It wasn't the view that brought Ruth Kimble outside, and it certainly wasn't the weather. There was nothing much to look at except parked cars and that old basketball court at the corner with overgrown weeds, and there was nothing comforting about the muggy heat and the clouds overhead that threatened rain.
Yet there Kimble sat, fanning herself with a newspaper instead of reading it on the stoop of a Capitol Hill rowhouse on E Street NE one afternoon this week. She wanted to watch life unfold, and nothing on TV seemed to capture the slowness, the peacefulness, of it all. People walked by and waved. Two trucks narrowly missed colliding at the corner. Time passed, blessedly uneventfully.
"I just come out and see what's going on," said Kimble, 69, a retired housecleaner staying at her son's place.
The stoops of Washington are where people go to do just that: to see what's going on. In every part of the District, on every kind of stoop, the summertime brings residents young and old to the steps between the sidewalk and the front door. They come for companionship, commerce, contemplation. Some seek solitude and a cigarette. Others band together and sit elbow to elbow on the steps or on the porch, sipping drinks and trading gossip.
On the stoop, as perhaps nowhere else in the nation's capital, no one is in a rush. It is a different sort of place, not quite the living room, but not exactly the street corner, either. It is outside and inside, where the neighborhood meets the home.
Stoop-sitting in Washington isn't like stoop-sitting in New York, where the crowded stoops have a history and folklore all their own. But in some District neighborhoods, stoop-sitting thrives as a social and practical urban rite.
In the city, there is every kind of stoop for every kind of home or apartment building. Some stoops are close to the sidewalk and some sit atop a long flight of steps. Some are made of brick, or concrete, or iron. Some are bare and some wear a green, artificial-turf covering. Not all are made for sitting. Some are behind chain-link fences, off-limits to passersby; others display no-sitting warnings. One stoop on 15th Street NW gets the message across another way, with a sign on the iron steps reading, "Maximum load 500 lbs."
Over a concrete stoop in the Shaw neighborhood, outside a run-down building next door to a liquor store on 11th Street NW, someone posted a "no loitering" sign. But Larry McCoy didn't see the harm in sitting down for a minute and smoking a cigarette. "Girl-watching, stuff like that," said McCoy, 51, an artist who lives around the corner.
Marlene Poston's husband, Willie, died recently at age 74. So Tuesday, a week after the funeral, she sat by herself on a cushioned iron bench on the porch of her Ridge Place SE home. She wasn't alone for long. Her daughter, Sheena Myrick, came over to join her on the porch, and then a neighbor, Dorothy Brown, sat on the bench.
The three reminisced, laughed and passed the time. Poston talked about the old days, when people on her narrow, close-knit block in Anacostia used to sit on their stoops and porches more frequently. Poston said the violence in the city keeps people indoors. "Times have changed," Brown agreed with a sigh.
Everett Drew, 56, doesn't worry about sitting outside. He reclined in a chair atop the stoop of his brick apartment building in Congress Heights. "Danger can happen anywhere," said Drew, a retired computer programmer. "You just have to go ahead and live." For Drew, living on this particular day meant dragging a comb through the long, white hair of his Shih Tzu, Pooque. It was a long, careful process, and like many stoop-sitters, he felt he had time on his side. "It's a daily ritual," he said.
On some streets, using the stoop was the exception, not the rule, at midday Tuesday. Maybe it was the sticky weather that left many stoops empty in Mount Pleasant and other neighborhoods. Maybe few people were home.
Don Hawkins, a District architect, said the city's stoop culture is rather limited these days, because of television, air-conditioning and a constrained social atmosphere in some of the District's more well-off neighborhoods. "We don't automatically assume that we have a lot in common with other people on the street, as seems to be the case in many cities with a larger working class," said Hawkins, co-curator of an upcoming National Building Museum exhibit about Washington as a symbol and a city.
As executive director of the nonprofit educational travel group Global Explorers, David Shurna prefers the outdoors, even when the only exploring to be done is on the stoop of his Capitol Hill apartment building. Shurna, 30, sat while his German shepherd-hound mix, Flash, mocked his namesake by keeping his movements to a bare minimum.
"He's fast when he gets into it," Shurna said.
As Flash lounged in the heat, Shurna read the newspaper on the red-brick, two-step stoop. Dogs and their owners strolled by. The grass shimmered from a fresh rain. The only sounds were from the cars along South Carolina Avenue SE. Shurna wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, and to him and other stoop-sitters in the city, that sounded just fine.