Only one conversation topic in the last ten years has drawn my office colleagues from their cubes like iron shavings to a magnet—vacuum cleaners.
When Gary extolled the virtues of his bagless vacuum cleaner to Virginia, the keyboards stopped clacking, phones went unanswered, and other conversations ceased. Kathy came to the front of her cube to listen, then Anna and Lisa. Soon Karen and Robert emerged, and the “Great Vacuum Cleaner Debate” began.
Sides quickly were drawn: Vacuum cleaners with bags vs. bagless. Hoover vs. Bissell. Canister vs. upright. Everyone had an opinion and individual vacuum issues—pet hair, allergies, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
My office usually observes strict cube etiquette. We pretend not to overhear discussions with spouses, ultimatums to children, and calls from friends. For the most part, we keep our political opinions and religious beliefs to ourselves. So why were my colleagues willing to take a public stand about vacuum cleaners? And why did they care?
I learned at an early age that vacuum cleaners incite emotion. My family’s lore includes the story of Aunt Doris, who received a vacuum cleaner as a Christmas gift from Uncle Bruce. She promptly heaved it through the living room picture window on a cold holiday morning. Other family members, however, are not so quick to dispose of their vacuum cleaners, passing them down like treasured family heirlooms.
My first vacuum cleaner, a 500-pound brown and tan rebuilt Hoover as loud as a jet engine, originally belonged to my grandmother. Using it was like vacuuming with a lawn mower. I lugged that machine with me as I moved from apartment to apartment in my young single years.
My mother reclaimed the Hoover when, as a newlywed, I bought a new red and black plastic model, which turned out to be lightweight in every way—weight, suction, and durability. That’s what led to my first rebuilt vacuum cleaner from Woody, the vacuum cleaner man. Like a car salesman, he accepts vacuum cleaners on trade from customers who upgrade to new models. Those who can’t afford his shiny, deluxe new machines buy the spiffed up rebuilt models.
When it comes to rebuilding vacuum cleaners, Woody is an old-world craftsman. He pours his heart into refurbishing the motor, fan, and rotating brush with such tender care that he expects the new owner to feel the same way about his work. To him, a vacuum cleaner is like a Stradivarius violin—with proper care and humidity it can last for generations.
I learned about his passion the hard way when I brought my rebuilt machine to him for a new belt. He flipped it over, then stared accusingly at me.
“Have you been keeping this in the garage? Don’t you know the dampness out there can cause rust?” He pointed to miniscule orange dots on the vacuum cleaner’s base.
I admitted my guilt and promised to find a new spot from my cleaner inside. Perhaps I could move the family photos to the garage to create a spot in the hall closet?
When I accidentally vacuumed over the cord, exposing bare wires, I brought the vacuum back to Woody for repair. A houseful of dust filled the shop as Woody set the machine on his worktable.
He sadly shook his head. “You have to remind your housekeeper to change the bag. This ruins the suction.”
I let my imaginary housekeeper take the blame rather than admit my guilt.
To change the subject, I asked Woody what he thought about bagless vacuum cleaners. Several hours later I staggered from his shop, my brain reeling with comparative facts and figures. Woody’s bottom line: Stick with vacuum cleaner bags. He sells every size and brand imaginable.
Woody and I both know that when it comes to vacuum cleaners, I am a slacker, but I will always be his customer. I respect his passion for a machine that performs one of the lowliest chores of housework, and he needs customers like me.
Originally, I thought of Woody and my work colleagues as part of an odd subculture that sees vacuum cleaners as an investment in home, health, cleanliness, and virtue. They lust after machines, putting them on lay-away like a pair of Jimmy Chus rather than let a favorite model sell out.
But now I am not so sure—perhaps Aunt Doris and me are the strange ones. Does everyone else dream of shiny new vacuum cleaners rolling across the carpet like high-dollar sports cars?
Am I strange to celebrate a sense of home by snipping flowers from my garden or using my grandmother’s recipe to bake cookies?
As to my next vacuum cleaner, I’ll wait until someone trades in a fancy machine at Woody’s shop. Then I’ll buy it and give it a nice home in my garage.