Friday, August 19, 2011

The penny

Today I noticed in an irritatingly large handful of small change a penny that is clearly dated 1929. This means it is real bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and a dash of zinc), in other words actually worth rather more than a penny, but that is neither here nor there. I wondered for a few moments where on earth my penny has been for all this time, and, wondering, the following bright visions wafted into partial focus. From the United States Mint in Philadelphia, gleaming and new, together with tens of thousands of others my penny was delivered under armed guard to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. According to standard contractual arrangements, they consigned it to the Lower Manhattan branch of the Lincoln-Alliance Bank and Trust Co. Soon afterwards my penny found its way into the pocketbook of a clerk in charge of the wire room at the bonding house of the New York Stock Exchange firm of Sutro Brothers. Ruined in the crash, she threw herself out of a fortieth-floor window onto Wall Street, and of course died instantly. My penny therefore spent some days in the custody of the New York Police Department, before being handed over to her heirs with a few other relatively undamaged personal belongings. After a period of mourning as brief as that of Clytemnestra, these rather distant relations in Brooklyn released it back into circulation at Coney Island. Thanks to organized crime, my penny migrated thence to the tray of a cigarette vendor in a Chicago cinema. Afterwards it was brought to Kansas City, Mo., and then carried by an anthropologist all the way to San Francisco, Calif., by rail, before commencing a long period of hibernation in a cookie jar. The cookie jar was disposed of in accordance with the instructions of a testator, who before he died of a stroke in 1956 relocated several times, ultimately to Fresno. Thus returning to the banking system, my penny was soon propelled by air back to the east coast. There a freight forwarder and shipping agent used it to play a conjuring trick in a cocktail lounge not far from Ildewild Airport, part of a determined effort to seduce an off-duty stewardess (Braniff). Failing, the next morning he took my penny in his van to Rochester, N.Y., and left it in a dish at the front counter of a small diner. My penny went with his share of tips to the short order cook, who presently took it with him on vacation to Cape Cod. This was in the summer of 1968. My penny was then handled briefly and in rapid succession by a recently ordained Unitarian minister, an out-of-work soul singer, and two or three volunteer collectors for charity, curiously the same charity, before landing in an amusement arcade in Atlantic City, N.J. Already too insignificant for most slot machines, it found its shamefaced way back to a small and undercapitalized local bank, and presently reappeared on the dashboard of a lorry in Trenton. Soon afterwards my penny crossed back over the Hudson in the hip pocket of a senior Port Authority official who lost it down the back of a sofa in a prosperous Lower East Side brothel. A further period of slumber ensued, before my penny was retrieved by a frugal re-upholsterer in Long Island City. Incredible as this may seem, he banked it. Six months later, my penny went to an unscrupulous arms dealer changing numerous crisp Turkish 500,000 lira banknotes at the foreign desk in a Midtown branch of Citibank. My penny annoyed him, so a few days later, upon relinquishing his eleventh-floor suite at the Carlyle, he tossed it on the vanity. Later that morning, a hard-working chambermaid took up my penny. It lurked in her battered purse for seventeen months, two weeks, three days, ten hours, and some minutes when, just by the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, she was robbed at gunpoint and her purse emptied. This was in February 1983. There followed a brief period for which I cannot account, though numerous court appearances and at least one confiscation by officers of the law definitely occurred. Fortunately through this my penny sustained no significant damage. Nor was it ever thrown in the trash; nor placed on the railway by truant schoolchildren eager to see it squashed under a bogie; nor dropped into a sewer or storm drain where so many others apparently do end up. Reverting to the control of a front-line cashier or teller thanks to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (White Plains)—when acquitted of several counts of aggravated assault, a felon with three prior convictions overlooked it when reclaiming his personal belongings, so lost property were called in—my penny became indirectly involved with the Savings and Loan catastrophe because it was carried several times back and forth to California by Charles Keating himself, before dropping—ping!—onto a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. There a bag lady picked it up. For several weeks she shook it in her little paper cup, together with other coins of small denomination, but ultimately shook it onto the floor of a bus. The bus driver, unusually fastidious, picked it up at the end of her shift, and, perishing not long afterwards as a consequence of chronic diabetes, yielded the penny to a grieving grandson. He put it in his piggy bank. The piggy bank was emptied during the recession of the early 1990s, and this time my penny transited through the U.S. postal service. It was given as change when a graduate student on vacation from Amherst bought a prepaid envelope and ten domestic postage stamps. Back in Massachusetts, this young man misplaced my penny in his grubby backpack, right down at the bottom with a few crumpled gum wrappers and some dusty old marijuana leavings. Appointed to a junior position at Lehman Brothers, he peremptorily and, as it turns out, unwisely consigned his back-pack to the Salvation Army, and my penny was discovered in the workroom adjoining their Thrift Store at 271 Appleton Street, Holyoke, Mass. It was tossed into the cash register. It passed on yet again, this time to an itinerant but shrewd collector of old vinyl LPs, who I gather back home in Boston habitually empties his pockets of all coins and puts them into a large canvas bag that lives on the dresser, and once a year around Thanksgiving indulges in the giddy pleasure of depositing the lot into his bank account. By this mechanism my penny made its way onward to the petty cash box in the front office of a minor religious order. It was stolen by a middle-ranking nun and spent by her, clandestinely, on a pair of naughty undies ($29.99, using the exact money for speed, she thought mistakenly). The lingerie people routinely deposited my penny into their number 2 account at TD Bank in New Haven, Conn., whence it was lobbed to the cash register at Starbucks, which is where I received it this morning with other coins and a cup of coffee in exchange for four one-dollar bills. The beauty of these schemata is that nobody can possibly show that any of them are not true.

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