Friday, July 26, 2013

To Build Porches and Live on Them

Last night was impossibly gorgeous, as a day that seemed more like Washington in late April than Washington in late July wafted cool and lovely over the stress-shimmer panic of endlessly moving DC.

After working on my novel for a while in the library, I stepped outside to talk a long walk.  It was a little after eight o'clock, on the kind of evening that makes you think of YHWH walking baretoed and joyful in the garden.  The veritable Platonic form of the cool of the day, it was.  The sky was lit with clouds still catching the last rays of the setting sun, set salmon against the clear darking blue of the sky, and the air was crisping up nicely.


I walked through the neighborhoods of Vienna, Virginia , which when I first moved to DC was an outer suburb.   As part of that first tide of tract development, Vienna filled with humble brick ramblers and ranch homes, which quickly filled with mid-level federal workers and army officers.

But the tide of development has swept on, and Vienna is now part of the inner ring of suburbs.  Better yet, it's served by a Metrorail station.  That makes it highly desirable for those humans who prefer not to spend two-to-three hours of their waking day stuck in the endless columns of traffic leading to the exurbs.  As Dante wrote, the worst thing about the deepest layers of hell is that you have to commute through all the others to get there.  That was the point of the chapter in the Inferno on commuting, if I'm remembering correctly, although it's been a few years since I read it.

Now that Vienna is a place where people want to live, it has begun to change.  Walking through the neighborhoods shows a sea change in the homes.  Those old tract ranch houses are being snapped up and razed to the ground, and replaced with much larger homes.

I'd call them McMansions, but that would be...well...not true.  They're as big as McMansions, but the people buying into Vienna are folks of wealth and taste.  No giant ticky-tacky slabs for them.  These are homes for folks who know the meaning of the word bespoke.  Almost without exception, they are lovely.  They are big and gracious, with elegant columns and careful detail work.   They evoke the nicest house in the nicest neighborhood of a large Southern town, the one the president of the bank lived in, only updated.

And because they harken to that bygone era, they all have porches.  Some are wraparound.  Some are front porches.  All are deep enough for a small party and most seem to be furnished with the most gracious be-pillowed wicker offerings from Frontgate.

What struck me as I walked, past home after beautiful home, were two things.  Although it was after eight thirty at night, and dark was falling, most homes appeared empty.  The windows were dark. There were only sporadic signs of life.  A walker here.  A jogger there.   But most people were still working, or kid-shuttling.  Occasionally, a late model Mercedes would pull into a driveway and slink elegantly back to a tasteful garage.  In one lit window, a man in his late fifties sat in a beautiful home office, the huge screen of his iMac open to email, talking intently on his iPhone.

What hit me harder still was that of the fifty porches I passed, gorgeous, elegantly decorated porches on the most beautiful evening we've had in months, not a single one was occupied.   If ever there was a night for a porch, this was it, appearing like a miracle in what should be the soup and swamp of DC July.

But they were all empty.  No one was gazing out at the fireflies.  No one was rocking slowly in a wicker chair and nursing a mint julep, shooting the breeze with a friend.

And the prophet Isaiah whispered in my ear, as he so often does, "..many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant."