The Underrated Power of a Vacuum Cleaner
My friend’s vacuum doesn’t work so she calls the only local shop that repairs her brand. On the phone the guy tells her that he also repairs laptops and collects antique coins, so if she has any of those she should bring them in. She asks me if I want to come with. I was going to stay home and write but this adventure strikes me as astonishingly more interesting than several hours alone with my thoughts and a blinking cursor. His name, she tells me, is Frank.
Frank’s shop is two doors down from a taxidermist and across the street from a cemetery. The location is marked by a lone vacuum sitting outside on the sidewalk.
We buzz for entrance. He emerges from the back with a blue surgical mask that will, for the entirety of our interaction fall at 10 second intervals below his nose. He asks what the problem is, which strikes me as odd because a vacuum cleaner can only have one problem which is that it doesn’t suck. Nevertheless my friend explains in several short paragraphs using words like “wand hose,” “brush motor,” and “HEPA filter,” that, in essence, it doesn’t suck.
Frank drops to one knee beside the fallen appliance as though bending down to rescue an injured puppy. He is a wholly unremarkable man — white, middle-aged, camouflaged in dad jeans and a lightly stained grey hoodie. Black orthopedic shoes. His accent: 90% queens, 10% Eastern European. Thin rimmed glasses hiding brown eyes that the longer you look into, the more they remind you of a child. This is a thing that always strikes me about adults, no matter how many years you spend selling vacuum cleaners across from a cemetery, your eyes will betray you by continuing to hold some innocent dewy part of the child in you up for everyone to see .
Frank listens to the device, his head cocked to one side, even though it isn’t running. I suspect that if I ask him a question he will hold his hand up and shush me impatiently. After a moment it is he who asks a few questions. How long have you had it? Does it cut in and out? Who does the vacuuming?
One interesting thing about running errands with her. When we are in California, sales people inevitably talk to whomever is asking the questions, or equally to both of us. When we are in New York, sales people immediately start probing for which one of us is the decision maker. I suspect this is because more than any place I’ve ever been, The City and all its boroughs run on power. Who has power, who can get power, what will people trade for power. I have no power here. It is not my vacuum. It’s not even my house so I try to stay in the background. But Frank can’t help but to gesture to me when price enters the conversation.
Price enters the conversation. He breaks it to us with the gravitas of a surgeon telling a family that there is no hope: it is not advisable, sadly, for us to invest any more of our (he gestures to me) hard earned money into this particular appliance. New filter, new motor, not to mention maintenance, will run us close to $300. My friend nods solemnly as if she expected this, though I am quite certain that she did not walk in here with any plans of buying a new vacuum. Maybe she plays along because she too doesn’t want to give up power. I cannot see her mouth under the mask so I cannot fully tell what face she is making, but her eyes strike me as wary, and slightly spiritually fatigued.
In one of the most seamless transitions I’ve ever been fortunate to witness, Frank is now talking about a brand of vacuum which happens to be the only one he trusts, made in Germany, he assures us (I only carry vacuums from Germany and America, none of this British or Chinese stuff) which he,( we’re in great luck) just happens to have right here. (Do we have pets?) Yes. (Kids?) Yes.
This is all he needs to hear. Without breaking his breezy salesman’s patter, which is as every bit as congenial as it is unceasing (Home Depot? Home Depot doesn’t care what they sell , the people who work there, they’re in and out every week, what do they care if a customer comes back? But me? I’m a small business, I need you as much as you need me. I mess up, I’ve got unhappy customers, bad reviews, what do I need with that irritation? Life is hard enough…) he produces two Tupperware containers seemingly from nowhere. He opens one, pours out its contents, covering a portion of the shop’s immaculately carpeted floor with a taupe fur-like substance. From the other he pours a healthy pile of broken Cheerios. “What the hell,” he mumbles before tossing a handful of rice into the blend as if reluctantly celebrating a marriage.
My friend tries the new recommended vacuum, which we are apparently now seriously considering buying, though neither of us is sure exactly when things progressed to that level. True to Frank’s word, it extracts the mess with a power that, even as an uninvested bystander, I am impressed by. Imagine what it would be like to have that power. The power to suck anything up that frustrates and irritates you. I think about my office/closet at home, the tiny section near the doorjamb in which one half of a Q-tip, several stray hairs, a rubber band, and a little plastic fastener from the clothing tag on a shirt I bought at Target at least six months ago lie in a pile that has mildly pestered me for weeks. My stupid vacuum has always missed it. I have yet to cave and pick it up by hand. I think about what it would be like to simply press a button and have it all disappear, to have it all be neat, contained.
