I was out in my dad’s shop a few weeks ago (at their “new” place, not the house I grew up in, which is gone), and I saw the Can. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of it. The Can is an old gallon paint container that my dad started tossing leftover nuts, bolts, screws and washers in when I was a kid, maybe even before I was born.
The Can represents something really central in my father, who was born in 1930, a year into an economic depression so severe that by the 1950s it was being referred to with the adjective “Great” and initial caps. To this day my old man never throws away something that there is a chance he might find a use for later on. In my dad’s day, this was just common sense. But there is something more. The Can looks like, and is, physically speaking, a big mess in a bucket. But philosophically it expresses some attitudes toward life that say a lot about a man who has never discussed his inner workings much. The can expresses an acceptance of a certain degree of controlled chaos, also a balance of similar and dissimilar, and ultimately it declares the existence of a limit to how far one man will go to classify and organize the world around him. The final atomic unit of my dad’s impulse to sort is this: one gallon.
I benefitted from the bounty of the Can when I became old enough to need the odd carriage bolt or a sheet metal screw for a project, by which time I already was familiar not only with the Can but with the unspoken (and always observed) Ritual of the Can, which was to spread out some newspapers on the shop floor, then tip the Can until the whole bloomin’ gallon of tiny metal pieces Spilled out onto the floor. This event came with its own unique sound, which started sharp and sudden and then swooshed and went still — still except for the happy ring of whichever little lock washer got up enough momentum from the Spill to roll across the floor and under the chest freezer, which held the beloved apple pies that you still haven’t heard the last of.
After the Spill came the best part. The careful Pawing through all the pieces in search of the one item that suited the job perfectly. If it was a screw, there would be the obvious attributes of length and head type (phillips or flat, or both!), but also thread count. If a nut, you were usually trying to match to a bolt you had in your hand. Washers came in a number of styles and sizes, some with strange little parapets on them. Whatever you needed and however many you needed — up to about eight or ten — you would always find a matching set. You just might have to Paw through the entire heap to find all eight or ten. The invarying success of the Ritual of the Can vindicated the whole Can ideology. This I knew probably before I could speak. I’d watch my dad Paw (Pa Paw?) through the alluvially spattered mess of Extremely Useful Looking Things, his lean forearm muscles flexing under the rolled-up cuffs of an old workshirt, radius and ulna working in fine tandem to turn and rummage, and hear the triumphant exclamation when the match was made.
Early fascination with the Can evolved into the familiar and often unreflected-upon relationship one has with the tools and methods of ones tribe, and I grew to rely on the Can like I would the family ox (if we’d had an ox). And being of a compulsive nature, I was not at all dismayed by the need to Paw through every last one of thousands of pieces each time one piece was needed. Had my dad started out with a series of small pill containers with labels, then the whole Ritual of the Can would never have come to be. The search for a wood screw would be but a glance at a shelf of tidy jars. Where would be the fun in that?
When I think about it I can still feel the weighty, sludge-like metallic resistance of the heap, which moved under your hand like a wave of heavy water, and the sharp tips of screws against my fingertips. I can hear the dull ringy splash of it. I can feel the hunt.