Cans of parts

The smell of brewing coffee brings so many memories to my mind. As far back as I can remember, the coffee was on when I got up in the morning as a child. In those early years it was a stove top percolator, with a glass bulb at the top. Mother scooped ground coffee out of a can and used tap water to make the coffee. I don’t remember ever seeing her make the first pot of the day, but the pot was refreshed as needed throughout the day. The coffee of choice in our home was Folgers, from a three pound can. Our home was near 4,500 feet above sea level, which meant that whenever you opened a vacuum sealed can, a bit of air would escape because the pressure of the can, packed at sea level, would be higher than the pressure at our elevation. The wheel of the can opener cutting into the metal top of the can produced a whiff of coffee smell. It was familiar. It smelled like home.

My Uncle Ted, who lived a few blocks away, made his offer differently. He bought the same brand of coffee also packed in a metal can that let off a burst of aroma when it was opened, but he bought the one pound can. He would open the can, pour the entire contents into a sauce pan, run some tap water on it and set it to boil. When it had boiled down to the consistency of honey, he’d scoop and pour it into quart jars and set them in the refrigerator. When he wanted a cup of coffee, he would take out a tablespoon and scoop out a big glob of the thickened coffee mixture. That went into the bottom of a mug which was filled with boiling water from the tea kettle that lived on his stove. A few stirs with the spoon and the coffee was served.

My Uncle Ted never threw out anything that had a potential use. so the empty coffee cans were kept. He also obtained a supply of the three pound cans from our home. In those days the dans were painted rather than having paper tables, so they all were red. Big cans for big parts, small cans for small parts. It was one of his organizations systems for his garage and sheds. Another element in his system involved a lot of shoe boxes. He and my dad always bought the same brand of shoes and the boxes were all the same size. A grease pencil was used to label cans and boxes.

Because I knew these ways of living from my earliest years, they seemed completely normal to me. If you want a screw or a nun or bolt, you grab the appropriate can and start sorting. The same was true of nails, though they were often sorted at least by type and sometimes by size. Roofing nails had their own can. tenpenny nails are three inches long, but the can might have anything from 2 1/2 to 4 inches. threepenny nails are an inch and a quarter, but the can would have anything two inches or smaller. Finish nails had their own can.

My wife’s father was an electrician, so the cans in his garage had types of parts that weren’t as common in our garage or that of my uncle. After I became a part of the family, I would occasionally receive the gift of a 1 pound can of miscellaneous electrical parts including wire nuts, small screws for switch plates, and other miscellaneous supplies left over from wiring jobs. The contents of the cans were handy when making small home repairs. I occasionally worked as a janitor during the early years of our marriage and i was always finding need of a small screw or part in making minor building repairs.

It has been more than a decade since we cleaned out my wife’s parents’ garage. At the time I had extra cans of electrical parts to give away. I brought a can of wire nuts to the church basement and there may still be a few of them around. I took a couple of cans of miscellaneous parts home with me, but over the years, I’ve picked over them and usually when the can is down to about a quarter of its original contents, what remains is pretty much useless junk and eventually it gets tossed.

We don’t buy coffee in cans any more. Actually we don’t buy coffee all that often at our house now that both of us have given up caffeine. We still have a coffee maker and I keep decaf around for an occasional cup and we have coffee beans that we grind for use when we have guests. The church buys coffee in plastic cans, but I keep a supply of freshly -roasted coffee in my office for use when I make coffee for groups.

I’ve been thinking of using the lack of coffee cans as an excuse for the disorder in my garage. The truth is that it has nothing to do with containers. I live in a different time and I have a different attitude.

My son’s garage has very few bins of miscellaneous items. Extra parts and small pieces that aren’t being used get thrown away. When a new screw or nut is needed a trip to the hardware store is in order. He is very good at making home repairs and takes care of their cars, but finds that having a lot of spare parts that might be used someday to be unnecessary. He’s likely to watch a YouTube video on how to make a repair and then gather up the necessary tools and parts, make the repair, put away the tools and throw away unused items. He is still collecting tools, so sometimes a new repair is an occasion for a new tool.

I’m somewhere in between my Uncle Ted, who never threw out anything that might one day have a use and my son. I’ve got several containers of miscellaneous parts, but often I can’t find the right part at the right time and end up going to the hardware store.

One of these days I need to get up early in the morning, make myself a good cup of coffee (decaf will be fine) and go out and clean my garage. It will produce a lot of garbage, I’m sure. I’ll probably also keep a few cans of miscellaneous items, just in case.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!