During the last election, in response to her qualifications in foreign affairs, Sarah Palin blurted out her now infamous line, “I can see Russia from my house.” Well, Sarah, I can see the world from my stoop.
At any given time I can hear many foreign languages, it’s as if my towering steps are a modern-day Tower of Babble. I watch throngs of people walk past from diverse cultures living different lifestyles. I can see no less than seven venues and restaurant entrances, look down three streets, and hear several kinds of world music in the evenings. I will usually chat with three or four people about current events and happenings in the neighborhood.
Before moving to New York, I’d never heard of a stoop. In the south they don’t exist; they have porches. However, they also have space. A “stoep” was one of the many architectural elements brought over by the Dutch in the 18th century, defined as an exernal staircase made of cement steps leading to a small porchlike entrance area where one could sit. What a wonderful idea, in such crowded buildings, to at least have a miniature porch shared by many. When most of us live in a shoebox apartment, why not at least have a grand entrance? Through the centuries they have added their stoops to brownstones and tenements all over the city effecting what is now regarded as quintessential New York architecture.
I enjoy hanging out on my stoop, whether to smoke a cigarette, soak up some sunshine, or take a break before tackling my fifth-floor walk up. What a steep stoop it is; when carrying groceries I often feel as if I’ll fall backwards.
Ours is an impressive facade. Built in 1899 and first operating as a boarding house for seamen, 228 West 4th Street boasts marble gargoyles. Yet instead of the usual creatures, human faces stare down from the building, strangely realistic. These dramatic heads edge the cornices and are centered above the arched windows as a focal point of the already intricate brick work.
The location is key for people-watching, which my husband and I thoroughly enjoy. Halfway between 7th Avenue and West 10th Street, we can see the recently opened Empellon, with its fresh tacos and trendy crowd. We watch the jazz afficianados file into Smalls and chat in front of the Condesa Cafe next door. The Riviera is angled right in front of us; we can sometimes overhear five conversations at once from the disperate diners, a tangle of soundbites and juicy tidbits. The Duplex is lit up across the avenue. We hear the tinny shake of the tamborine and often know who is singing – Maria’s low voice resonates the strongest and travels the furthest. Ofrenda’s has added traditional Oaxocan music to the mix, drumbeat rythms echo out to their festive front patio and to our steps.
We are surrounded by Wilfie and Nell’s. With doors on both sides of the stoop, the bar is below and behind, and we are more than familiar with their crowd, which often trickles into the street and forms long lines at the door. The women here are tall and thin and have long, perfectly straight blonde or dark brown hair. They all wear a little dresses by Ann Taylor. The men wear suits, coming straight from their jobs in finance, or a polo shirt and khakis. They all sport the same Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan haircut. However, even their non-diversity creates diversity in the hood. We often chat with Kevin, the doorman, who is our friend and sometime therapist.
We watch eagerly to see who actually goes into The Spy Store and check out those who visits the Hey Man Day Spa. Sheridan Park is just in view as is the Starbucks where the trannies hang out. They share the sidewalks with adorable old couples, dressed to the nines, hobbling out to dinner. On a Friday night add in the bridge and tunnel and it is quite a scene, pulsing with energy. You can see everything and everyone if you stay long enough. Sitting there makes me glad to be a citizen of the world and I think each person in it matters.
So take that, Sarah Palin! The current republican candidates are so out of touch I doubt if they’ve ever sat on a stoop in their lives; instead they look at life through their multiple gated mansions, all set back from and blocked off from the street entirely. Yet I’ll bet Obama has sat on a stoop or two and watched the world go by.