On the day in sunny September when I read in Lichtenberg, “As the few adepts in such things well know, universal morality is to be found in little everyday penny-events just as much as in great ones,” there’s a sign at the Circle K alerting customers of a nationwide coin shortage, but instead of suggesting we reintroduce into circulation our hoarded nickels and dimes, it asks that we no longer pay in cash. One of the many things the never-ending pandemic makes me miss is coins, the slow counting out, the hand-to-hand transfer. When I was a kid, I rolled pennies in brown paper sleeves, a lot of effort to get 50¢ and a Dum-Dums lollypop from the grinning bank tellers, but I had all the time in the world. In the late 1980s, when I was a student at the University of Maryland, I fed quarters into a coin-op IBM Selectric. Twenty-five cents bought fifteen minutes of typing time. I read Waiting for Godot waiting on an orange couch outside that room filled with typewriters in the basement of Hornbake Library. I remember back then the disproportionate heartbreak caused by a coin, Canadian or in some other way unacceptable, rattling repeatedly into the payphone’s return when I didn’t have another in my pocket to replace it, and therefore couldn’t afford the minutes to complete my call. When she was not yet a teenager, my daughter and I spent an afternoon sorting a jar of pennies before taking it to the CoinStar machine at the grocery store—long gone are the days of paper rolls and Dum-Dums—and to our delight we found one minted in the 1890s. It went into a Ziploc bag she labeled Old Pennie! Do Not Touch!! A few years later, in Chicago to look at colleges, walking through Lincoln Park, I said to her You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by the plentitude or paucity of pennies on the pavement near its bus stops.
Hear Josh Russell read his piece
Josh Russell’s essays have appeared in Epoch, Seneca Review, New World Writing Quarterly, and Western Humanities Review, and as Greying Ghost Press Pamphlet Sounds #1. The most recent of his four books, King of the Animals, was longlisted for The Story Prize. He lives in Georgia.