Friday, January 7, 2011

Bliss: The High Cost of Livin'

When I was nine or ten years old, I got into the beginning of my petty larceny phase. I was a pretty lousy kid: stupid and envious. Our neighbors coughed up money for their kids whenever they seemed to want it. They had all the cool shit (Swimming pools, HBO, decent bicycles, Atari) and got it for nothing, while most of my spending money came from mowing the lawn in the summer and shoveling the walk in winter. Allowances were occasionally started and frequently discontinued due to lack of interest on one or both sides.

After school, one afternoon, I got the bright idea to go looking for cash around the house. I'd found some spare change in a coffee can in the basement and this led me to think that there might be more hiding around the house. Eventually, the search led me to my mother's jewelry box.

Inside, I found was a few dollar coins. They seemed pretty cool to me and a dollar was real buying power --or so it seemed. It all went inside of a week. I ended up spending them on ice creams at school and two hamburgers at a high school football game. I can still taste the tang of the institution grade concession stand yellow mustard. I didn't even get cheese.

I was immediately found out. My parents didn't give me a lot of money and wanted to know where I was getting the cash to spend it. I lied and lied as much as I could, but they asked me to show them what else I had. That's when they saw the remaining coin.

My mother was heartbroken. I remember her going to her room, looking in her jewelry box and weeping. My father was furious. I was grounded. I don't remember for how long, but it wasn't nearly long enough. I got a lecture, was told I'd have to make restitution and his parting shot before he closed the door to my bedroom was, "It's a lucky thing for you that your grandfather isn't here to see this. He'd have been ashamed."

My grandfather had died a year or so before. I'd adored him and Dad was right. It would have hurt.

In the dark that night, I fell apart and eventually, fell asleep. My mother didn't talk to me for a couple of days and my father didn't want much to do with me either, but I did my time. They more or less got over it. Eventually, it was deemed I'd paid my debt to society and I forgot about it --only I never did.

I've been carrying it around with me for decades --the guilt-- and in my mind, this was my first real crime. This was the one that made all the other stupid and idiotic shit I did possible. It made it okay for me to go along with bad ideas, scheme and do things I knew were wrong. I mean, if I could screw over my mother for a few coins, then why not?

I've never been good with money. For a long time, I thought it was just because I was unlucky or because I made stupid decisions. The main thing is it has taken me years to understand there's more to money than a numeric value. Money is not just cash. It's part of someone's life. Sometimes it represents time and energy traded --almost always at a poor rate of exchange. Other times, it's hope for the future, a balm for relief.

I never asked my mother why she saved those particular and very odd coins. I don't know what they meant to her, but I knew what taking them away meant. I was less than what she hoped I'd be. I was less than what she deserved.

As I've grown older and reflected on what I've learned and what I should have learned, I have often come back to those coins. A few years ago, they started falling into my hands --Eisenhower dollars. I thought fate was helping me make good. I figured the coins were valuable by now and I scarcely have two pennies to rub together half the time, but I refused the spend them. I waited and waited and waited and hoped the others might show up.

Today, I quit waiting. I went to the little coin shop downtown. It reminded me of someone's basement. When it was finally my turn, I said, "I'm looking for Eisenhower dollars."

The guy behind the counter shrugged and said, "I have ten thousand of them. How many do you want and what year?"

I took out a piece of paper. Written on it was a list of the coins I had: 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976 and 1978.

"How long did they make them?" I figured I could start buying the missing ones. If they weren't too expensive, maybe I could have a complete collection in a couple of months.

"From 1971 to 1978," he told me and my jaw dropped.

The old guy halfway sitting in the floor added, "Except 1975. They did the bicentennial coin for two years. There is no 1975."

I had two bicentennial coins.

"How much for 1973 and 1977?"

He counted it up. $1.30 for one and $6.90 for the other, but he didn't take debit or credit cards and I didn't have my checkbook with me.

"That's a pittance," I told him and he seemed insulted, but he was willing to hold them for me while I went to the bank.

I ran. I ran down the street, got 20 bucks out of a machine and all but sprinted back.

He took my money, handed the two coins over and I gushed the whole reason why. He could care less, but I think he got this wasn't about collecting for the future. It was about me trying to buy back a small piece of my past.

They go home to my mother tomorrow.


Laura said...

And if our grandfather were alive to see it, he'd be proud of you...

eclectic guy said...

Cool, Bill, cool.