Five Cents, please
on the extraordinary value of small change
Hey there, you individuals who know the value of a dollar,
Speaking of frugal behaviors, are you a person who picks up the money you see on the street? Not the paper money, that goes without saying. I’m talking about coins.
I grew up quite poor and was always scrounging the soda machines and pay phones (oh the pay phones) for coins in the coin-return slots. Any money on the street had me chanting “find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck” right before I gleefully pocketed the (usually scalding-hot because it was Texas pavement after all: if the coin wasn’t actually already embedded in the tar, it could still burn your fingertips)
I am very aware that there are a million iterations of this little phrase. I hoped to link to the source of it—but it turns out no one knows. Everyone who has wondered aloud online in their blogs seems to link back to this completely unfounded internet idea that “in ancient times” metals were thought to offer protection from evil spirits, but forget that, because there were more pins to be found back then than pennies and it’s not “find a pin and pick it up …” or WAIT MAYBE IT WAS. Oh WOW it totally was. Look. Except hilariously: the explanation of the "“find a pin” rhyme on that exact website is “it means thrift”— whereas that’s not the explanation for “find a penny.”
People are weird.
I had no idea there was a second verse. Did you know? “Pass that penny to a friend, then your luck will never end.” And there are more alternate endings:
Find a penny leave it there all the day you’ll have despair.
Put the penny in your shoe, more good luck will come to you.
Find a penny; let it lie, you’ll need a penny before you die.
These are from this very long blog post about pennies which gets quite woo-woo by the end, as do nearly ALL of the musings on this topic. Here’s one that claims, quite straight-faced that pennies are left by your ancestors for you to find, (it’s a mashup of Pennies from Heaven with finding pennies.) Anyway, my point is, whether you pick up pennies because you are poor and need the cash or whether you do it for the luck, a lot of us still do it (or curb the instinct because we’re grown now and it feels weird to be stooping down for a quarter, much less a penny)
But here’s what happened that got me thinking about the things we pass by and why:
On that pretty Spring day we just had, I passed one of the more aggressive local homeless women who has been my neighbor forever: in the 2000s, she used to sit on a particular church step and viciously screech at people who were on cellphones—now she never does, but instead sits paging through a small prayerbook and/or growls at doorways and sometimes sings to herself. That day, beginning at her feet and spreading far into the street was a huge fan-shaped spread of coins. Quarters, dimes, and lots and lots of pennies.
Remember I told you that I used to thrive finding coins in the street? Passing this quantity of money gave me small physical twitches. I hate waste, all waste, and at a quick glance this sidewalk held more than four dollars in coins, and probably more.
Mind you, I don’t need the money. But I also hate knowing that no one is using it and instead it is relegated to litter. So usually, I pick that stuff up. (I frequently also pick up actual trash and dispose of it, though usually only in beautiful places that deserve to be pristine.)
I assumed this particular chunk of change belonged to the homeless neighbor who had been angry when someone dumped their small change into her cup (or just handed it to her, who knows) and she flung it back at them. In any event, I did not pick up a single coin.
But I am haunted by the interaction: the pride of someone who won’t take coins. The pride of ME that I wouldn’t pick up a coin in front of someone who needed money. The shame of wanting to pick up the coins in front of someone who needed money and probably owned the coins in the first place—and who discarded them as unwanted. What a hamster wheel!
Then the really arcane thoughts: The “castoff” quality that people assign to coins. The fact that finding two thousand pennies is actually exactly the same as finding one twenty dollar bill, but the effort makes it seem so much worse, and yet we pay thousands of dollars for gym memberships to make us bend in weird strenuous ways, so why are we unwilling to bend over when the money is coming to us…?
If I said I’d pay you to pick up money off the street, would you do it?
This whole pick-up-coins leads me to a strange thought.
For some reason, achieving a small portion of a dream and building on that a little at a time until the dream is finally achieved, is not at all as satisfying as achieving the entire dream all at once.
This is true, even though I am personally so much more impressed when someone works five hard years on a novel and it becomes a bestseller, than when someone whips off a bestselling novel in an afternoon!
But in my own head, I love the easy success. I love it! Why??? It does not give long-term satisfaction, it creates imposter syndrome, and it leads to lousy work habits. so why on earth would it make me so happy?
If we were to measure out our dreams in terms of apportioning the work it would take to achieve them, and then do each small piece, one thing at a time and enjoy each minor moment of achievement as it happens, then, when the final step of that long-haul dream was taken, we might feel happier about the success.
We could celebrate finally picking up the two-thousandth penny the same as if we found a twenty dollar bill.
…speaking of long-hauls!! Still at it, still sending out to agents. Still waiting for responses.
I published a Medium piece called How I found the Silence to Write in NYC which is doing pretty well! Thanks to all of you who read it and high-five to anyone who shared it.
This isn’t writing-related, but I saw the film, Petit Maman and wow, it is the quietest good movie I have ever seen in my life. If you see it, you will know what I mean.
That’s it — oh!!
My guess is that “find a pin and pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck” was actually invented by a harried and clever mother in the 1500s who had older children who kept losing pins and younger children who kept hurting themselves on those pins. (It is so annoying that the internet can not come up with a source for the phrase!)
While we’re at it, why do people think pin-money is anything other than because people would literally pin folds into their clothing to hold a few coins? It seems like a no-brainer, but the internet would like us to believe that husbands gave their wives money to buy pins. That’s stupid. No one would use pin-money for pins. You use it for, you know, chocolate. Or fancy tarts. Or rides home when you realize you’ve wandered off somewhere unsafe.