Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Penny Serenade

One of the small thrills of childhood was finding a penny in the street. It's hard to understand this in today's inflationary times where pocket change hardly buys anything, much less the lowly penny. Pennies are left on counters in the "take one, put one" cup as if it has become a nuisance to even carry them. I know few people who would bother to stoop down to pick one up. This certainly wasn't the case in the 1950s when I grew up. Cans were just coming into their own as containers for beer and soda, and glass bottles were still very much around. These were "kid currency" because of the deposit they could be returned for; two cents for small bottles and five cents for large. Cha-ching!

Pennies still had value in the Fifties. There were glass cases with sliding doors in the candy stores that contained 20 or 30 different candies you could buy for a penny. Mary Janes, licorice sticks, wax lips, tiny wax bottles filled with sweet syrup, bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls, Smarties, the paper strips covered with colored sugar dots, caramels, spearmint leaves and those orange, peanut-shaped marshmallows. We would stand there with a few pennies clutched in our hand trying to make a selection as if we were buying a new car, while the long-suffering store owner waited patiently to ring up his big sale.

Vending machines took pennies for gumballs, those little two-packs of Chicklets, peanuts and pistachio nuts. You could get your weight and fortune at the drugstore scale for a penny. Candy stores and delis sold "loosies" (individual cigarettes) for one penny each. You could slake your thirst at the soda fountain with a glass of "two cents plain" (seltzer). We pitched pennies against a wall to pass the time, and I remember playing penny poker after holiday dinners with my aunts, uncles and cousins. There were penny arcades where a 50 cent bankroll could get you through the afternoon.

The thing about growing up in those days, when money was always tight and pennies were precious, is that it leaves an imprint. I had a good career and we are comfortable financially, but I still look for bargains. I love breakfast and dinner specials; I can't remember the last time I made a significant purchase without waiting for it to go on sale; I confess to buying overpriced Starbucks coffee, but then I reuse the cups at home, as if to atone for my extravagance. This little "Penny Serenade" is really a tribute to the lost art of thrift. 

I dislike people who are cheap. I can spend money with the best of them, as the smoke coming off my American Express card will attest, but deep inside is still a kid trying to get the most for his five-cent deposit.



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