Voices in the Dark

Posted on 14 March 2011

Have you ever caught sight of a person hosing down their front stoop and wondered why they were doing so?  If so, you were fortunate, for such a sighting is rare now.  Chances are, it was an elderly person with the garden hose in hand, and you may have thought that he or she was having a “senior moment.”  After all, doesn’t the rain wash away the dust and street dirt from stoops?  Well, it does, but one can’t trust the rain, after all; the weather is unpredictable.  The person you saw hosing down the stoop was doing so because this is where he or she entertains family and friends.

In the days before the personal computer and the Internet, one’s front stoop was the media hub of any family.

The minute that the spring nights grew comfortably warm, our stoop was occupied.   My grandfather was usually there the moment that my sister and I arrived home from school.  He’d want to know what we’d learned that day and in exchange, he’d tell us what went on in the world.  We were never shielded from the news, as I suppose many children were, and political discussions were not only invited in my household, they were embraced.  But this was our pre-dinner fare, a little something to whet the appetite.

After supper, my entire family would gather on the front stoop.  Our two- family dwelling was attached to our neighbors’, and the neighboring family would emerge onto their own stoop at roughly the same time.  We would chat and tell jokes; the neighbor’s son would often light up a smoke, which he always seemed to thoroughly enjoy.  My sister and I had yet to discover boys, and if it was a school night, we usually didn’t venture far from home, into the neighborhoods of our friends.  The United States has never taken advantage of the concept of siestas, but the time spent on our stoop was as close as we would ever get to a scheduled, daily respite.

On that stoop, time stood still, or perhaps it only slowed down.  We could feel it slowing, adults and children alike, as you can sometimes sense the blood in your own veins slowing if you meditate in a focused manner.   We were like flies caught in amber, and happy to be stuck there.

My grandfather often brought copies of The New York Daily News and Time and Life magazines out with him, but those publications only covered what was going on beyond our own territory.

On the stoop, watching the world go by, we knew who was expecting a new addition to the family, who was expecting it out of wedlock, who was dating which boy and which girl, who’d gotten a new puppy, and whose sciatica was acting up.

Other neighbors would sometimes stop by to ask if we knew that so-and-so had passed on, or that a certain priest had been transferred out of the parish.  They’d tell us about sales in the local stores, tsk-tsk over a rise in subway and bus fares, and advise us who not to trust with the painting of our houses. 

Beyond the normal gossip and chitchat, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we shared, in every sense of the word.   And often, no words were spoken.  We simply sat there under the warm, waning sun, breathing in the heady scent of my grandmother’s roses, and relishing the moment.  Usually, fruit was brought out onto the stoop as well as napkins and a single knife.  The sweets that permeate the aisles of supermarkets were foreign to us, for there was nothing better than a ripe piece of fruit on a sultry eve.  I would watch in fascination as my grandmother expertly carved a fat honeydew melon, the juice running between her fingers, the flesh chartreuse and succulent.  We shared with the neighbors, and they shared with us.   The best were my grandmother’s sweet-tart peaches in wine, but I could only partake in such forbidden fruit if my father was not present.

When I was nine years old, my dad took mercy on me, the little music nut, and bought me a transistor radio.  It was a luxury for a family of our means, and still considered new technology.  My parents often had to pull that radio out from under my pillow, as I’d go to sleep with a smile on my face, on the music and voices of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Aretha, and other Motown greats.  Having become accustomed to his old plug-in radio, my grandfather never really understood my transistor radio, or why it had to come with me everywhere.

One warm spring night, my grandmother sent us up a big bowl of pasta fagioli (cannellini beans, tomatoes, garlic, and basil).  As incongruous as that dish was on such a warm evening, the comfort food was welcome, for my mother had been hospitalized for surgery; the doctors had found a lump in her breast.  My dad, sister, and I chewed on in uneasy silence until the light in the kitchen winked out on its own and so did every other light and electrical appliance in the house.  Every house on the block was out, in fact, and so was the entire neighborhood, and neighborhoods miles beyond.

Quietly, the adults panicked.  They tried to tame their fear but the scent of it was almost palpable.  My parents had lived through mock air raids, and so had I; my granddad and father had served in the great World Wars.  Robbed of our televisions and radios, we were in the dark in more ways than one.

I reached for my transistor radio and tuned into the news, to discover that much of New York City and her outlying boroughs had been hit by a blackout: a power failure of unprecedented scope.  “Let’s calm everyone down,” my dad nodded, and so, we stepped out onto the stoop.

My grandfather, who had eschewed my transistor, was astounded and greatly relieved.  Immediately, he commandeered my little radio and mouthed in awe, “Yes!  It works on batteries!“  When the neighbors joined us, we were all silent as we heard of the massive blackout and how far it had spread.

As the sun set, the sound of that radio’s occasional static, and the disembodied voices in the dark, were the only things we heard other than the chirping of birds, the chorus of crickets, and the whoosh of an occasional car whose driver was brave enough to be out.  There were no bright traffic lights guiding the cars, and no flashing lights from TV sets inside the houses all along the block.  The world was dark and still darker than most of us had ever known. 

Drawn by the sounds of the radio, other neighbors from both ends of the block drifted down to our house, eager to hear the voices of the announcers and know that aliens were not, as feared, invading our world — not the ones from Russia and not the ones from Mars.  My grandmother brought out a heavy, scented cantaloupe and between the stoop, folding chairs, and a stone bench in front of our house, we all sat, ate, and took communion.  Not the type of Communion given out in Church at Mass, but a communion of people living together in the same neighborhood and joined together in natural camaraderie.

For hours we sat there, talking in intervals and falling quiet as the radio kept us informed of the blackout and the lack of progress in remedying it.  Late into the night (there was school the next day, but the normal bedtime was waived), we retired to our beds, praying that in the morning, the light would return.  Thankfully, it did.  And thankfully, my mother’s mass proved to be benign.

People don’t convene on stoops any longer, or at least, most people.  Instead, we sit dumbstruck in front our TVs and PCs, emailing each other, playing games online, and getting our news in sound bytes succinct enough for a generation raised on computers, whose attention span has been rendered minute by this very technology.

We don’t know our own neighbors any more, and we don’t want to; they might come to find out about our personal business, after all, even though most of us are law-abiding citizens and really have nothing to hide.  Fruit, laughter, music, the newspaper, and gossip often don’t make it past our front doors.  We have become insular, and far more fearful and mistrusting than we were during The Cold War and the Vietnam era.

I know we can’t go back again.  But how I wish we could. 

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2 Responses to “Voices in the Dark”

  1. Jack S. Fogbound says:

    Wonderful nostaglia story of the past. The Stoop or Step was the gathering place for many city dwellers during the warm weathher seasons. It was time when people enjoyed the fresh air while conversing with their nieghbors and it was a wonderful experience

  2. Rita says:

    This is a truly outstanding post that brought me back to my childhood and sitting on the front steps of my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on summer evenings. Kudos to Kathleen, I have read other of her excellent posts but this one moved me to finally comment.

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