End of winter and early spring were the best times to find pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. Coins of these denominations, and sometimes in my childhood, half-dollars, would poke their formerly shiny faces, dulled by salt and deicers, from disappearing snow at the curb of city streets. When crocus appeared in mother’s garden in March, pennies bloomed on Main Street.
Dropped from pockets, purses, and hands onto city sidewalks, coins disappeared into snow and slush to await my discovery the next spring. Nickels, dimes, and quarters were most plentiful at bus stops and parking meters where commuters or motorists would remove gloves to search pockets and purses for money in the days before credit cards and bus passes. Coins slipped from Wisconsinites’ cold-numbed hands to the accompaniment of colorful complaints.
Summer also yielded a plentiful supply of lost lucre, especially pennies. Most were pressed by automobile and truck tires into tar and gravel of the country road outside my boyhood home. A pocket knife removed a recalcitrant penny when my fingernail failed. I dreamed of roads studded with pennies that shone like gold in afternoon light – my version of The Yellow Brick Road.
In those days I delivered morning newspapers by bicycle house to house. Each Saturday I visited customers to collect for my weekly deliveries, usually in coins. Lincoln wheat pennies, buffalo nickels, and Mercury dimes were most common. One morning, a man in a sleeveless white t-shirt smiled and handed me a penny. “This is your tip.”
What is the value of a penny today? Cumbersome in my pocket, they usually end up in a pile on my bedroom dresser. Most people won’t stop, stoop over, and retrieve a penny from the sidewalk. I saw a man in Chicago move past a penny in a revolving door. When I stopped the door to retrieve my find, shoppers behind me shouted expletives.
Other people may intentionally discard pennies to lighten their load. I find more near high schools, where children could be careless, then around churches or at retail stores, where pennies are offered in gratitude or sequestered in a dish near a cash register because a penny is still welcome.
Pennies used to have value at amusement parks to be crushed by a machine into a commemorative token as a reminder of your visit. My version of the amusement park crushed-penny was to place Abe Lincoln on a railroad track and retrieve the flattened, heated shim of copper after a freight train passed.
“Found money,” mother said as she picked up a penny on the beach. Yes, definitely found. If we defined the coin as lost, we might be obligated to return the coin to the owner. As a boy I discovered pennies, nickels, and dimes, too small in value for the effort required to find the owner. But when was the money I found not actually lost? If the intention of the person who let go of the coins had planned that the money would be found, then what they left wasn’t lost.
Fifteen years ago, I insulated our attic. I removed tongue-in-grove red pine flooring from our century old home. I found a 1908 Indian-head penny tucked between the rafters on a crossbeam. Did the coin fall from a worker’s pocket in 1923 as he constructed our home? Or did he choose to leave the penny to be found by someone in the future?
If the carpenter intended to leave the penny as a gift or as a commemorative token of his presence in 1923, similar to the penny transformed to a token at the amusement park, then the penny wasn’t lost. Like an improvised time-capsule, he gifted his commemoration to the future.
I replaced the 1908 Indian-head penny with a 1999 Washington quarter dollar and reset the red pine attic floorboard.
If this post is meaningful, please like or tweet below or leave a comment. Thank you for your interest and possible action you may take.
About the Author
I write personal essays, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, and self-development articles from my home in Madison, Wisconsin.