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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Three Penny Walk

Today in the Valley I'm afoot. The earlier spring-like weather has blown east, taking the sun with it. Storms track from the south-west in the Valley and are always preceded by wind, which given free rein across the acres of pasture and cornfield, makes you bend into your stride like an old man. For that reason I am am afoot. Gladys has been left behind in the garage. In strong headwinds she is a recalcitrant steed at best and peddling her down the valley today would be like riding a stationary bike.

As I pass the corner that hangs a sharp left in front of Swiss Hall, force of habit swings me off the straight track so I can cross the high side of the curve. I do this for good reason. This curve has the tendency to breed pennies. I find them in the tirewash created by centrifugal force as traffic negotiates the curve. And today, sure enough, I find a battered penny cast up in the detritus of sand and gravel. Whoa! Within a yard of the first, I find two more. "Find a penny, pick it up; find a penny, have good luck! I bend down and triple my luck. Where these pennies come from, why they end up here is a mystery. The reason, perhaps, is because people consider pennies a nuisance and just discard them. Dig them out of their pockets, scoop them up from the floormats and fling them out the window. I'm sure this must explain the thirty-four pennies I found east of here a few years back scattered along five feet of shoulder.

Annie Dillard, one of my two favorite Annie authors (Annie Proulx, the second), remarked in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "It is dire poverty indeed where a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny." That man is not me, Annie. I'm your one-cent guy! "A penny saved is a penny earned, " the saying goes. A penny found and saved is a talisman.

The lowly penny is an endangered species, a serious conundrum to the U.S. Mint because it now costs 1.7 cents to produce a single penny. In fact the pre-1982 penny which contained ninety-five per cent copper was actually worth 2.5 cents due to the rise in precious metals (thus the rash of copper thievery in the past decade). The copper penny died in 1982. It was replaced by the "zinc" penny which is ninety-seven per cent of that metal. Still, public sentiment remains in favor of retaining the lowly one cent piece. Those last few of us stoopers, however, should realize if retrieval takes more than 6.15 seconds, our labor is worth less than the federal minimum wage. For those who wish to lighten their penny loads, the "need a penny, take a penny" cups in many stores is a good way to lose a penny weight. Coin repository kiosks may be the penny's saving grace, a way to convert penny change and other coins to cash. But this service exacts its own price; nearly ten cents on the dollar is what the machine charges you to shower coins down its throat in exchange for cash. (Bring your loose change by the house; for just five cents on the dollar, I'll willingly count and roll it for you. out!)

(NOTE: the above penny facts appeared in "Penny Dreadful," an article by David Owen in the March 31, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine, pp. 60-66.)

I have found other coins on my Valley walks, too: mostly nickels and dimes. I don't know why someone would discard either of these coins roadside, so accounting for their presence is an even greater puzzle. I once found a shiny quarter in the gravel at the stop sign posted where the Lower Loop road meets the upper, where Gladys and I turn and head for home. I still have the fifty cent piece I found in the Swiss Hall parking lot. It most likely was dislodged from someone's pocket when he fished out his car keys. A Kennedy half dollar, it was, minted in 1990 at the Denver Mint. (The fifty CENTer appears to have stepped aside for the quarter. When did you last receive a fifty cent piece as change?)

I return home with three battered pennies in my left pocket where I keep my "road kill" coinage separate from the spare change coinage in my right pocket. Once home, I'll plunk down the three newcomers on the heap of road kill coins (even some currency to cushion the fall) in my half gallon Mason jar. The "Road Kill" jar, I call it, is nearly full to the neck of lost or discarded coins I have collected over twenty years. Last summer I had a conversation about road kill coinage with Mr. A. J. Naff, a friend and my daughter's former classmate. It was then I realized that over the years I have developed a rather elaborate culture surrounding the art of road kill collection. I hope to share this culture in a future post. It should be worth a penny, at least.
I am almost home when I find another strange coin in front of the Cascade Meadows stable and horse barn. If there are any numismatists out there who can identify this coin, I would appreciate hearing from you. Doesn't look like anything I'd put in my road kill jar.

P.S. I am thankful for this post. It made me pull down my copy of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, reread sections of it, and remind me what a wonderful writer she is. I wish I had her gift of crafting thought and memory--the inner life--into words.
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  1. It seems as though your ability to 'craft thought and memory-the inner life- into words' is quite eloquent. Perhaps Dillard made a impression on your subconscious? For your comfort please know, you have taught me well; I still can not pass up a penny in the parking lot..."A penny saved is a penny earned," echoes in my ears each time I see one. 1.7 cents you say? Perhaps I won't have to embarrass myself much longer. :)

  2. That coin is a "cruise token". People collect them, and trade them online, like this fellow: who lists your token here: . People will collect anything, it seems. I guess I'd know. :)

  3. The token came from the "Holland America Line." I'm betting it's for their video arcade or other such amusements. I think it's too new to be collectible, as it features the company's current logo on it.