Ask yourself this: who doesn't want to drive a suck-up truck?
OK, OK, suck-up truck isn't the proper name.
Technically, it's the Tennant ATLV. That stands for All-Terrain Litter Vehicle. City workers call it "the Tennant"---it's an alien-looking sit-on vacuum the size of a Bobcat with a wide ground-level sucker on the front and a 15-foot hose vacuum on its right. It can suck up a half-full can of Coke without so much as a burp.
Eddie Boucher works for HRM and drives the Tennant. There are four other similar city-owned machines, called Madvacs, but Boucher, who is tanned, fit and with teeth whiter than milk glass, likes the Tennant best. It was the first ATLV the city bought. And Boucher was the first guy to take it out.
"I use that alone," Boucher says of the long arm hose. "You can get into the cracks and under benches and that."
Boucher is a streetside celebrity for driving the Tennant, which is one of two on-street vacuums dedicated to the capital district. He's been in more photos with tourists than he can count and says people on Spring Garden Road sometimes yell when he's off-duty, "Hey, where's your machine!?"
I ask him if the Tennant is hard to drive.
One sunny Friday outside City Hall, I sat on its black vinyl seat. I put my foot on the hydrastat. Toes down for forward; heel down to reverse. I pressed the brake. I touched the button for lowering the front vacuum.
Now, I've driven a golf cart. I'm decent at bumper cars. I sat for a minute and pictured the engine roaring to life. I felt certain: I could handle this super-sucking machine.
So, how about a spin?
Boucher wasn't the bearer of the bad news. (Secretly, I like to think he would have let me take a go at siphoning up a few cigarette butts and half-full cans.) But Brenton Heighton, work supervisor with HRM Transportation and Public Works, had to put down his foot. Kindly.
"You're not the first to ask," he says, smiling, "and I'm sure you're not going to be the last."
But wouldn't it be great? If residents could borrow the machines? How cool would that be, if there was a little army of street- and sidewalk-sweeping Haligonians, willing to clean up their neighbourhoods in their spare time?
"They are very easy to drive," Heighton concedes. "It's similar to a lawn mower."
"Well, like I said, it does have its schedules."
The suck-up trucks are out from six to two every day. Or, rather, every sunny day. Despite the ruggedness touted on the Tennant website---"climbs curbs, navigates hills"---Heighton says they don't go out in the winter and are "temperamental in wet weather."
Heighton doesn't know the lifespan of a suck-up truck. "Until they break," he guesses. HRM's are all well-maintained (mollycoddled, perhaps?) and less than six years old. New, they cost in the $30,000 ballpark.
"We really have to take a stance that there is proper procedure for running the machines."
But what if this volunteer street-level garbage militia team I'm proposing took a weekend course? You know. To get certified.
HRM suck-up truck drivers do week-long training, Heighton says. And even after that, for the first little while, "We keep them in the parks where there are fewer people."
Speaking of parks, Heighton's maintenance crews are the folks who keep the Grand Parade looking so handsome---the tree lights, the flowers, the short grass. And you have to admire Heighton for this: he was responsible for installing the barriers that keep out the councillor's cars.
Heighton's crews also do downtown gum.
The big problem used to be cigarette butts, but as of last year---whether people aren't littering as much or because the suck-up truck crews (even without my little army's help, it seems) are so efficient---Heighton says "they couldn't find the cigarette butts anymore. So they went to the gum."
I guess I could get a high-powered sprayer and take care of neighbourhood gum on my own, but it just doesn't hold the same cachet as the suck-up truck.
"Like I said," Heighton patiently repeats, "we can't just let anyone drive them. We have to do due diligence with the training. And there is insurance involved."
Right. Insurance. But maybe we could sign waivers? Or get our own insurance?...
Like, maybe if...