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Founded 1994

reprinted from the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Vol. 6 No. 1 (PRFA, Summer 2002)

Washline Regulators

Trivial-minded people imposed washline rules on the rest of the folk in Southampton, Long Island, on April 23. If residents hang wash out in their front yards they now face fines of up to $1,000.

The vote by the town board was a united 4 – 0, but the new rules left a problem of logic for the "thinking" members. After all, the houses of some of the wealthy people in Southampton face the ocean or bay, and the lawns facing the street are often obscured by 8 to 10 feet high hedges. (The barricades of hedges in front of the houses of the very well-to-do are a tradition that gets around the town's law against high fences.) But one of the council members, Linda Kabot, explained that for those houses, for a washline to be in the backyard would mean that it was on the street side of the house. She said, "The front yard is their backyard," according to Newsday on April 25.

Of course, the non-functional houses in Southampton are for display entertainment, not for living. The homely thought of leaning out the window or carrying a basket of wash out to the yard to affix clean, wet clothes to a rope with clothespins would be somewhat revolting to the weekend and summer Southampton crowd.

The exteriors of houses and gardens of the upper crust areas of Long Island are actually quite boring. Non-English-speaking laborers sweat over the landscaped gardens, in reality mere shrub-edged lawns for the most part, from which few homeowners pick either flowers or vegetables for their spiritual or physical sustenance.

What do the regulators in Southampton need to solidify their sycophantic status? The elected "locals," sucking off the wealth among them, may have moved beyond human emotion. It may be that by proximity to the power class, they have ascended to a level where if you prick them they don't bleed.

Comfortable in their imagined "class," the council members imposed a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense and up to 6 months in jail. To discourage a second offense within five years, they pumped the fine up to $1,500, with a minimum of $500.

In case a person misses the point, they gave the clothesline cops the right to charge each week's violation anew, with the ability to impose 6 months' jail sentences for each instance. However, presuming a lack of comprehension of this subtlety by people who might want to string a washline out front, they upped the ante for third offenses to a minimum fine of $1,500 and maximum of $2,500.

Old-fashioned backyards are rare in certain parts of Southampton. To the Southampton upper crust, they would be a better-to-be-forgotten mythic memory of 50 x 100 or 25 x 100 city lots, — like those where I grew up in College Point. Places where we planted, hoed, and harvested beans, kohlrabi, and tomatoes; picked apples or pears from trees shared by neighbors; watched for the daffodils and savored the roses; quietly concealed memories held by the red poppies; and where we hung our clothes out, year in, year out. From the end of the street, or where a side lot gave a view into the backyards, there billowed the shirts and pants, sheets and towels.

We talked about them. "Do you think it's safe to leave all day?" I would call to the woman next door. She was also leaning out the window, while stretching up with the clothespins and maybe a long curtain or a tiny item of children's underwear. Or the reverse — we almost tore the wash off the line as big raindrops pelted down on a summer evening.

"What a beautiful line of clothes!" "Can I pick some of your cucumbers for supper?" "I've got to finish before the parade." Small conversation. Neighbors who really did loan you their extension ladder to paint the trim or cut your hedge if you were slowing down.

Ordinary things, common tasks, done by people who handle work with their mind and hands, people who live and breathe, who bleed red blood, people whose lives have not ascended to the trivial.

But, as Peter Collins of Hampton Bays said at the town board meeting, according to Newsday, "This [hanging clothes] is a form of visual pollution."

The town supervisor, Patrick Heaney, did experience a hint of squeamishness in his role. Some local residents, the ones who prefer to hang their clothes out or perhaps can't afford a dryer, said that the rule was being imposed on them to satisfy wealthy summer people. Newsday noted that Mr. Heaney said, "It's the 'hang the supervisor out to dry' law," as the clerk prepared to call the roll for the unanimous vote.

Such people must have very neat, clean, and empty yards and lives.

— By Carol W. LaGrasse

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