Fifteen years ago, I bought a shop vac at Sears; it was a remarkable tool that I grew to hate. The vac was on sale, and I think I paid around $35 for it. It was mostly plastic with a red canister and black lid. At first, I was happy with my new shop vac. I used it in my work as a remodeler. Customers would compliment me on what a nice vacuum I had, and fellow workers always commented about how powerful it was.
Indeed, I was constantly amazed myself by how powerful the vac was. Whatever the object, if it would fit in the wide-diameter hose end, the vacuum would suck it in with gusto. Old stud cavities were one of its specialties: Mouse nests, nut casings, chunks of ancient corn cobs and anything else you can imagine would disappear into the bowels of the machine with nary a complaint. Even objects bigger than the hose were fair game. I once pointed the wand at a sizable chunk of fiberglass insulation, and it was gone in an instant, like the bad guy in a James Bond movie getting sucked through a bullet hole in an airplane at 20,000 ft.
Vacuuming with that shop vac became sort of a game to me. I’d look for impossible objects to consume, and when they were successfully sucked out of sight, I’d marvel at the red beast’s ability, and brag about its accomplishments.
It certainly was a heck of a vacuum, but it wasn’t without flaws, and as time wore on, I began to tire of its idiosyncrasies. For one thing, it was dominatingly loud. Nobody could hear anything else when the vacuum was on. Hearing protectors were a must.
But more annoying than that, the predominantly plastic body of the machine stored an endless supply of static electrical charge that it let loose arbitrarily on the person doing the vacuuming, typically when least expected. The wicked thing fired off miniature lightning bolts with a sharp snapping sound. I have inadvertently touched live electrical wires that were less potent.
In addition, the machine was looking poorly. After ten years of steady use, it was studded with dried spackle and various colors of paint, along with an identification blaze of fluorescent orange I had sprayed around the top. The plastic body attracted dust and was impossible to get clean. One wheel was broken off. The hose was taped together, as was the power cord. And I had to jiggle the switch just to get the motor to turn on.
In short, I was ready for a new shop vac. In fact, I had a nice one picked out, but I decided I wouldn’t get it until the old one finally died. It couldn’t be long. But two years later, looking even worse for wear, the tool was still sucking up crud as well as it did the day I bought it. And the more I abused it and wished it would self-destruct, the louder it screamed, and the fiercer were the lightning bolts.
Then, one fine summer day, an unusual opportunity presented itself. I was finishing a job. It was getting late. I hurriedly tossed my gear in the back of my truck. I put the vacuum on top of the pile. As I was cruising home, I rounded a bend just before a bridge over a creek. I looked in my rear-view mirror just in time to see the shop vac bounce and disappear out of sight over the edge. I considered not stopping but hit the brakes, pulled aside and walked back. As I got closer, I could see that the unit’s electrical-plug end had hooked itself on part of the metal of the bridge. At the other end of the cord, 6 ft. below, the vac floated atop the water.
I looked back and forth, up and down the road; no one was around. It took only a moment, a simple flick of the finger, and the old tub was conveniently on its way. Like a giant fishing bobber, the canister rode on the water, did a pirouette in an eddy and floated out of sight in the twilight of the evening.
Next day, I went out and bought a new Milwaukee shop vac. Six hundred dollars, and it’s a beaut. It’s got a bright-red metal canister that I can keep waxed clean. The top is shiny chrome, as are the wand and implements. There is a handsome side handle with a handy parts bag attached to it, and the wheels are exceptionally sturdy. Although the hose is smaller and the suction isn’t nearly as good as that of my old vac, it’s good enough. Better yet, the motor is incredibly quiet, and the machine has never given me a shock. I’m happy with my new shop vacuum.
You’d think this would be the end of my story, but it isn’t. About a month after I got my new vac, I pulled into a gas station and noticed a beat-up old truck on the other side of the pumps. In its back, amid the jumble of construction tools and materials, an old vac was nestled in the corner. The orange blaze caught my eye immediately.
The truck’s owner came out of the store and passed by me on the way to his door. He was crawlspace filthy and had a two-day stubble of beard. He looked at me and nodded, but his sour expression didn’t change.
“How’s it going,” I asked.
“Good,” he replied curtly without slowing.
“That’s a good old shop vac there,” I offered.
He turned and faced me as he opened the door to his truck. “That’s a damn good vacuum. It’s got incredible suction,” he said with surprising earnestness.
“Yeah, but I’ll bet you get some wicked static shocks off it, don’t you?”
The man furrowed his brow, pursed his lips and looked down for a split second before shaking his head. “Nope. Never.”
I smiled at him and nodded understandingly, certain he was being facetious. As the fellow drove to the road and waited for traffic to clear, he glanced back at me and gave a quick wave. I think I detected a smile breaking across his face. I mean, he had to be kidding.
—Herrick Kimball, Moravia, New York
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers