Then came the iceman. He had a huge wooden truck lined with zinc and filled with huge blocks of ice, pulled by a white horse. He had this bell and you'd hear him from miles away down Conti Street this tinkle-tonkle, tinkle-tonkle, tinkle-tonkle. It was hanging on a little loop of iron, and he'd pull this little rope. The icebox was on the back porch, and it was this huge oak chest with another oak chest inside lined with zinc. There was a colored disc one could leave in a window which showed how many pounds of ice were needed that day. The horse-drawn ice wagon would stop at the back gate, and the iceman would saw off the blocks and carry them with his great big iron tongs to the wooden chest on the back porch. Always a drama. Every child for blocks followed the iceman to catch the "snow" which rained down when he sawed the ice. Some ate it right there, others ran home, hands cupped, to put either vanilla or lemon extract on it, or grenadine or molasses.

The country butter lady came in an old Chevrolet with a rumble seat filled with straw baskets full of ice and pats of pale sweet butter wrapped in green leaves. Miz Mimms made a proper entry with much ado and was always invited to sit and rest a moment, have a glass of iced tea, and share those details gleaned from other households. She was a master of gossip and never forgot that "gossip is no good if it doesn't start from fact," as Ma-Ma always said.

"I do feel sorry for her living alone," Miz Mimms would say. "But who owns those men's socks she hangs on her back porch?"

Tells everything.

Miz Mimms was a real character. She wore a cabbage leaf on her head to protect her from sunstroke. She said it was the only thing that would keep you cool. The sun won't go through a cabbage leaf. Never boil your brains if you wear a cabbage leaf.

Old black men with sugarcane stalks over their shoulder would come passing by. Children selling cut flowers, stolen from that morning's funeral wreaths at Magnolia Cemetery. The scissors grinder with his fascinating emery wheel-on-wheels. The pot mender with his bits of lead and solder and strange tools and a spirit lamp. The postman always stopped for a word. Conversations went on, corn was husked, beans hulled or snapped, rice picked over, coffee grounds, beads restrung, paper wicks folded for next winter's fireplaces — somehow a whole world was encompassed, seized, dealt with before noon.

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