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Laundry liberation: California becomes a 'right to dry' state

Laundry liberation: California becomes a 'right to dry' state
San Fernando Democratic Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, left, with Dinora Cienfuegos, a tenant at the Villa del Sol apartments in Sun Valley. (Robin Abcarian)

Every once in a while, one of those annoying Internet quizzes darkens my Facebook feed: Can you identify this thing? Why, yes, of course. I can tell you without even looking: It's a clothespin.

How do I know that? Not because I dry my laundry outdoors — under no circumstances will I ever expose my  neighbors to my grandma underpants -- but because I have eaten twice at the ultra-fancy French Laundry in Yountville, where they present diners with wooden clothespin keepsakes.

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It seems, however, that the clothespin and its close corollary, the clothesline, are on the verge of a comeback in California.

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that gives Californians the right to hang their laundry on clothelines. On Jan. 1, California will become, yes, a "right to dry" state.

Monday in Sun Valley, I met up with the bill's author, San Fernando Democratic Assemblywoman Patty Lopez. She wanted to introduce me to a couple of women who are the kind of people she's trying to help with this law.

If it really bothers them for me to put my clothes out here, give me quarters, or give me a clothesline.


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Both of them live in Villa del Sol, an apartment complex across the street from Sun Valley High School.

Raquel Mejia, 20, is a stay-at-home mom with a 7-month-old son and a lot of laundry.

Her husband works a minimum wage job, she told me, and she doesn't have the $30 or so a week it would cost to do her washing in the complex's communal laundry room.

To save money, she often washes clothes by hand, then dries them on a planter trellis just outside her front door. Her apartment manager has asked her to stop. The clothes, he has said, look ugly.

"If it really bothers them for me to put my clothes out here," said Mejia, "give me quarters, or give me a clothesline."

Across the way, her neighbor Dinora Cienfuegos, 51, hangs her wet laundry on a porch railing. The blazing afternoon sun hits it squarely, drying even towels in less than two hours. Twice in the last couple of months, a security guard in the complex snatched her laundry off the rail and tossed it in the garbage.

"He said, 'I don't want to see anything, take it off!'" she said. "But I don't have the money to pay for the dryer." After he left, she said, she fetched her things out of the trash.

The new law won't necessarily allow people to sling their wet clothes over any old rail or planter, but will give tenants and homeowners the right to put up clotheslines and drying racks outside.

Until last week, I had no idea that clotheslines were controversial. In fact, when I first read about the Lopez bill, I thought it was kind of crazy.

"It is crazy when you are not living in this type of community," said Lopez, standing next to Mejia's planter/clothes rack. "But here we have so many families and for different reasons, they don't have the money, the time, and in this case, a baby."

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But it turns out that homeowners associations and apartment management companies have for years waged war on people who like to dry their laundry in what God gave them: sunlight.

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We seem to be coming full circle on the laundry thing. Decades ago, in her Fresno garage, my grandmother kept a contraption that was endlessly fascinating to me; a clothes wringer. She'd feed her newly washed clothes, towels and linens into the thing, and they'd emerge stiff and wet on the other side, ready for hanging on the laundry line in her back yard.

In a cotton bag that hung from the line, she kept her old-fashioned clothespins, the kind I presume that Amy March, the twit sister from "Little Women," stuck on her nose to improve her profile. They're probably collectors' items now.

While reading up on clothesline controversies, I came across a 2012 documentary, "Drying for Freedom," a surprising look at the history of clothesline suppression, particularly in neighborhoods governed by homeowner associations.

"I honestly believe that the Germans wouldn't stand for this kind of dictatorship," said a German man who moved from his HOA-governed neighborhood in disgust over its anti-clothesline policy.

The filmmaker, Steven Lake, suggests that the bias against clotheslines is the result of a corporate conspiracy aimed at helping companies like General Electric sell dryers and increase the overall need for electricity.

(The documentary is worth watching just for the footage of GE pitchman Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, touting their all-electric home. They urge consumers to "live better … electrically.")

Somehow on our way to an electric future, the clothesline, and its flapping unmentionables, became a sign of blight. Real estate agents claimed, with no empirical evidence, that visible clotheslines could lower property values up to 15%.

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Lopez pushed the clothesline bill because many of her impoverished constituents can't afford to pay for coin-operated dryers. The governor seemed to like it because it's an energy saver. (He called it a "modest energy conservation and freedom of choice measure.")

I was happy to spend a sweaty hour talking laundry -- clean laundry -- with Lopez, who is California's least likely elected official.

A political neophyte with neither experience nor money, she won an upset victory last year over Democratic incumbent Raul Bocanegra, who was so confident of re-election he didn't really bother to campaign. (Bocanegra is planning to challenge her for his old job in 2016.)

I asked Lopez why she was bothering to champion an issue for people who may not even be citizens and voters, and won't be able to help her retain her seat.

"These are human beings we have to serve," she said. "They have been here many years. I am not looking for headlines. I am looking for something to benefit the community."

Laundry liberation. Who can argue with that?

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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