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Spring 2009

Table Talk

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Louis B. Jones

When I first moved to New York, in my twenties, I encountered clotheslines. This was in Brooklyn thirty years ago. Apartments on both sides of the alley, by very old neighborly agreements, had strung pulley-style lines across the open air—and I was dismayed by the spectacle because I thought that these, here where I'd arrived, were the flags of poverty. Where I'd come from, in the suburban Midwest, everyone had dryers. It would have been unthinkable not to have a dryer. This was my first exposure to the mysteries of social class outside the Midwest, and I guess I supposed ignorance and bad luck and general low standards would go along with the stiffened blue jeans, the roughened nap of terrycloth bath towels.

These days where I live, far away in the boondocks, I sense myself at the brunt of an American avant garde when I wield a handful of wooden clothespins in the corner of a meadow off my mudroom. My dryer is idle. The propane jets aren't rumbling, nor is the big drum rolling. The stainless-steel vent outside doesn't discharge clouds of visceral moisture. During the thirty years between Brooklyn and now, it has been possible to watch environmental collapse looming up on all sides in various forms. Economists last summer were reviving the word "stagflation" to describe the present consequences of our improvident treatment of the earth. But mainstream economists aren't making the point that the dollar isn't the basic economic unit. It's sunlight. It's all sunlight: we're made of sunlight: every dollar paid across for steak and broccoli, and every mile traveled in an SUV, is translatable from calories of incident solar radiation on the planet, origin of wealth, origin of economic goods, stored as petroleum, stored as sugar.

I suppose when I was a child, clotheslines were for a lower or a surpassed social class; and today here, too, in my rural area, we've got newly arrived suburbanites who have argued for "Covenants and Restrictions" that would forbid clotheslines, along with other rustic eyesores like trailers. Clotheslines will be associated with an older culture superseded as hillbilly whose particular dignities and felicities aren't evident to the newcomer. Personally I wonder, hopefully, wheth-er one day clotheslines could become fashionable, and could start appearing, along with organic vegetable gardens, on the lawns of Winnetka, the redwood decks of Sausalito, every clever hostess's badge of fashion: the rough bath towel in the guest cottage.

Such simple measures may be the only real anti-war actions available to us that aren't ineffectual or merely histrionic. We all like to say, "I didn't vote for Bush," "I didn't vote for McCain," but we do keep gassing up our cars and buying—you name it—bottled water? So we are voting for war and global warming and the whole mad bonfire, voting actively and consistently and with true effective force. Folks of the leftward persuasion will say the war's motives were venal to begin with; those on the right will answer that the war was a necessary, if nasty, duty in a real world. That's an open debate. However, both sides will agree in principle on one thing: our affluence is a determinant of our foreign policy.

Our sense of our own American superiority has always been our favorite, and our most cloying, scandal. The reality is, we're now emerging as a third-world nation, in the sense of having a classic "dual economy" unsupportive of a middle class, having exported our middle-class opportunities overseas. I, through a combination of accident and choice, have ended up in the clothesline class—and I must say it feels pretty buoyant, this particular liberation from privilege. The whole chore is an interruption in my usual hectic trance, requiring an abrupt shift to solitude and quiet, outdoors, far even from the incessant NPR in our kitchen. The meadow ground is hummocky and treacherously soft underfoot from gophers' work. The drudging physical activity itself, of pinning up laundry, if nowhere near strenuous, involves a lot of lifting and reaching and is slightly swimming-like. And then all day, until at sundown the whole line-up is stiff and toasty, I find the sight of a line of laundry actually jubilating. To a book-absorbed fellow's eye it bespeaks the old levitation metaphor of immortality and incarnation and the mystery of personality and even futurity. My two boys, eight and seventeen, are absent all day at school (as, all too soon, they will be more permanently absent at colleges), but they are also present, these afternoons, their distinctive personalities pinned up in a choir in the breeze along with ours, arms upraised among the bedsheets' great flying badges on the tilt of the meadow.

Louis B. Jones is the author of the novels Ordinary Money, Particles and Luck, and California's Over. His story "The Epicurean" appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of The Threepenny Review.

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