Paul Swedlow's collection of vintage carpet cleaning equipment, Aronson’s Floor Covering, NYC. photo Ruby Washington/The New York Times.
If I had to name my single favourite thing about my contemporary digital life -- as opposed to the analogue history of the early 1990s I described yesterday -- it would be the ability to read the New York Times online. It's one of the first things I do in the morning, after I have spooned apricot porridge into the baby's mouth and slapped out rounds of vegemite-and-chippie sandwiches for school lunches.* What I read there sets me up for the whole day.
I bought a Sunday edition in Manhattan once. It was the size of a paving slab and had the heft of a brick. Too thick to fold, too slippery to clamp safely under my arm, it made my arm ache carrying it home. You could lounge around reading it in bed all day and still not get to the end. It felt like an artefact. I wanted to bring it home with me but it would have half-filled my suitcase. Proper newspapers like that -- with long investigative articles, international correspondents, fat arts sections crammed with incisive criticism, intelligent letters to the editor, and book reviews by notable authors and world-famous academics -- are to my mind one of the hallmarks of civilisation. The Press and the Herald look like the North West Suburbs Bugle and Shoppers Guide by comparison.
This morning I came across one of the nicest (most interesting, most endearing, most immediately making me wish I was there to see for myself) articles I've ever read in the NY Times. It describes the collection of vintage cleaning equipment amassed over 40 years by a neighbourhood businessman called Paul Swedlow, who until recently owned a carpet shop on West 17th Street. He's trawled flea markets and thrift shops to pick up dozens of rug-beaters, wooden carpet sweepers and old metal suckers which he displays in the shop, yet considers his collection unfinished as he still does not have the original Hoover, the Model O with cloth bag, patented in 1908, which he terms 'the missing link' of vacuum evolution. (The reporter notes that Mr Swedlow doesn't use the internet to look for his collection items; you get the impression that to a man like this, that would be cheating.) The picture above shows a primitive metal vacuum cleaner given to him by an arms dealer who mistook it for a bazooka. Or that's how he tells the story, anyway.
I think you have to have confidence in both your craft as a journalist and in the sophistication of your readership to run a story like this without trivialising the subject or patronising the interviewee. Most papers wouldn't go near it. It's neither news nor fodder for the gracious living pages. It's just a little local, human-interest, 'odd spot' kind of story, yet they run it perfectly straight and send a photographer to produce a portfolio of beautiful shots. A picture of one man's gentle lifelong obsession emerges, as well as his own take on an idiosyncratic taxonomy of display which is enormously appealing. And above all, Mr Swedlow's belief -- spoken and acted upon -- that these outmoded objects from earlier technological worlds are worthy of preservation, is something that's worth reading, and thinking about.
*Just a quick aside here. The big guy assures me that it's normal -- in fact obligatory -- to butter bread before you spread vegemite or peanut butter or whatever in sandwiches. I argue that that's two spreads, one on top of the other, fat on fat, and as such is manifestly unnecessary, wasteful, and in fact wrong; you only use butter or marge in sandwiches in order to prevent the ham or other solid filling from falling out. This has been a point of contention between us for more than a decade now. Your thoughts gratefully received.