Front Porch Review
“You didn’t want the penny, did you?” asked the young cashier as he slammed closed his cash register drawer.
“Well, I did,” I answered sheepishly, fairly sure that he, as well as the eye-rolling woman next in line, were mentally categorizing me as a cheap and stingy old woman. Grabbing my bag of groceries, I muttered, “It’s okay. Forget it.” But it was not okay. And I was annoyed. No, more than annoyed. Angry.
How many times had I dug down into my pockets, rummaged through the bottom of my handbag, or turned the contents of my change purse into my hand – all to find the penny needed to offer exact payment for my purchases? Did I miss something? When did not giving the customer the precise change owed become acceptable? Not when I was growing up. And not, years later, when I was raising my own children.
Many evenings, fretting over what was taking so long, I sat in my car waiting to pick up my oldest, sixteen at the time, from his after-school job at the supermarket. Meantime, inside the store, my son was busy balancing his cash register drawer, sometimes multiple times, until it was correct to the last penny. For his own self-esteem and his reputation, he needed assurance that he had made no mistakes, neither in favor of the customers nor the store. He also knew that more than a minor error might cost him his job.
Several times over the past few years I have heard someone say, “My lucky day. The kid at the register made a mistake. Gave me back too much change.”
“Didn’t you return it?” I’d always ask.
“Are you nuts? Those stores rob us blind. The store is not losing anything because I got an extra couple of bucks.”
“No, the store doesn’t lose, but what about the kid? He might lose his job.” I don’t think I altered many attitudes.
My obsession with giving correct change started long before my experiences with my working teenaged children. Since first grade, I have been driven to be exact in all things mathematical, the result of consequences to my grades if my subtraction was off by the tiniest amount. Seems teachers back then thought getting change of thirty-six cents instead of thirty-seven cents mattered to most people.
And it did. A Hershey bar cost five cents, five pennies or a nickel. No candy store proprietor took anything less. And if I gave him a dime, I certainly expected five pennies or a nickel back. With an allowance of ten cents a week, out of which I had to put something in the collection plate on Sunday, I did not get many Hershey bars. A penny was a big deal to me.
My respect for pennies continued into my married life. As newlyweds, my husband and I threw our pennies into an empty water cooler bottle. That first year we rolled up $16 in pennies, stashing the rolls in a shoe box in the bottom of the closet. Several years later, the rolls in that box helped defray the cost of the tent and sleeping bags we needed to take our kids camping.
Seems the penny that has meant so much to me is now under attack. Will it survive? Many citizens, according to surveys, believe pennies should be discontinued. They are too heavy to carry around. It costs more money than the pennies are worth for the Mint to keep making them. No one wants to wait on a cashier’s line behind some guy counting out twenty-seven pennies.
Others want to keep it. Why? To throw into children’s piggy banks, scratch off lottery tickets, or add to coin collections. Perhaps, simply out of affection for Abe Lincoln. Or, maybe, to maintain our penny idioms. Imagine saying a penny for your thoughts, penny wise and pound foolish, cost a pretty penny, or cut off without a penny, and having folks not know what on earth you mean.
And what about good luck pennies. What kind of superstitious nonsense is that you might ask? Not nonsense at all for me. My mother, long gone now, claimed that finding a heads-up penny brought good luck. To this day if I find one, I like to think that my mother planted it in my path to wish me well as I faced some challenge or crisis.
It’s time to again give the penny the respect it deserves. It’s part of our history and culture, ranking right up there with apple pie and baseball. Fill piggy banks with the small coins. Donate them to charities. Save them in cups and mason jars. Spend them, too. And, please, don’t ever gyp anyone out of a penny, one that someday might be found heads-up somewhere by someone in need of a little luck.
JoAnn DiFranco grew up in New York City, on Manhattan’s east side, within earshot of the roaring lions in the Central Park Zoo, and close enough to the Queensborough Bridge to count the trolley cars from her kitchen window. Marriage and family took this “city girl” to a Long Island suburb and a career as a high school English teacher — the extension of a childhood filled with stories and storytelling. For years, she spent her days sharing her passion for writing with her students, encouraging them to tell their stories on paper. Retired now, she devotes time to her own writing, on-hold for far too long. She is the author of two biographies published by Dillon Press, Mister Rogers – Good Neighbor to America’s Children and Walt Disney – When Dreams Come True. Her articles have appeared in the on-line publication Better After Fifty and in Long Island’s major newspaper, Newsday.