Friday, November 22, 2013

Down the memory hole

I was listening to a podcast a few days ago, and the host made mocking mention of central vacuum systems. I don't remember the exact context, but the upshot was that the guests were asked if they lived in an early twentieth-century apartment building that had those outlets in the wall where you hooked up a hose and sucked dirt out of your life.

That's when I experience that sudden frisson of recognition, the kind that happens when a long-forgotten detail of your life swims up out of your memory, and you realize: I lived in a house that had those outlets.

When I was a kid, my family built a house on property we owned about twenty miles out of town. We moved to that house when I was in eighth grade. And that house had a central vacuum system. There were unobtrusive hinged wall plates in each room and along the hallways; you lifted the flap to find a hole. Plug a hose into that hole, attach the hose to a handle and the handle to a carpet sweeping head, and vacuum away. The dirt went into some collection device in the lower level of the house. I have vague memories that it was located in my dad's workshop, which was part of a small garage built to house his tractor, based on times when something that wasn't supposed to be vacuumed was, necessitating some foraging around in the collection bin to retrieve it.

Those wall plates fascinated me. The whole system did, really. Vacuuming was one of the more pleasant chores I was occasionally assigned, because I could use it. Was the suction always on? When you lifted the lid, it didn't seem to resist you, but when you removed the hose and flipped the lid down, it seemed to get sucked into place. Were there switches built into the lid mechanisms somehow that triggered the suction?

And then there were the holes themselves. They were tempting to a curious child in the way all openings to mysterious places seem to be. What would happen if I put a ping-pong ball or a Christmas ornament in there? The hose obscured what would surely be fascinating to witness directly, the sight of an item suddenly being whisked away, popped out of your hands like a message in a pneumatic tube.

I've never encountered another house with one of these systems, but I see online that they're marketed to residential customers. I had no idea until hearing the podcast that they were associated with a certain era of multifamily housing in the minds of some urbanites. I kinda wish my current house had one. Maybe I'd even vacuum once in a while.


Anonymous said...

Did you ever put a ping pong ball or a Christmas ornament down there?

Michelle said...

We had one of those systems in the house I grew up in. I think there's a button that the hose pushes that turns on the suction.

I can't tell you how glad I am that the house I live in now doesn't have one of those -- can't imagine what my kids would tuck in behind those flaps and how badly it would clog the pipes. I have enough trouble with my upright vacuum cleaner!