One thing I don’t miss about New England is the bugs. Mosquitoes, black flies, gnats, horseflies—in July, you can’t take a deep breath without pulling one of them out of their erratic flight patterns and into the back of your throat. If you’ve never lived in a bug area, you have no idea what it’s like. Even IHow do you people live like this?!” Like all places, there are pros and cons, and while most everyone would list the bugs as a con, it’s part of living in Maine, and Phoenix has little to offer the average Mainer outside of a life free of lentil-sized mosquito welts. I had no idea what it was like until I moved away—I returned 10 years later in July, 2003, encountered the 100% humidity and bug-visibility of 14 feet and said to my folks, “How do you people live this way?”
Surely it was flying insects that led to the invention of the screen door. The front door is the largest portal in the house for circulating fresh air, and it would be absurd to think that humanity would acknowledge defeat to the insect world and keep the door closed for the duration of the summer months. (Though in Maine, it’s tempting to keep the door shut anyway—once you let a few of those into your house, it’s only a matter of time before you’re overrun with the pesky things.) I have never really pondered the screen door, any more than I have contemplated doors in general. They are always there. Lock them when you go out, and they don’t require more thought than that.
Some older homes have lovely wooden screen doors. Aesthetically, these wooden frames display craftsmanship that mass-manufactured aluminum doors have never attempted, and the sonics of a wooden screen door are the stuff of American legend—when Springsteen sang, “The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays”, I’m certain it was 3/4″ thick wooden door that he was describing, the dull thwack as the 15″ exposed spring propels the door into the jamb for the 10,000th time. Aluminum doors improved the seal (they have their own prefab frame, and are not fitted to an existing jamb like many wooden doors are) but the aesthetics of the modern screen door are abominable: the unholy screech that they emit when adjusting the storm-window height, the air-shock closing mechanism that inevitably closes too fast (crushing the dog) or too slowly (allowing the dog to escape), their weight so great that they inevitably damage that little air-shock making the slamming of a screen door not the warm thud that one hears from across the field in a Winslow Homer painting, but instead the tone that shares adjectives with a description of a golf ball-sized rock thrown Roger Clemens-style at a metal stop sign. My house has this newfangled door, the source of many frightful moments as our toddler has learned to operate the handle, an act that seems to inevitably require one of her hands to be inserted directly between the swinging door and immovable frame. It’s a love-hate relationship—I’ve just told you about the hate, but the love comes from this simple fact:
I’d feel naked without it.
Oregon has so few airborne annoyances that the functionality of a screen door is negated, which explains why so many of the houses on my street do not have such front-door hardware. Everyday I walk the dog, and with the weather as lovely as it has been lately, everyday I see into homes much more deeply than I want to: unless they’re building a meth lab or hosting dog fights, I don’t want to know what my neighbors do in their free time.* I want to wave when our cars pass, chat about whatever when we’re simultaneously working in our yards, but I don’t want to know what TV stations they watch, and I don’t want to know if the males prefer boxers or briefs. And that’s the kind of thing you see through the 3×7 cavity in the front of their houses. These houses look exposed, voyeuristically so—and I want to be able to look at the shrubs they’ve just planted in the front yard without my eye catching movement and seeing a veritable stranger in a bathrobe.
I don’t consider the screen door to be a security device. A person walking by my house can see through the silver webbing almost as easily as they can through my neighbor’s unobstructed door frame, and if someone wanted to get into the house, I have no faith that the thin barrier of woven wire will slow their progress. (The lock on a screen door is obviously designed to control the ebb and flow of the aforementioned dog and toddler; considering that one can punch a hole in the screen and reach in to operate the lock themselves, I wouldn’t leave the house with that “security measure” as my primary protection unless I was trying to defend the home from raccoons.)
Instead, it provides psychological comfort. While the screen door is to the house what the hospital gown is to your bare body (a garment with so many literal and figurative shortcomings that I’m certain it’s the least-shoplifted item in the hospital inventory), I still prefer that garment to nothing when I am sitting on the vinyl cushion of the examination table.
I imagine a reader who has lived a life without the screen door asking, “How is sitting in the house with the door open any different than sitting on the porch?” The difference might be small, but so is the difference between being seen busting a move on the floor of a dance club and being seen replicating that move in the office at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. If you don’t see a difference there, I am envious—me, if I’m caught dancing anywhere, I feel like a man attending a black-tie dinner in a hospital gown.
I could never endure a home without a screen door, anymore than I could tolerate driving a car with no windshield or chopping wood barefoot. There is a bare minimum of protection that I require in my life—perishables must be kept in the fridge, delicious-colored glass cleaners need to be kept out of reach of my daughter, and there must be some semblance of a barrier between me and the solicitor intent on selling me a subscription to The Oregonian.
To me, that last point makes the case. We’re talking about The Oregonian, people. Once you let a few of those into your house, it’s only a matter of time before you’re overrun with the pesky things.
* In case it’s not obvious, I would want to know these things so that I could report them, not participate.