A penny for my thoughts

Question: The most disgusting feature in the above photograph, taken of the ground outside a Burger King drive-through window, is:

A. The crushed, discarded cigarette butt
B. The black splotches in the upper half of the photo (probably sun-dried gum or pickles, though possibly dried droplets of catsup or blood)
C. The poor-quality construction and fit of the concrete slabs
D. The penny

Answer: The penny. Not only has it probably sat on the ground for days, being repeatedly run over by cars full of Whopper-munchers, but before that it was handled by who-knows-how-many grubby hands. Were I forced at gunpoint to lick any of these four, I’d choose the penny last.


One of the few memories I have of my preschool days in Miami involved finding a bunch of lost change under a swing set. First I saw a nickel, picked it up and ran to my mother to show off the found treasure. Then I went back to the same spot and found a dime, repeating the same reportage to my mom. (Already, I was on a career track toward becoming a journalist). Next came a quarter, then another dime, then another quarter. Obviously, someone had swung too close to the sun.

The last coin I encountered was a penny. It was mostly buried, deep in the sand. Only Abe Lincoln’s receding hairline and the sentence fragment “GOD WE” were visible. Already enriched to what in 1958 was a virtual fortune of 75 cents, I decided to leave the penny behind.


The Lincoln head penny first entered the circulation of U.S. currency in 1909. Within only a few years, its value had become so small that the 16th president rose zombie-like from the grave, demanding that Congress authorize his picture be put onto something more substantial. In 1928, following years of lobbying efforts by Zombie Lincoln, his portrait was added to the five-dollar bill.


In junior high school, if you picked up a found penny from the schoolyard and a bully saw you do it, you’d be subjected to a half-dozen bicep slugs and the taunt “penny-pincher!” Non-bullies would hold the punishment at three punches.


I paid for my take-out lunch from the local diner in cash the other day. The bill came to $5.98. I gave the cashier $6 and waited dutifully for my change, but she moved on to the next customer without forking over my two cents.

It made me feel cheap to be taken advantage of in such an inconsequential way.

She would’ve gotten the two cents in any case. I would’ve put it in her tip jar.


One of the first pennies used in the British South Africa was nearly two inches across and weighed an eighth of a pound. The coins were very unpopular due to their large weight and size. Plus, the impression on the coin showed Britannia holding a trident in her hand, but locals thought it was Satan. They called it the “Devil’s Penny” as they assumed only the Devil used a trident.


I’ve taken to carrying a few assorted pennies in my wallet so I can pay bills that come to $4.01 or $13.16 without receiving four additional pennies in change. As long as I have that one penny with me, though, those totals rarely seem to happen. Everything is nice and rounded — $11.25, $21.80, $57.10, etc.

While fumbling for cash at a convenience store the other day, the penny fell out of my wallet. There were several people waiting in line behind me, but all of them were nice enough not to punch me in the arm.


In case you’re curious, the penny I have in there now is dated 1989. Imagine how far this coin has travelled in the last 22 years, assuming it didn’t spend all of that time behind the cushion of someone’s couch.


The penny currently costs the U.S. government a full 1.6 cents to mint. If we could decide to eliminate this smallest coin from production, the federal deficit of $14 trillion could be reduced to nothing by the time the Earth crashes into the sun as the entire solar system is engulfed by supernova.


How much money has to be lying on the ground in front of you these days for you to go to the trouble of bending over to pick it up and pocket it?

I stepped right over a dime the other day, then felt guilty about how the coin would’ve fed my grandfather and his entire family for three months.

Currently, it takes a quarter or more for me to risk lower back injury.


To “spend a penny” in British idiom means to urinate. The etymology of the phrase is literal; some public toilets used to be coin-operated.  British Rail gradually introduced a better public toilet (called the “Superloo”) and the charge was raised to about two-and-a-half pence.


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2 Responses to “A penny for my thoughts”

  1. LetUsAllUsPlayDominoes Says:

    I enjoyed your “Paean to the Penny”. Had it been ME who didn’t get my 2 cents from the cashier, I would have stood there and demanded the two cents. It doesn’t matter that it’s an inconsequential amount. Right is right.

    On the minimum threshold for bending over to pick up change: I would still bend over for a penny. As our moms all used to tell us: “See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck”.

    My mom never lied.

  2. Phillip Donnelly Says:

    I seem to be living in countries without coins a lot lately, and I hold that to be a good thing. Coins are bulky awkward things, and I suspect they carry all sorts of germs, and possible even liberal ideologies.

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