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Big Chuck

March 28, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Even new vacuum cleaners can still be fixed

I recently found my mother's old vacuum cleaner. The real old one.

It's an unwieldy monstrosity. On the side it says "Electrolux Canister." It was 1950s gun-metal gray, making it look like an Army poison-gas container. It had rubber wheels and a hose that did not detach. Inside was a "collection bag" that looked like an aging windsock at a long-forgotten rural airport.

I opened it up. Inside was the last vestige of "D'Imperio debris" from the final vacuuming that Mom did before she retired it to the garage some five decades ago. Yes, there was 1950s era Christmas tinsel in the "wind sock."

Surprisingly, the most memorable feature of this relic, the retractable power cord, still worked. My brother Jim and I would stretch the cord out to the very limit and let 'er fly. Off the cord would go, whipsawing around the living room, bouncing off the Sears end table, scraping along the rattan front of my Dad's hi-fi stereo cabinet and zinging through the room, sending pets fleeing in terror. We'd have probably high-fived each other if high-fives had been invented yet.

Another amazing thing about the old dinosaur was that it still worked. And it could still suck the chrome off the bumper of a '57 Chevy.

Our current vacuum cleaner is purple. Yes, purple. It's made of plastic and has more moving parts than my watch. It has several accessories, including hoses, curtain dusters, a headlight and a "see-through dirt cylinder." No bag. No retractable cord.

Recently, our purple cleaner refused to suck. I did my husbandly best to fix it, but failed. It was a Sisyphean task. Once the roller brush was freed, the light wouldn't work. Once the cylinder began to whirl, the wheels locked. I don't know what we paid for this purple pain in the neck but probably not much.

"I think it's done for, honey," I sighed.

"Go and get it fixed," was the exasperated answer.

But, where?

I was coming out of Mac's Barber Shop on Oneida Street recently when I looked up and there it was! Eureka!

"Ben Alkes Vacuum Cleaner Service. If Ben can't fix it, throw it away."

The Alkes family has been fixing sewing machines and vacuum cleaners here for more than a half-century.

"Yes, this was our home," Lana Alkes told me. "We started utilizing the front porch, then needed more room, so we changed over the living room and so on. Soon the whole house was filled with machines," she said with a laugh.

Lana is one of the most charming ladies you'll ever meet. She hoisted my purple, plastic picker-upper onto the counter and got to work.

"Let's see what we have stuck in here."

Over the next half hour, this delightful woman weaved a fascinating story about the Alkes family history. And sewing machines.

"I have seen them all," Lana told me as she waved her hand over an array of 50 sewing machines: Brothers, Singers, Monarchs, Pfaffs, Sew Bests, Necchis and more.

A line of a hundred upright vacuum cleaners reminded me of the funereal Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of China. "I have more in the cellar, too," she said with a chuckle.

Lana's dad, the legendary Ben, worked originally for GE in Schenectady before settling on Oneida Street in 1960.

"I still use Dad's tool chest," she told me.

Ben died in 1993. Lana's mother, Annie, died in 2000.

"It is just me now."

I asked her how she liked this solitary kind of work. "Oh, the people are very friendly in here," she said with a smile. "I know almost everybody (she is a graduate of Oneonta High School). Each machine is a little puzzle in itself. I've always been very mechanically inclined." No surprise that one of Lana's favorite pastimes is solving Sudoku puzzles.

In her simplified world (she has no computers and uses a rotary phone), Lana is a wizard at figuring things out. While she chirped away telling me her story, her hands never stopped screwing and unscrewing, prying and pulling at my plastic contraption. Soon, the answer manifested itself.

She slowly pulled out a wad of pet hair, paper clips and carpet fragments that had congealed in the sucking canal.

"There's your problem," she said triumphantly. "Too bad we didn't find any money," she said with a giggle.

Then, Lana expertly put my modern sucker back together and wrote up my bill.

Total, for a half hour's worth of work, service, pleasant conversation and a new belt, came to $8.

I love this woman.

Catch you in two.

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at His columns can be found at

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