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34 pickle jars of pennies for your thoughts?

February 27, 2013

Like many Americans, I keep a wary eye on Canada, just as a teenage girl keeps her eye on a talented younger sister. Sure, we’ve been in the lead for a long time now, but Canadians keep narrowing the gap.

They have better bank rules than we do, so they didn’t suffer a financial meltdown last decade like we did.

The Canadian dollar, once worth only about 70 American cents, is now at par. And worst of all, it looks as if Canada has beaten us to one of the most progressive moves of all time: Eliminating the penny.

Canadian currency has always been a bit of an eye-twinkler. What other nation has the queen on one side of a bill and a picture of a beaver on the other? But this month Canada stopped making pennies, and now it’s just a matter of waiting for them to cycle out of circulation.

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Obviously, there are all kinds of good reasons for eliminating the coin, not counting that weird metalic-stinkbug smell they leave on your hands.

When first minted a century ago, pennies were worth 20 cents. So basically, in 1908, the smallest coin in circulation was effectively a quarter. Worse, The Economist reports that it costs nearly twice as much money to manufacture a penny as the penny is ultimately worth.

Even the arch traditionalist, the late William Safire, argued that the penny should be abolished, which is a little like Harvard arguing against ivy. But Safire even framed this as a nationalistic issue: Pennies are mostly zinc, which comes from Canada (aha! didn’t I tell you?), while the next coin up to bat, the nickel, is made mostly of copper, which is mined in the United States.

But these are good reasons to get rid of the penny, and I’m not about “good” reasons; I deal in small, petty self-absorbed reasons.

And as we speak, I have in the neighborhood of 34 pickle jars in my basement filled with pennies.

This is because I stopped taking pennies to the bank to cash them in back in 1987; I remember the day as if it were yesterday. Actually that’s not completely true: I’m 52; I have no idea what happened yesterday.

Anyway, I walk into the bank back then and hand over my bag of pennies, and the teller pours them into that sorting machine that sounds like out-of-tune sleigh bells.

Other than that, it’s just kind of quiet, and we’re standing there with nothing to say and trying not to look at each other, and finally to break the awkward standoff she says, “Pretty rough times out there. Lot of people doing it.”

I wasn’t following. “Doing what?” I asked. She got marginally flustered and turned a little red and said, “Oh ... I mean ..,” and she turned to the coin-sorting machine and nodded in its direction.

It’s partially why I hate personal interaction — I’m not skilled at interpreting human nuance. But then the previous night’s Scotch must have triggered the right mechanism, because it hit me what she was driving at. There was a recession going on at the time, and the young woman had assumed that I had been forced to cash in my pennies because I was destitute.

Which I very well might have been, but I didn’t need any stiletto-wearing teenager pointing it out.

Needless to say, I was deeply scarred by the currency, and by the next time I had worked up the nerve to cash them in, banks weren’t accepting pennies anymore. “They have to be rolled,” the teller told me smugly, knowing there was no way on earth I was going to spend a half day of my life stuffing worthless metal into paper tubes.

So my only recourse is this: Next time I’m up north I’m stowing them all in the trunk and dumping them on Canada’s doorstep.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com. 

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