A roving robot named after an English butler becomes a beloved new pet, despite the skepticism of the family dogs.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
My mom was the perfect example. Since my bedroom was next to the kitchen, I’d go to sleep hearing her pack our lunches for the next day, or stitching away at her sewing machine.
When Mom knocked on my door at 6am to wake me for school, I’d smell the coffee she’d already brewed, and the bacon crisping in her favorite cast iron pan. She’d have already set the table for Dad and me.
On chilly winter mornings, my mother urged me to stand in front of the den fireplace to warm up; the split logs would be already glowing since she’d made the fire an hour before.
Mom saved the noisier task of vacuuming for afternoons. Back then, vacuum cleaners had the decibel level of a bull-dozer and weighed about as much too. My five-foot tall mother would drag the behemoth into a room and wrestle with it, contorting herself in attempts to force the attachments beneath beds and behind furniture.
Of course, my dad pitched in around the house too, but he mostly took care of the more interesting outdoor tasks. Edging the sidewalk or taking out the garbage could turn into a real adventure if you spotted a raccoon or possum. So when pressed into labor, I generally tried to land the outside assignments.
If that ploy wasn’t successful, I would even offer to scrub the bathroom to avoid vacuuming, I hated the big Blue Beast. The infernal monster hurt my ears and spewed dust if you accidently sucked up a sock. The attachments never attached properly, so they'd fly off, at times causing bodily harm.
Scarred by her own childhood experiences with the Blue Beast, my older sister, always a meticulous housekeeper, has also detested vacuuming her entire adult life.
A few years ago, my sister became the first person in my circle to recommend a robot vac. She claimed it randomly scooted around the room without any human direction whatsoever, minding its manners and doing an excellent job. I was skeptical. How could a round thing clean corners?
Her son, a musician who dotes on his cats, later gave an even stronger endorsement: “I think the floor’s already clean, but when I empty my Roomba, I can’t believe all the cat hair it still managed to pick up.”
This made a bigger impression. We own two dogs and one of them, Sherman, a white German Shedder, produces great snowdrifts of hair year-round. Still, the price tag of the new-fangled vacuum kept me pushing my conventional upright around – but only when the drifts - and the guilt - piled up.
A gift card and a Black Friday sale convinced me to take the plunge finally. I brought new Roomba home and set it loose in my living room. Within ten minutes, a flashing light warned me that its container was filled. Although I’d cleaned the room with the upright a few days before, in the space of an hour I had to empty the Roomba’s dust bin two more times.
The pint-sized robot came with its own app, which I loaded onto my phone. The app asked me to name the vacuum.
Using a woman's name was out of the question. Besides, I’d always wanted an English butler, like Giles, the one actor Sebastian Cabot played in the popular 60s TV show, “Family Affair.”
I typed "Niles" into the app.
Like any proper British butler, Niles exhibits great dignity. The dogs learned to respect him within a few days. Our small terrier, Jace, at first tried to protect his toys from the relentless rolling machine. Since Niles showed no fear and is clearly an Alpha, Jace now snatches playthings out of the vacuum’s path and hides them in another room.
Sherman, who was bushwhacked once when Niles emerged from beneath the sofa and ran over his tail, is wary. Although he's five times the size, he retreats into his kennel when the robot rules the room.
I too, think of Niles as a plucky personality. If he's supposed to be working, but has suddenly fallen quiet, I know he's not loafing. I worry that his battery might have run out beneath the sofa. Or I get concerned when Niles sounds a distress call (likely by sucking up a sock) and I run to the rescue.
I thank Niles on a regular basis. Profusely. Although I have evidence that Sherman is still shedding as much hair has ever, I only see it now when I empty Niles’s dust compartment. The drifts in the corners have utterly vanished.
Best of all, so has my perpetual guilt.