Pennies, but not from heaven

I have a small problem. Thankfully, because of the generosity of my parents in years past, and good instruction from my father, it has remained a small problem. It is called change. Specifically, pennies.

Silver change is not a problem for me. I occasionally pick some up, but usually I have something with me to keep it in. This is where my father enters the story. He always had this rubber change holder in his pockets. I never understood why, since he kept everything from change to keys to pills in it. I always wondered why, since he kept the change pouch in his pocket, didn’t he just put the change, pills, keys and other random items directly in his pocket? One day, he explained that for a long time he had done that, to the chagrin of his pockets. Being a fairly active person, moving all day long while waiting on customers at his auto parts store, the change jingled and clanked around so much that it quickly within a matter of weeks, would wear a hole through his pockets.

As amusing as everyone else found it when his pocket would suddenly spring a leak, dropping its contents down his leg and out onto the ground, he didn’t find it quite as amusing.

Thus entered the little rubber pouch. It was about the size of a lemon, if a lemon were basically flat, and had a slit running the long length across the top of it. You pushed the ends, where the ends of the lemon would be, toward each other, and the slit would open up, allowing access to whatever the pouch contained. Release pressure and it folded back down, keeping its contents safely inside. He had many of these over the years, all with some kind of advertisement on the back. Often times they were from one auto parts distributor or another, and in various colors, but it was the function they performed that was invaluable to him.

On a mission trip to Poland, he found a permanent replacement to the little rubber pouches… a sewn leather one. Greatly more durable, this one would go on to last for years, and still today, carries pills, keys and, on occasion, change. He brought me one back, too, and I have used it for years, but only for change. His was a lighter leather, while mine a darker. Since his gets quite a bit more use than does mine, his is now darker than mine. That is a lot of use.

So, prior to the appearance of this little leather pouch, I had amassed quite a collection of coins. It wasn’t something I intended, it just kind of crept up on me. During my high school years, I had helped run an employee day function for Brown & Williamson to help me pay for a choir trip. One of the things I received from that day’s worth of work was a set of hard plastic cups in the shape of cowboy boots. These two items, while being things that look completely out of place in my house, served a very useful purpose: change cups. One was for copper coins, the least useful, and the other for silver coin. The level of coins grew and grew, needing to be emptied regularly as it started to overflow. The second was usually nearly empty, as the more valuable coins were an easy source for emergency funds, most often spent on fast food, candy or gasoline for the car.

But the little change pouch changed all that. The cup for silver was always empty now, because the little pouch kept all those coins, with a few random pennies, and when I felt that pouch start getting heavy and unwilling to close, I began to shell out those coins, usually upon some unsuspecting fast food employee. Nothing says ‘Thanks and come again,“ like the stare of hateful eyes that just watched as $6 in nickels and dimes were just laid out on the counter.

The upside was that the penny jar also stopped collecting further weight. It was about 2/3 full when the change pouch appeared, and 2/3s full it has remained for at least half a decade now. The coins were slightly dusty, but they spend just as well, if you don’t mind getting a back ache carting around that much petty cash. So, there it sat, on my dresser for years, next to its completely empty sibling.

Recently, my girlfriend, who has a much less sophisticated change solution, namely a large dish where she tumps in whatever won’t fit in the bottom of her purse (and I swear the Universe could probably fit in there with room to spare), cashed in all that change. She got nearly $70 out of it, most of which was spent treating the two of us to a nice dinner and a trip to the wine bar. She used one of the new, and I say new in the 'new to me’ usage and not new to the world, machines that have been installed in pretty much every grocery store in the planet. You dump in all of your lose change, the machine counts it, keeps its cut and then gives you a receipt which you redeem for cash at customer service or use to purchase groceries.

I grab that cup, dump its contents into a quart baggy, add to it the few pennies I find in my vehicle and head to the grocery store. While I could have just used the cup itself, I didn’t feel like being on the receiving end of a large number of strange stares as I carried it with me into and through the store. Vanity is a bitch. Still, I needn’t have worried as most customers were more concerned about every checkout line being 5 carts deep, with most people purchasing enough food to feed small countries in Africa for a few months.

One of the reasons I had avoided doing this for so long was the price to change in the coins. 8 and 9/10 of every dollar of all coins changed are kept. Ouch. I remember my father, sitting at the kitchen table, old fashioned manual counting machine in front of him, wrapping the take from the car wash he owned. Stacks of nickels, dimes and quarters were efficiently sorted and then counted by the machine. It was smaller than a typewriter, yet somehow this machine, which only accepts coins, counts them and prints out a paper slip, was the size of a coke machine. Wasn’t technology supposed to make things like this smaller and more efficient, not give them elephantiasis?

Regardless, I read through the on screen prompts, skipped the 'short demo’ it offered to show me as I’m not a total idiot, dumped my coins onto the tray as it said, lifted the tray… and nothing happened. No coins moved at all. It was at this point I decided that I really was a total idiot for not having watched the video, because now I’m standing in front of a whirring machine, a tray full of coins and no movement. I drop the tray back down and lift it up, figuring to give it another shot. Still nothing.

I can’t even find the slot where the coins are supposed to go. The holes in the tray are way too small for coins to go, and three sides of the tray are solid. Deduction says that fourth side bares further scrutiny. I push away some of the coins on that side, the right one, and notice that where the tray joins the wall of the machine, there is a tiny, unlabeled and very dimly recessed slot. A quick push of a coin or two proves me to be a detective genius, as the change slips through the opening, get tossed around inside of the machine, sounding like they’re traveling through a tornado and the display shows me they were tallied. Yeah!!! That’s why I get paid the big bucks by companies to show them how they should run their businesses. Heh.

So, I begin to slowly, a few coins at a time, slide them over to the opening and down into whatever maelstrom awaits them below. After a couple minutes, all the pennies are into the machine, and its another 30 seconds or so before the whirring is all over. My printout now says that I will receive $5.78 back of about 626 pennies and a dime. Must have missed some silver at some point in the past.

I’m rich! Ok, not really. In fact, I feel ripped off. My mind just won’t let go of the image of my father using his machine to count out that change. He didn’t get charged by his machine, and this one shouldn’t be charging me, either. No, I will not yield to the logical conclusion that my time is worth vastly more than the approximately $0.50 that I 'lost’ in that conversion of coin to paper slip. Logic can take itself out to the woodshed and spank itself for all I care.

Realizing that standing in front of the machine, staring at the slip of paper was probably not doing the best for my sanity or for the perceived insanity reflected in the eyes of those around me, I put feet to floor and start my grocery shopping. Some fruit. Some mint. A coke to go with the pizza dinner I was about to pick up. That’s it.

After waiting for the 7 people in front of me, all trying to feed Ethiopia for a day, I was in the 15 items or less line, so it was only a day’s worth of food and not a month like the regular lines, I scan my items and get ready to pay. The total? $5.77.

So, I get my change, a whole $0.01 and realize it is nothing more than seed money to grow yet another collection of pennies. However, due to the presence of that little leather pouch, my next trip to the grocery change machine will be decades instead of just years. Of course, by then, the charge will be 89 and 9/10ths of every dollar. That’s inflation for you.