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The Column: Life lessons from a broken Eureka vacuum cleaner

Remember when Julie Andrews sang “My Favorite Things” in “The Sound of Music”?

Bright copper kettles, warm woolen mittens, cream-colored ponies, crisp apple strudels, doorbells, sleigh bells, schnitzel with noodles — wow, just about everything was on Julie’s list of keepers.

I thought of her the other day at the vacuum cleaner repair shop.

The old Eureka upright — vintage, maybe, 1975 — needed a belt and I didn’t trust the internet to send the right one.

Vacuum repair shops — let’s hope they never go away, right?

Likewise, baseball card emporiums, pickle factories, laundries that wrap your folded underwear in brown paper, hobby shops that carry balsa wood Piper Cub kits, secondhand bookstores and shoemaker shops smelling of polish and leather — that last one, I fear, already on the edge of extinction. Where is the next generation of surgeons specializing in soles and heels? Has everyone gone off to college?

Anyway, the Eureka is near the top of my list of treasures — up there with my father’s old claw hammer, a miniature Carl Hubbell baseball bat left over from childhood and a blue shirt so faded and speckled that my wife says I can wear it in public only if she happens to be away in Nova Scotia.

Ah, the Eureka.

This is a serious machine. It weighs a ton, roars like your neighbor’s leaf blower and maneuvers about as easily as one of those fancy cruise ships with 18 decks and an onboard mountain range.

Long ago, the hook that keeps the power cord in place broke, so I strapped the cord down with duct tape. The machine has dents and gouges and the scars of a thousand run-ins with table legs and baseboard molding.

But, holy cow, does this thing clean — inhales everything in sight. Keep miniature schnauzers and grandchildren below the age of 2 out of the way. An industrial grade implement, in other words, noble and indestructible.

Awaiting service, I listened as the proprietor — New York kind of guy, older, no nonsense, seen it all — engaged a customer on various matters pertaining to central vacuum systems, a conversation so exotic I could not keep pace.

Finally, he looked toward me.

“Oh, boy,” he said, spotting the Eureka.

His was not the tone of, say, an art dealer who, heart aflutter, sees a customer coming through the door with what appears a Picasso lately discovered in the attic.

The exhaustion in his voice made me think the man had seen one old vacuum cleaner — and one old vacuum cleaner owner — too many, that he wished maybe he had gone into plumbing or accounting, after all.

“Problem?” I said. “This is a great machine.”

“Yeah,” said the vacuum guy. “So was the 1958 Edsel. You’ve probably got one of those, too.”

Doesn’t that sound a little abrupt? And mentioning the short-lived Edsel, widely ridiculed for a grille design compared variously to a horse collar, toilet seat or, as Time magazine said, an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon — wouldn’t you take that personally?

But, OK, it turned out the shopkeeper had the belt I needed, and I thought, gee, there must be others of us in the Eureka Army or why would he stock the part?

On the spot, I began installing the belt — just in case I needed help — but, no, the proprietor said, that was forbidden. “Insurance doesn’t cover,” he said.

Foolishly, I lifted the machine from floor to counter drawing an even more emphatic rebuke. “Don’t,” the fellow said.

Walking to the car with my Eureka and bag of belts, I searched for deeper meaning.

Here’s my guess:

There are times, as we get older, that the ordinary becomes the enemy — that we grow weary of doing whatever it is that we do and always have done.

The thought of tossing another pizza for the pizzaiolo, or banging another nail for the carpenter, or correcting the latest spelling test for the fourth-grade teacher may occasionally make a person want to scream: I am more than this!

I feel it myself. I’ve been at my particular line of work for nearly 60 years. Mostly, I’m happy. Sometimes, though, I grumble. Sometimes, I’m impatient, ornery and seriously unwilling to schmooze.

So, no hard feelings, vacuum guy. We all have rough days and I didn’t drop by for conversation, anyway, only to rehab my precious Eureka.

And, can I mention? I got the new belt in — first try.

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