by Paul Padial back in the mid-'80s, when I WAS STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL, I would often escape from my hometown of Tappan, New York, to the woods of Harriman State Park, about fifty miles north of New York City. Lake Sebago, near the town of Tuxedo, was my favorite place to camp, fish, play guitar, party with my friends, and, yes, sometimes endure the hardships of the great outdoors. Thunderstorms. Snowstorms. Sprained ankles. Forgotten matches. Forgotten guitar picks. Forgotten beer. But even when everything was going wrong, we always could count on Dinty Moore stew for dinner and a cup of hot coffee at dawn. Except for one trip when even the coffee was in jeopardy.
There were six of us on that trip: me, my brother, Michael, and four of our friends. Following a night of Heinekens around the campfire, we woke up hungover and cold. (It was May, and the mountain mornings were still chilly.) Eventually, my friend Dave walked to the car to get our glass coffeemaker, the old-fashioned kind you put directly on the burner (or in our case, the coals). I watched him as he carried it back with both hands, like it was the Holy Grail. He had almost reached the campsite, when he tripped over a tree stump and . . . smash! Dave was unhurt, but all our rustic cowboy visions of sipping coffee around the morning fire disappeared like smoke.
I grew up in a Puerto Rican household, where coffee was an essential part of the morning routine. And my father was a classic tinkerer, always trying to repair things around the house with unconventional materials and tools. As we stared down at the minefield of broken glass lying in front of us, my brother and I realized that we were trained for this very moment. We started brainstorming, asking ourselves, What would Dad do?
It was Michael who suggested the sock. Everyone thought he was kidding; I actually recall a few lame jokes about stinky coffee. But I knew he was dead serious. And the idea was brilliant.
First we needed to fashion a filter basket. Being a graduate of my father's School of Wire Hanger Technology, I ran to my car and grabbed a hanger. (Doesn't everyone keep a hanger in the car?) I twisted the bottom half of the hanger into a four-inch circle, about the diameter of the coffee cups we were using, and bent the other half into a handle. It would do.
Someone put a pot of water on the fire to boil. Now all we needed was the filter, which was turning out to be more difficult than we expected. We'd all brought heavy woolen socks, not realizing that they'd need to double as coffee filters. Again, Michael gets credit for the solution.
"Paul, didn't you come straight from work? Maybe your dress socks would do the trick."
"Urn, yeah, that might work," I said. He was right; I'd come straight from my job as an aide at a nursing home. "Problem is, I'm still wearing them."
Look, we were desperate. So I ran down to the lake, removed my socks, and washed them as best as I could in the clean, cold water. When I returned to the campsite, I placed the socks near the fire to dry. (My bare feet must have been frigid, but I was so wired that I don't remember feeling a thing.) I could tell my brother was excited. Like two mad scientists on the verge of a major breakthrough, we sat together on a tree stump and started to assemble our invention. Once the socks were dry, I pulled one through the hanger and fit it around the opening. Our friends looked on with skepticism, then flat-out disgust. One by one, they began saying thanks but no thanks. My brother and I giggled, knowing that our old man would be proud.
FRESH BREWED COFFEE
FRESH BREWED COFFEE
I held our creation with pride. Michael and I couldn't have cared less about the dubious hygiene. We just wanted to see it work. The water boiled on the fire, and we scooped coffee grinds into the sock. As my brother gripped the handle and extended the sock over my cup, I slowly poured the water. The coffee dripped evenly into my cup, a rich deep brown, and that familiar aroma filled the air. Our friends started returning one by one. They appeared genuinely mesmerized by the perfection of the device. We all decided that I would have firstcup honors. As I took a sip, they looked on with anticipation.
"Now that's a cup of coffee," I said.
Then everyone else had a cup, and no one disagreed.
Paul Fadial is a social worker in Manhattan. He grew up in the northern suburbs of New York City with his brother, sister, and anyone else who didn't have a home. His parents were always trying to fix things, especially people.
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