It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon just after the heat wave had finally broken, so it wasn’t as if the metal was so hot that touching it would burn your fingers. And it wasn’t the sort of New York neighborhood where folks come up with creative ways to entrap and kill people. We were in midtown.
So I really didn’t know why ten pennies were staring up at me.
I was just about to round the corner when I saw the pennies. Quite a few of them, and while there was a man on the same corner standing around, he wasn’t doing it in such a way as to suggest that they were his pennies and not to be touched.
I got down on one knee and picked up each penny. Ten in all, a curious number; no one drops a round number of objects at random. Were they placed on purpose? Placed for me, swiftly snatching up the coins lest someone else come and horn in on my looting? But no one seemed to want my treasure. The aforementioned guy just kinda looked at me. His sunglasses masked his expression but I don’t think he was looking with contempt or curiosity or admiration or anything. Just looking.
Why was I the first person in all of midtown Manhattan to get down and pick up ten free cents? Surely other people saw them. Were they afraid of a trap, being filmed for some unscrupulous video prank of some poor sap picking up coins and being kicked in the posterior? Were they bypassing the change out of respect, that it might be some bum’s secret stash? Or were they recollecting “The Legend of Zelda” and our video game hero’s talent for finding round numbers of rupees on lawns and under pots, and deciding that this money was earmarked for a true warrior?
I believe none of the above. I believe that people are just too proud to pick up change in public. Especially the lowly penny. Well, we knew that already. A USA Today poll of July 7, 2006 shows that only 76% of respondents stop to pick up pennies, and frankly I don’t believe that lofty figure.
Confession time here: I don’t always stoop for pennies. A silver coin, sure, but pennies take so long to add up to anything and they’re always falling out of my pants pockets when I sit down. I support the recent initiative to get the irritating coin out of circulation, if for no other reason than my irrational fear that they’re more likely than the silver coins to carry disease. Don’t ask me about that.
I don’t believe in “see a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” and let’s not get into the heads-tails subset of that little proverb. We know pennies won’t bring us luck. We know they barely bring us wealth, to the point where we’re ready to rid ourselves of the coin before inflation renders it completely useless.
I guess I just picked up the pennies because it seemed right to. (Or maybe I thought there was a better coin sitting around someplace.) A gut thing. And as I plucked each penny up I felt a little ashamed that I’d have passed the free money up if it’d been only one or two cents. When did I get too good for that? Inflation hasn’t killed the penny’s worth yet, why should I?
The savings rate in America is abysmal. We gladly go into credit card debt to buy expensive furniture and rarely put so much as one percent of our income into savings. The ten pennies I picked up will join forty copper neighbors (in time) and be rolled up and deposited. It’ll turn into a few bucks when I’m old and gray.
We need to swallow our pride about money and do the right thing even when it isn’t glamorous. We need to embrace boring index funds, prudent budgeting, careful financial planning. And picking up pennies without assuming there’s a catch. America is the land of conspicuous consumption and letting people know you’re too cool to pick up ten cents, and that’s the problem. I’d like to think I sent a message of responsible savings and common sense (cents?)… or at least something above “look at that loser who picks up change in the street”. I’d like to think I did the right thing.
Maybe that’s what the pennies were there for. How else could ten random unattended pennies pile up on one corner? Maybe God, whose name adorns every penny, wanted to send a message through me.
But if I did raid a bum’s secret stash, I’m sorry.