Monday, March 18, 2013

Dropping the Dime

When I tried to locate the origin of the phrase "dropping the dime", I found out that surprisingly, it has many meanings. The definition that most closely corresponds to my understanding of the term was found in the Slang Dictionary: To inform on or betray someone as in “No one can cheat in this class, someone’s bound to drop the dime.” This expression, alluding to the ten cent coin long used in pay phones for making a telephone call, originated as underworld slang for phoning the police to inform on a criminal, and occasionally is used to describe any kind of betrayal. 

In the Brooklyn street culture of the 1950s, snitching on anyone about anything was frowned upon. The code was followed by any kid who wanted to just didn't drop the dime on a comrade if you wanted to retain their trust. Any kid who betrayed the code and ratted someone out was likely to be shunned by the group and maybe even retaliated against with the administration of a schoolyard beating to remind him of the rules. One possible origin for the rule of silence might be the Sicilian code of "omertà" as described below by Mafia researcher Antonio Cutrera.

"The basic principle of omertà is that it is not "manly" to seek the aid of legal authorities to settle personal grievances. The suspicion of being a “stool pigeon” (an informant), constituted the blackest mark against manhood. Each wronged individual had the obligation of looking out for his own interests by either avenging himself, or finding a patron who will see to it that the job is done." We who grew up under this code were tested often by authorities including police, teachers, military and most frequent of all, parents. Often, refusing to squeal meant suffering consequences one did not deserve.

At school in the classrooms at Our Lady of Lourdes, we were many boys in a confined space, a situation that created serious potential for mischief, and this was in the day when mischief was simply not tolerated. The teachers and Franciscan Brothers ruled with an iron fist and misbehaving boys did not go unpunished. So when a restless student imitated the sound of a fart, or when an blackboard eraser flew across the room, Brother would turn around slowly and ask the guilty party to step forward. Fat chance since the offender knew this meant the ruler across the hands. And so we all had to write 500 times for homework: "I shall not misbehave in class". If the culprit was known to us he was in for a dose of frontier justice in the cloakroom, but nobody ever ratted him out.

When I was in the army, we had what was called a "Day Room" with a TV set, pool table and writing stations for soldiers who wanted to send letters home. They also had coffee, loose cigarettes and candy, all paid for on the honor system by dropping change in a jar. One day our Sargeant announced that the contents of the jar had been stolen. We had our suspicions, but nobody shared them. Furious, Sargeant Brown had us all dress in full field uniforms including rifles and backpacks, and stand at attention in the hot afternoon sun until the culprit came forward. After someone fainted, our Lieutenant called off the inquisition. He later remarked that he secretly admired our loyalty to one another, which he thought not a bad quality in a soldier.

At my old firm, they had a policy that required any employee who knew about wrongdoing by another to report it under penalty of suspension or termination. The policy was pretty much ignored; like good soldiers and mobsters everywhere, nobody wanted to drop the dime.



Children's Craniofacial Association 

1 comment:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

You got change for a dollar?