Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

November 7th, 2019:

Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald’s to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that’s $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except…the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I’m not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I’ve only begun to see in the last few years. I’ve coined the term “parking-lot penny” for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry’s parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I’ll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don’t represent value much anymore. They’ve become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry’s with a lot of mint luster for a penny that’s been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They’ve been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I’m seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn’t fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn’t do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day’s minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents’ houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald’s, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and…penny for your thoughts?