June 17, 2010

Of the realm

I use the coin-operated laundry at the condo, so I’ve developed a watchfulness about quarters,
and sequester them from the rest of my coins. They’re kept in a jar of their own in the kitchen.
The rest, pennies, nickels, and dimes, go ecumenically in a dish on the sideboard, handfuls of
which I grab when I’m on my way out. My strategy when making a cash purchase is to accept change
if it is likely to include two or more quarters. So if the decimal portion of my purchase is
over fifty cents, I dig into my pocket and tender the change. I suspect this is not altogether
appreciated by cashiers, since I assume it’s easier to make change than to receive and sort it.

When I was a boy pocket change played a significantly more important role in my life than it
does now. Its value loomed large, first, because it was usually the only money I had, and
second, because it was simply worth more then.

Coins had totemic significance. Personality. Pennies, earth-colored, acorn-common, and
imperishably friendly, were useful in many non-transactional ways that would have been
unthinkable with their nobler cousins. Markers, shims, decorations, flattened on railroad tracks
into gleaming copper wafers by awesomely indifferent trains, an occasional, and affordable,
entertainment. Nickels were friendly and familiar, like pennies, but bigger. If pennies were
dackels, nickels were labs. And yet there was something “just right” about nickels. Spendable
but never trivial. Good ole nickel!

Compact but powerful, bright as the planet mercury and just a swift, the dime was a sports car,
a fitting transition from the pedestrian ways of pennies and nickels, to the upward mobility of
serious coin. True silver made its first and brightest appearance in this exciting little
paragon of the decimal system. Such was my fondness for this starlet that I once found myself
sitting on the lawn at the lake, moping, after having lost one somewhere in the cruel summer
grass. My dear aunt Marilyn, having noticed my sorry state, came out and sat down next to me to
help find the errant pet. But the lawn had claimed it. She comforted me as best she could,
patiently and wisely. I listened. But my inner brat kept wondering if she was going to match her
words with a replacement dime... the way aunts do. She never did, which left me fiercely
disappointed. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that the time and heart she had
shared with me were, of course, worth infinitely more than their little silver proxy. I made it
a point to tell her exactly that, not long before she died.

“But I didn’t have a dime to give you,” she said, and I realized, shamefully, that my
disappointment had made an impression. I forged on...

“You gave me more than any dime, aunt Marilyn. You gave me love and wisdom. And that’s something
I’ll never forget.”

“Thank you, Joe,” she said.

The mere presence of an eagle-carved quarter in hand or pocket, its weight and monetary
gravitas, conferred those same qualities upon its owner. Nothing less than Washington’s
Romanesque profile, rendered strikingly articulate by the coin’s leap in scale, adorned the
noble coin. Quarters were sufficient unto themselves to purchase things, a popsicle, a decal, a
roll of caps, that only a coalition of their lesser compatriots could approach, while often
multiplying, by way of change, their number. The fertile quarter had the power to sire children.

I worked for a time, when I first moved to Staten Island, at a coffee supply store at South
Street Seaport in Manhattan. One night a pushy tourist and his wife came by, demanding change
for a dollar, quarters specifically, for some vending machine. “We don’t give change without a
purchase,” said the proprietress, whom we all adored. Indignant, the man complained, rather
nonsensically, “I don’t know how you people make any money.”

“We try to sell things,” Leslie shot back. The man retreated amid a hail of guffaws.
Quarters, and the lady, were not for burning.

With no name of its own the fifty-cent piece seemed to have been hewn, like a shard of flint,
from a solid block of monetary virtue. Fifty Cent Piece. Big, bossy, rare, the half-dollar had
the mien of a visiting warlord. Half-dollars were never shiny. This was weapons-grade coinage,
reserved for only the most serious spending, but kept primarily as a threat. “Watch out,
Mother’s Day Card. I have a fifty cent piece in my dresser, and I’m not afraid to use it.” And
although two quarters may have sufficed, few things were more empowering than dropping The Boss
at the ticket booth of the roller coaster at Edgewater, a vintage Detroit amusement park,
already fraying around the edges, that was my preadolescent Valhalla. 

“Did you see that, Vinny?” I could imagine the ticket girl shouting to the roustabout who ran
the ride. “Put this kid in the front car. He’s a mogul.”

I was fond of coasters. I rode them, I drew them, I dreamed them. “Dad, what do you call those
guys who run the roller coaster?” I once asked.

“Riff raff,” he said.

“That’s what I want to be when I grow up. A riff raff.”

One received the Queen of Coins, the silver dollar, with something akin to wonder. Dedicated to
ceremonial visits and honorific transactions, the silver dollar wore its polish with majestic
serenity. From the earliest birthday that I can remember, to the year I graduated from high
school, my uncle gave me a silver dollar and a box of chocolates to celebrate the day I was
born. I sometimes wish that I’d saved them all. But the majority found their way into the stream
of commerce as some passing lust or necessity claimed them. Which is not to say they were not
well spent. Youthful lusts become abiding passions. And the front car on the coaster is reserved
for no one, not even aspiring riff-raff.

One commemorative silver dollar that I do still have, and it’s matching fifty-cent piece, were
given to me by my brother in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and his
visit to me on Staten Island for the occasion. Twenty years later he gave me a safe to keep it
in, along with whatever else may need safekeeping, in this hurricane-kissed kingdom by the sea.
There they sit, gleaming in their elegant case flocked with royal-blue, stamped with imperial
gold. I show them off to friends or visitors once in a while, an occasion to rhapsodize about
that memorable weekend. Only the two of us understand the narrative that the gracious metaphor
that that gift represents. And that is the way it will remain.

I’ll dig into my quarter jar and do a laundry tonight. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a
load during Wheel Of Fortune, when the machines in the laundry room sit silent and are mine, all
mine. Four quarters to wash, four to dry. Ka-ching. And out tumble the functional equivalent of
new clothes. “A fair exchange is no robbery,” my grandmother, who enjoyed slipping me a quarter
once in a while, for no reason at all, used to say.