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Tram diary: Henry Hoover Economics

This is an entry from towards the end of September that I’ve been meaning to upload to the blog.

During my Tuesday evening commute, a homeless man sat down beside me on the tram and asked for a quid. He was a young man, perhaps mid-twenties, wearing a heavily stained cream coloured fleece with a thick sheep-like laniferous twill, a single arm laced through a fraying sleeve while the rest trailed flaccidly along the floor behind him like a child’s blankie. As he dropped down beside me our eyes met and for a moment we looked at each other with soul penetrating unblinking depth, me a little startled, he overcommitted and unsure how to proceed. He muttered something and I took off my headphones to better hear him.

“I said, do you know who Steve Jobs is?” he asked, leaning in closer. I noticed that his fleece was now strewn across the narrow walkway running down the middle of tram so that nobody could pass without disturbing him.

“He’s dead you know.” He continued.

“Yes,” I said, “I heard about that. Some form of aggressive cancer wasn’t it?”

This he absorbed without response, looking away as if corralling a scattering herd of straying thoughts, only to abruptly turn back and present me with me another question:

“Well, do you know who Lord Dyson is?”

I said that I did, suddenly unsure whether Dyson had recently pegged it and whether this line of questioning marked the start of a long list of dead entrepreneurs, effectively trapping me, rather fittingly, until the end of the line.

“He makes Hoovers you know,” the man continued, “expensive ones.” We agreed on this, at which point his companion, who until that point I hadn’t noticed, pushed his way through the packed carriage to excitedly blurt out and a touch too loudly, “DYSONS NEVER LAST!” We all nodded and took a moment to reflect on this.

“I see Dysons all the time,” said my companion, his voice now sombre and serious, “left out for the dustman. But do you know what I never see? Henrys!” his compatriot underling this observation with a series of emphatic “YESES!”

“You just can’t kill a Henry,” he went on, “they’re built to last and better for the environment I’d say.”

As this unfolded, him laying out the many qualities of the humble Henry vacuum cleaner and me nodding along, a rather marvellous thing happened: we bonded. First, we tried to remember all the different models of Henry Hoovers: Hetty and James, the suggestively named Wet ‘n’ Dry George with a carpet shampooing options, and the new Henry Xtra, both of which I’d never heard of before. “And you can get pink for the girls!” the other man shouted with another startling increase in volume that seemed to surprise even him, which for some reason started us all off laughing. I actually had tears in my eyes. As our merriment subsided and the tram slowed for the approaching stop, the other man gestured that it was theirs and my new friend gathered up his fleece, bade me a good evening and disappeared into the night. The entire exchange lasted a little more than three minutes at the most.

As I continued onwards I thought about his insightful street-level economic analysis and the daily tally of our shameful throwaway society. It seemed to me something a Terry Pratchett character might say, a pithy Captain Vimes’s anecdote that reveals a roughly hewn but no less profound insight for the ages. Come to think of it, those budget Henry Hoovers do seem to go on forever, always smiling, perennially willing to pick up another shift along with a bushel of cat hair. They were a staple at every student house I lived in and seemed damn well indestructible. I also wondered if my companions’ extensive Henry-based knowledge was the result of a succession of poorly paid cleaning jobs that if picked out on a map with pin and thread would spell out some deeper part of their story. I was glad that we had met, and that for a few stops we had made a human connection which is tragically rare amongst strangers. We had even laughed together, our species’ unique defense against the absurdity of it all and then parted like travellers of old, drawn to a campfire or a chance to share the road. As the tram rumbled on, I overheard a couple behind me tittering about their own Dyson misadventures, clearly inspired.

What lingers now of that exchange is the thought of how much our evenings diverged at that point. I went home to a warm house and a delicious meal, widescreen TV and something nice to drink. I slept in a warm bed untroubled by any great anxiety other than the usual neurotic background buzz of my personal anxiety wasps. But what of my companions? Theirs I can only imagine to be a night punctuated by stretches of twitching fear and bellyaching hunger; threatening noises and the passing of drunks before the relative stillness and piercing cold of the early hours. There are so many sleeping bags in doorways these days, many of them the same shade of cheap summer camp polyester blue, each promising little in the way of winter shielding.

I travel into work on the second tram of the day and will be at my desk by 7:30am. I do this so that I can avoid the worst of the motorway traffic and set off for home around 4pm in advance of the evening rush. At that hour of the morning I see the city’s homeless being roused, groggy and unresisting by police officers and the polo-shirted custodians responsible for opening the large rolling shutters and heavy plate glass doors of banks and municipal buildings, whose imperial architectural overhangs provide some meagre shelter from the rain. I often stare though I know I shouldn’t, feelings of guilt curdling with those of sympathy and revulsion. Occasionally they ride the tram for a few stops to get out of the weather and warm up.

I never did give him that quid.



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