California Lets Its Laundry Fly Free...And The Clothesline Makes A Comeback

6071789564_b5860fb711_b.jpgIn a move that probably has our ancestors rolling over in their graves (as in, “I can’t believe they banned such a thing in the first place!), California did an about-face on October 8 when Governor Jerry Brown signed bill AB 1448  allowing Californians (who live in apartments and homes governed by homeowners’ associations) to dry their laundry outside.

The clothesline returns!

The state allowed such rules long ago as a way to maintain a certain sense of visual decorum in association-governed, CC&R-bound neighborhoods, especially condos. Nationwide, it’s believed that over 60 million Americans live in communities where clotheslines can be (and usually are) banned.  Meanwhile, the amount of energy used by clothes driers is staggering.

Want to make America an instant leader in the fight to use less energy? Go solar—simply by pulling your electric or gas clothes drier’s plug.

I have a strong personal relationship with clotheslines: a deep emotional bond. I’m not kidding. Many people do. And yet...

...how long has it been since I’ve dried clothes in the sun? 30 years?  More?

Once a child (me) followed his mother out to the side yard of a suburban home near Berkeley, California. She carried a wicker basket against one hip, the use of her body as old as humankind itself. I looked up as wet clumps of clothes rose one by one in her hands from the basket and unfurled above me.

Each clothespin was a marvelous duck’s bill, either equipped with springs or made simply of split wood with a knob head. I didn’t know it then, but she was adept at pinning the clothes to the line so that wrinkles or pinch marks didn’t show in the shoulders of shirts.

I dodged in and out of the pant legs: my father’s were long enough that they hung near the ground. Mine were higher up, the legs short and comical. She spun the clothesline as she worked: it was one of those umbrella-shaped devices that for a while were planted in every backyard, at least in California.

A curious thing: that umbrella. Later I would look back on how all our relatives in Wisconsin had clotheslines that stretched from T-shaped pole to pole across wide, grassy back yards, but out West in California we all put up those aluminum-strut umbrella devices.

Either way, the clothes baked in the sun, relaxing, going limp, and starting to dance in a slight breeze. I watched shirttails and sleeves become living things, fidgeting like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz.

Nothing, however, could match my fascination with the sheets. They undulated and billowed like sails above a deep green sea, cutting and angling across blue sky. I moved down long, narrow corridors between them, running my cheek against woven cotton, feeling it change from cold to cool to an expanse of warm smoothness. Again the hot wind would rise, shaking out the stiffness, sending the entire community of clothes into a sudden dance, I in the middle.

Finally I went off to play. “Real” play. Then I rejoined mother when she returned to the clothes a few hours later. She took them down, did a quick fold, placed them back into the basket. I buried my nose one last time into laundry that now smelled like sun, grass, trees and wind from far-off places.

Years later, when I was writing about houses for magazines, I ran into a homeowner who had installed a “drying garden.” Here, in a carefully tended area, Egyptian cotton sheets could be spread across clean beds of low-growing herbs where they would dry, infused with the faint smell of ground and garden. So it had come to this, I thought: doing laundry was a symbol of free time and the good life. Laundry, dried in fresh air and sun atop herbs, was...luxurious!

Last night, in the confines of a laundry room, I bent over the open door of my clothes drier and pulled a warm pair of jeans and other items from its maw. I thought of sun, the warm breezes of Southern California, and a ship of sheets that once sailed above me long ago.

Today, the hunt for a clothesline—especially one that resembles an umbrella—begins!

PHOTO: via Creative Commons Flickr


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