• Otter Views: Penny for Your Thoughts

    Canadians sometimes browse through the shop where I work. If they buy anything, they have to deal with our pesky U.S. pennies.

    “We don’t use these in Canada anymore,” one fellow said, squinting at the American pennies in his palm. “When the cost reached two cents to make each one, our pennies were history.”

    While that seems an eminently sensible and Canadian outcome, I’m glad America still has pennies. Since it would take an act of Congress to eliminate ours, we’ll likely have them for the foreseeable future. Congress hasn’t passed many acts lately.

    That said, I can understand why some U.S. policymakers might want to emulate the Canadians. Aside from the few pennies that can ease the irksome “$4.04, please” transaction, pennies buy virtually nothing these days. They’re the buck privates of money.

    Pennies never get to snap crisply out of a billfold or be palmed to the maitre d’ in a swanky night spot. They don’t get to light cigars, play the ponies or buy state secrets. Their biggest thrill is being run over by a train or squished in an arcade machine.

    Pennies used to be welcomed in all the right places – at the opera, on luxury liners, in the Orient Express saloon car. Bobby soxers tucked them into their loafers when Frank Sinatra or Tommy Dorsey came to town. Now pennies can’t even get into a gumball machine.

    So they just pile up. Before the advent of coin counting machines in super markets, my pennies used to end up in a nicked mokeypod bowl on top of the dresser. They’d get pitched in there from my pockets at the end of each day.

    When the pennies reached high tide and submerged the other things in the bowl – the spare car keys, the old Saint Christopher medal – they’d get scooped into a plastic bucket that lived in the swirling dustball badlands under the bed.

    When that bucket filled up, it was time to switch the brain into accounting mode and spend a tedious evening poking the pennies into little paper tubes the banks supplied. It would have been nice if each tube held exactly 50 pennies. But because the tubes folded over at the top, your stack could be a penny short or a penny tall.

    This meant you had to count every coin, because the bank wouldn’t take tubes of varying lengths. But after you counted to 50 several dozen times – and lost count several more – it was remarkable how closely a 49-penny roll resembled a 51-penny roll.

    The stacking and rolling process wasn’t entirely without pleasure. I usually began by plunging my hands into the bucket, scooping up a double handful of pennies, and savoring their sheer mass. Then I’d let the coins course through my fingers like metallic grain rattling back into its silo.

    Leading Freudians link this sort of behavior to various unsavory regressions, but I blame Uncle Scrooge. He always seemed so happy in the comic books, diving into his coin vault from the high board, or snorkeling through silver dollars with Huey, Louie and Dewey.

    The plastic tub of pennies was the closest I got to Scrooge McDuck’s treasure vault, but it did produce one minor treasure: a still legible 1909 SVDB penny that brought 800 times its face value at a coin shop. I wish I had that penny now. It’s one of the few things I ever owned that hasn’t depreciated in value.

    For a coin, the only thing worse than depreciating in value is being out of circulation. Pennies, especially, were meant to travel from hand to hand, to jingle cheerfully in pockets, to bring pleasure to many users, and to place hold the hundredths in any dollar transactions.

    And look how beautiful they are, especially the old ones with the sheaves of wheat on the back. That dark, burnished brown speaks of morocco leather, Swiss chocolate, riding gloves, brandy by firelight. Our greatest president gazes thoughtfully from each penny, as if pondering the tiny word to his left: Liberty.

    Once Sav-Mart and other venues installed convenient coin-counting machines, I no longer spent much time with pennies. Although stuffing them into those paper tubes had seemed a nuisance, it did keep me focused on which were darkest, which were pre-war, which were minted in Denver. Now they just com- ingle with the other coins.

    Still, I’m happy we have them. It’s always an inspiration to see Lincoln, and it seems fitting the nation’s greatest man should appear on its humblest coin. And while the penny’s component metals vary through time, it’s still a “copper,” a throwback to the coins of the Bronze Age. So that’s not just a penny in your palm. It’s history. And not in the Canadian sense.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 28, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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