Even the vacuum cleaner itself is clean. No dust, no hair, no fur, a gleaming white body, with a cool blue upper, a palate that calls to mind a tropical beach. Outside the sky is grey and heavy, the winter old. There is dirty snow, piled high to the side of the road with fast food cups, cigarette buts, spongy, sodden cardboard pieces, entire trashbags discarded and tossed aside. Outside there is chaos of every type. A Pandemic, lawlessness, a race war. On the way to the shop I joked with my friend that I already liked Frank from the phone call, and even if he personally stormed The Capitol on January 6th, we were still going to support local business. We laughed. But outside of this shop, there is a Frank who did in fact storm The Capitol on January 6th, armed, ready to kill, ready to bludgeon someone to death.
Not too long before leaving with my friend on the vacuum mission, I received word that there had been a racist attack in a mental health Zoom meeting that I volunteer host weekly. I wasn’t there this week, for only the second time in a year. I had asked someone else to take over because I was going to be in New York, apparently helping my friend buy a vacuum. The assailants had learned the password, gotten past security, and waited 40 minutes for a Black man to share. Once he did, they attacked him with racial and homophobic slurs which went on for minutes before the fill-in host could figure out how to eject them. As a Black person in America, I know that there are no safe spaces, but that meeting was as close to a safe space as I allowed myself to believe existed. When I texted him to ask if he was OK, he responded precisely as I would have responded. He told me it didn’t bother him. That he knew racism was alive and well. That it takes a lot more than that to get to him. Then he changed the subject to music and showed me a picture he had taken of our hometown lake that morning. We’re going for a bike ride together when I get back to talk about Blackness, queerness, being an artist, trauma, parents, and maybe sandwiches.
That is what is out there.
In here there is a Frank who has a machine that can clear up every single mess with the flick of a button. A Frank who wants you to be happy, who now considers you a friend. “I know you now,” he says, expertly sensing the close is near, “I have no incentive to screw you over, you know?”
Here, he withdraws, giving us a minute to talk it over. My friend and I retire to a secluded corner between two canister vacuums to discuss. The question is not whether or not she’s going to buy it, but how we’re going to pay for it. She is a single mom, recently divorced from a white guy in finance who was the primary breadwinner. Uncertain financial future, non-profit background. Etc. I know that women, especially non-white women, simply do not get the same financial opportunities that I do, no matter how good they are at what they do. I knew that before, because people told me about it. I knew it when I was a child and my insanely brilliant mother and I were poor and hungry and sometimes homeless. But as a man, it’s also thing that you just have to keep being told over and over again because the first 20 to 100 times you hear it, the narrative everyone has been giving you your whole life pops up to play defense. “That’s not because she’s a woman,” you think, “that’s just bad luck.” “This is not because I’m a man,” you reason “This is because I work hard and I’m good at what I do.”
I know that I’m a good writer and that my work sells in the marketplace of ideas. I also know that there is money out there for me that I get not because I’m a writer, but because I’m a dude writer. I get asked to write a profile of a sports figure who himself is famous because of his absurd displays of testosterone, I help a rapper craft his story, I get interviewed by a dude about a dude who makes content that is loved by dudes. Dudes giving money to dudes to talk to dudes about dudes. At 46 years old, after a lifetime of being poor, a very small portion of this dude money now sits in my bank account. After a lifetime of being Black in America, I feel like it does better work elsewhere.
Soon we are driving through Queens, new vacuum in the back, clutching an owner’s manual and a box of replacement bags, while warehouses, fast food places, and the borough’s never-ending cemeteries fly by. I am thinking about our last moments in Frank’s shop. “I would shake your hand,” he had told us as we were leaving, “but this damn Pandemic….” Here he trails off shaking his head. He seems genuinely pained, and it’s the first time in our whole visit where I don’t feel like he’s selling us something. But maybe that’s because he already has.
“We’ll be better by summer,” I find myself weakly re-assuring him as I give him an awkward elbow bump. He opens the door for us, adjusting, for one final time, his collapsing mask. “Thank you for supporting small business,” he says before we head out into the cold, pick our way over murky pyramids of tightly packed snow, and across the street to the cemetery where the car is parked. The band new, untouched vacuum is in my hand, full of promise and power.
It is at least six hours before my friend remembers that her mother, who lives downstairs, already has a perfectly good, though significantly cheaper, vacuum that she rarely uses. We marvel at Frank’s salesmanship, breaking down the whirlwind event moment by moment, his reading of our situation, his working man camaraderie, the dextrous, nearly imperceptible way he maneuvered us from “repair a vacuum,” to “buy a vacuum.”
It is my temptation to chalk it up to the game. “Don’t take it too hard. He’s good at his job,” I say. “We didn’t get swindled. We just got sold.”
“It’s fine,” she replies, her eyes glistening with a weary anger, “I just I hate it when I let white men inject themselves into my life and sell me on all this bullshit. ” Here she gestures vaguely and undeniably to literally everything that surrounds us.