May 4, 2014

Saving Change

When I was growing up I always saved pennies. Maybe my Grandpa Ed was the role model. He used to save up pennies as a gift whenever I visited. What a treat to find a couple of nickels or maybe a dime mixed in the can he saved for me.

Of course in those days if you spotted a penny on the sidewalk you picked it up and were pretty happy about your good fortune. Fun little dime store toys only cost twenty-nine cents, and you could get lots of candy for a dime. Cashiers in those days never seemed to mind counting out customers’ pennies. After all it was real money. Which reminds me of a story…

When I was teaching at Pasadena High School I noticed that there were quite a few pennies and even nickels left on the ground all over campus. I couldn’t figure it out, so I asked some bright students about it. They told me that most kids believed it wasn’t worthwhile to save small change – it wasn’t valuable enough. So I made it a point to devote a little lecture to the subject of saving coins, telling them this true story as an example…

“My son goes to middle school, and he picked up all the change he could find from the ground at his school. In one semester he had saved enough money to buy a little TV for his room.”

 It wasn’t my best lecture, but it was one of the most effective. After that everyone starting scanning the ground for money and got pretty excited when they found something.

So anyway, my grandpa saved pennies for me in an empty beer can. In those days my dad was a salesman for Ballantine beer, and we always had a few empty cans around which could easily be made into useful containers by taking a can opener to one end. Now, when I say can, I mean CAN, solid steel, long before aluminum cans. It happens that Ballantine beer cans were a bright copper color, shiny inside and most pleasing to the eye. And the copper pennies inside a shiny copper can…it might as well have been a glittering treasure chest. Very pleasing!

As I grew up saving pennies became a habit. Saving the coins and choosing the right container was the fun part, but then comes that dreadful day when they need to be counted and rolled up into those dull orange paper sleeves. Bank cashiers in those days always seemed to mind counting out customers’ pennies – they had to be in rolls. But that wasn’t enough. To cash in the rolls, the bank required your name, address and phone number to be carefully printed on each little roll of fifty cents. Not to mention the smell on your hands from handling all those coins. Not very pleasing!

Still, having that extra supply of money around really came in handy. As I started to make a little more money I added nickels and dimes, and so the jar had to get bigger. Then came that magic day, sometime in middle age, when I was able to save all my leftover pocket change at the end of every day.

Of course the jar had to be bigger still to hold all that loot. But now that I had arrived at this high level of wealth I could afford to buy a really big container. I looked, and I found. At the hardware store, a twelve gallon galvanized iron bucket with sturdy handle – the kind the farmers use to milk cows. It was big.

What a sound when the first change hit that bucket with a clang. Everyone in the house knew that sound, and maybe the neighbors, too. But how much time it was taking to fill that bucket! And since it was wider at the top, it just took longer and longer to make any visible progress.

Years went by, and during those years someone invented a machine that counted your change for you – no more little paper rolls. These machines starting appearing in supermarkets, and I watched them with anticipation. I knew that one day I would be standing in front of one of those machines with my bucket. But the coins were still not to the top, and the last two inches took forever. But I was beginning to feel a gratifying sense of completion as it slowly but surely got closer and closer.

And then one summer day it was finally filled to the brim! What a great day! Proudly I reached down and grabbed the handle, ready for that trip to the market. But not yet… I could barely lift that bucket. Silly me, it had remained in the same spot all that time, and I had never tried lifting it. I brought out the bathroom scale and, with both hands and a crooked back, managed to lift the bucket up onto it. It was so heavy, and that thin steel handle wasn’t helping, either. One hundred and twelve pounds.

This was certainly a setback but not the end. Now I’m heading for my car, bent double, walking sideways like an ape, the bucket just a few inches off the ground. So far, so good. Now at the market’s parking lot, I’m looking for a space very near the door. No luck. It’s crowded, and the only parking spaces are far away. So here I go across the parking lot on one of the hottest days of summer, lugging a bucket of coins and looking pretty ridiculous. Yes, I started to get self conscious about then, wondering if the handle would hold, the handle made for milk – not metal, wondering what I would do if the coins spilled, wondering if I should turn back, wondering if I should empty half the coins into the car and make two trips, wondering how I must look.

And then I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t stop laughing. I kept thinking about Quasimodo the hunchback, about Marley and Scrooge grasping for money, about Beethoven’s, In Search of a Lost Penny, about how my mother’s laugh would sound if she could see me, and most of all wondering if I would ever arrive at the door or get heat stroke trying. But sweaty and disheveled I finally made it inside the store and was standing in front of the machine. It took about an hour of churning and loud grinding, and then the machine gave me a coupon for $645. I waited in a long line of shoppers with my bucket and coupon, and then dealt with a cashier who seemed to resent doling out cash for customers’ pennies.

I walked out of there richer and wiser. Now I save my change in an old beer can.

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