Basking in the Shade of the Money Tree
I wanted to buy a newspaper from a coin box on a recent Sunday but didn't have four quarters. Same thing happened the previous Sunday. No coincidence. I had not accumulated four quarters because I hadn't paid for a single purchase with cash.
In fact, the coin box was the only vendor in a week that did not accept debit/credit cards. I use debit cards all the time to qualify for interest on the principal, but they have taken away that intimate connection I once felt for nickels, dimes, quarters and greenbacks. The face-to-face is gone. Bye, George, Tom and Abe.
That brings to mind my Granddaddy Teachey, a bricklayer and staunch Tar Heel, who with a fourth-grade education became union treasurer, thus inspiring his daughter, my mother, to earn a master's degree in mathematics from Columbia University. Granddaddy, understatedly frugal, would nevertheless pull out "folding money" for my birthday. That worn, silky dollar bill seemed munificent - the sum of more than 20 nickels, 10 dimes or four quarters.
I like the feel of a heavy change purse, a thick wallet. Feels good to watch the teller snap out the 20s, except I always ask for some smaller denominations too. Twenties smack ATM, which I used sparingly even before acquiring the debit habit.
While I was in college, my father sent letters from his business travels, usually with a five-spot stapled to the motel stationery. How sweet it was! That meant five hours I didn't have to work on the dorm switchboard for pocket money. Or a book I'd been dying to read. Or treating a friend to a roast beef dinner at The Rathskeller.
Now, as then, a 50 makes me feel richer than a platinum Amex card; the very sight of a $100 bill inspires awe. Which is why I gave my grandson one when he turned 13. The look on his face was, as MasterCard ads proclaim, priceless.
I love gangster movies where the boss pulls out a roll. Tony Soprano's stash of K-notes hidden in the birdseed sack made me swoon.
Beyond this puerile fascination lies respect for hard currency. I may put lunch and a haircut on Visa, but I tip cash. I think the providers appreciate this - my hand to theirs, no electronic intermediary.
My mother taught me subtraction by making change and counting up. She hated the evolution to calculating registers, knowing they would be the end of practical math. Maybe it's good she didn't live to see debit/credit cards used for more than half my grocery transactions.
I prefer to receive bills by mail but pay them online. I keep cash tucked away in my purse for emergencies. Two hundred dollars lasts six months.
So where does money still "change hands" - a descriptively archaic phrase? A few diners, mom-and-pop stores. The shoeshine man and farmers markets. I still see a framed first-earned bill in coffee shops. But Goodwill takes checks. Parking meters suck time off the card at a payment kiosk. And now New York taxicabs are installing credit/debit machines.
I'll grant plastic some charms. A mouse click shows me where every penny debited on those high-interest cards went. If I really want to know.
Personally, I believe this disengagement with the real thing devalues money. We all know how much easier plastic is to spend, with or without cash backup. Fishing that folding money out of Granddaddy's overalls was difficult, not to mention dramatic, which made it more valuable. More important, his dollar was negotiable, unlike the birthday checks my mother deposited in the bank toward "my education."
At age 8, a buck in the hand is worth two in a savings account.
It still is, under certain circumstances. Recently, when I returned a T-shirt purchased with a debit card, the customer service lady handed me cash. Cash - a five, some ones and change. It looked almost foreign. I stuffed it in my jeans pocket.
The next time I saw that money was at the bottom of the dryer. The bills were clean and intact. The coins shone. These are quality products, made in the USA. (I assume). They stand for something. They do not expire. They are accepted almost everywhere in the world.
Remember that next time you punch in your PIN.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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