Sometime last Sunday afternoon, I settled in to the reality that those long, hot days of sitting under the summer awning had finally arrived.
A big, old porch awning is like a tent, without the mess of camping. There is no effect quite like the sheltering, safe and cozy feel that yards of slightly translucent floppy fabric provide when loosely stretched over a heavy metal frame.
I've always lived in a house with an awning -- a summertime awning, one that gets installed before school lets out and is taken down and stored about the time the pennant race gets interesting.
Mine is a genuine Baltimore model, made by the L.E. Jefferson firm on Federal Street near Broadway. Lorenz and Virginia Jefferson, brother and sister, still run the business their father founded 80 years ago.
Their staff of awning hangers call in May and reappear in September. Within about 20 minutes, these fellows unfurl the canvas, go through the ropes and attach the pipes. If I spent 20 hours at it, I couldn't do what they do.
I prefer a traditional canvas model with stripes. I recall long stretches of The Alameda near Clifton Park where every rowhouse front porch was attired in seasonal canvas. Some were green, others were a golden-reddish orange. They came with and without stripes. A few houses had individual window awnings on the second floor. Some had tears and holes. Others were fresh. They all looked just like summer.
Houses that face west and endure the torture of the summer sun the longest are prime candidates for porch awnings. In a world and city that has changed a lot, there is something reassuring about the cocooning shade, privacy and tranquillity one of these contraptions offers. All you need is a porch, a wicker chair and a glass of iced tea.
My family introduced me to seasonal rituals. Their taste for awnings is no exception. Each spring Great Aunt Cora placed a call to the Jeffersons, and within a few days our Guilford Avenue porch was under full sail. Soon the glider cushions would be dusted off for another summer.
I don't bother pulling my awning up at night the way my family did. It was a big deal when my grandfather pronounced the heat of the day to be over. The sun had set -- somewhere over Calvert Street it seemed to a 6-year-old.
The evening shadows were now deep -- and the lightning bugs flashing -- when the awning went up. It signaled a change in the rhythm of the household, a time for yawns and perhaps a little summer snack.
At that time of the evening, say 9: 20, my father would head to the Guilford Pharmacy for Hendler's ice cream cones, sundaes, a pack of Luckies and the edition of the morning paper printed the night before -- all bagged in paper. Wax paper kept the cones in remarkably good shape.
City nights were pretty and quiet, except for an occasional outburst of roaring applause from Memorial Stadium. Guilford Avenue had gas street lights that cast a dim but graceful light. The street also had tall, branching sycamores. The awnings provided a veil of privacy during the hours when every porch was filled with sitting-out neighbors. But when night fell, the awning became superfluous.
It was time to untie the ropes and pull hard. Five individual cotton cables harnessed all that canvas and lead pipes on pulleys. It was a real effort to raise that thing. The rationale for raising the awning was practical. Should a storm pass through in the middle of the night, the canvas would not be ripped to shreds.
I preferred another justification -- playing on the ropes. A child could swing on the cables just the way Johnny Weismuller, Jock Mahoney and Lex Barker did when a Tarzan movie came to the Waverly Theatre or was run on WBAL.
The ropes tied up, our rowhouse neighbor, a distinguished gentleman named Clarence Dankmeyer, issued yet another signal that night and the Land of Nod beckoned. Always formal, he departed by wishing everyone, "Pleasant dreams."
The Hooppers, our neighbors on the other side, had full benefit of one of the sycamore trees. They had no awning, but they always took their porch furniture in at night. They spread linen sheets to protect their parquet floors from the scrapes a rocking-chair runner might inflict.
My grandmother then stepped inside and lowered the two heavy window sashes in her parlor, the sash weights on chains offering one more sound of a city night. You can be sure the last one off the porch let the screen door slam, too.
The canvas stayed raised until a precise moment the next morning, one of these times known by all Baltimoreans, the hour when the early morning cool evaporates and you realize it's going to be hot, real hot.
At that second, the designated awning boy untwisted the interlaced ropes that secured the canvas in its closed condition. With one big woosh, the front porch went dark, free of glare, ready for all occupants.
Pub Date: 6/15/97