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The Common Currency of Life.


Even with the removal of the one-cent coin from circulation, a penny saved is still a penny earned. I simply can't forget the one-cent coin. After all, I grew up in a time when men fought one another over pennies. All through the 1960s and '70s, on the west coast, salmon fishermen and canneries battled over the price paid per pound for each of the five species of Pacific salmon. My father, uncles, brothers, and cousins voted on whether to accept the canneries' offer of $1.21 per pound for sockeye and 47 cents for pinks, or else to go on strike. Often, they voted to strike. Over a penny ...

ONCE, I received an 1893 American Indian Head penny in change from an Edmonton Starbucks.
"Look ye! D'ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?"
    --holding up a broad bright coin to the sun-- ...
   "D'ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul." 

I didn't notice until I returned home, several hours later, and idly glanced at the change pulled from my pockets--an old habit, the natural inheritance of a low-income, working-class upbringing provided by parents raised during the Great Depression, parents to whom the idea of a 400penny latte would be as foreign as the idea of reading Moby Dick. Sometimes--as when I find one of the 1967 centennial coins designed by the painter Alex Colville, or one of the 1973 Mountie quarters that my mother collects and keeps in long Black Velvet Whisky cylinders--I'm in luck. As if I had suddenly discovered a penny on the sidewalk.
Find a penny
    Pick it up
   And all the day
   You'll have good luck 

But this 1893 coin was a great deal more than ordinary run-of-the-mill good fortune; this was eerie and unsettling. The little brown penny on my palm--with Liberty in headdress and "United States of America" on one side and "One Cent" on the other, and no mention of God or trust--had been in circulation for almost 120 years! I gazed at the coin a while, marvelling at its survival, marvelling at all that had happened since the year it had left the mint. Flight. Wars. Space travel. Splitting the atom. The Internet. Billions of childhoods and marriages and deaths. I froze, much as I had frozen the day the 100-year-old columnist from my hometown newspaper telephoned to congratulate me on an award I had recently won.


What do you say to a person born the year the Titanic sank? That man, as a boy in short pants, could have had a nice treat in a sweet shop with my Indian Head penny, this penny already two decades old in his childhood. In wonder, and almost dizziness, I gazed at the coin--smaller than the modern Canadian version, and smooth as a beach stone--and then I did exactly what my culture and my times had prepared me to do.

I jumped online and did a quick Google search to see if my surprising Starbucks experience (I had been to no other stores that day) had dramatically increased my wealth. No such luck. Except in uncirculated condition-shiny, unrubbed, never dropped into the palm of a shouting newsy for the latest Times--an 1893 Indian Head Penny fetches about ten (Star) bucks. And even coins from Ancient Rome and Greece can be bought for mere dollars-age, as in many collectable things, is no guarantee of material value. Pristine condition combined with scarcity is generally the combination that leads to early retirement.

For example, if a smiling barista had handed me a 1936 Canadian "dot" penny, of which the Royal Canadian Mint struck only a few on account of the Prince of Wales' unfortunate involvement with a Yankee divorcee, I'd be a great deal closer to Freedom 55. Indeed, in the century since Canada started minting its own money, the 1936 dot penny remains one of the most valuable coins. One sold to a private collector in 2013 for $250,000. The most valuable Canadian coin, however, is a 2007 piece made of 99.999 percent pure gold with a face value of one million dollars-it sold recently at auction for over $4 million. As for the most valuable coin in the world, that honour goes to the 1794 "Flowing Hair" American silver dollar, which sold in 2013 for just over $10 million.


MY INDIAN HEAD PENNY, then, is at once common and extraordinary. It might be no monetary star (to coin a phrase), but how often in the daily drudgery of commerce-a commerce rapidly becoming exclusively plastic and electronic-does your great-great-grandfather reach out and touch your hand? Besides, as the creator of the original Starbuck points out, "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher ..."

Well, I have witnessed three births and sat by one deathbed to the end--life event[equivalent]ually moves us on from all miracles. So I put the 1893 penny in my special drawer, with my children's baby teeth, my Bobby Orr autographed Vancouver Canucks program from 1979, and the first cheque I ever received for a piece of writing. Then I forgot all about it, and put my nose to the grindstone, my shoulder to the wheel, a la Allen Ginsberg, "America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17,1956 ... America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

Until 2012, that is, when the Canadian government decided to make us all penniless. After 160 years of British-and Canadian-manufactured one-cent pieces, the Royal Canadian Mint ceased production of the little coin, and--remarkably--within a year the penny virtually disappeared, at least from ordinary circulation. As losses go, it wasn't particularly tragic. Most people shrugged, some jokesters lightly mourned the imminent extinction of favourite sayings and phrases, such as "a penny for your thoughts," "penny-ante," and "that must have cost a pretty penny," and businesses rounded purchases up or down, except on debit and credit card transactions, which can more easily record single cent numbers. Many people even applauded the abolition of the penny, regarding such a miniscule amount of coinage as an irrelevant nuisance.



After all, not even the most money-conscious among us will religiously go through their pennies, searching for one from 1936 with a tiny dot under the date. Most won't even collect the centennial coins designed by the staunchly conservative Alex Colville, whose paintings, by the way, sell for millions. As for the 1973 Mountie quarter, I've never known anyone except my mother to collect those, and I don't even know why she does, except out of some curious nationalistic instinct that itself seems as, well, uncurrent as the penny. Besides, it doesn't take a John Maynard Keynes or an Adam Smith to see that the days of actual touchable cash are numbered--too inefficient and inconvenient in this era of rapid digital transactions.

And yet, a penny saved is still a penny earned. When the major banks raise service charges by a few cents, that doesn't seem like much of an increase. But the banks make millions with such seemingly innocuous moves, and they use those millions to make billions, and they use all that wealth to exert a vast influence on the world in which we live. I simply can't forget the penny.


After all, I grew up in a time when men fought one another over pennies. All through the 1960s and '70s, on the west coast, salmon fishermen and canneries battled over the price paid per pound for each of the five species of Pacific salmon. My father, uncles, brothers, and cousins voted on whether to accept the canneries' offer of $1.21 per pound for sockeye and 47 cents for pinks, or else to go on strike. Often, they voted to strike. Over a penny. There was no rounding up or down for families who needed to eke out all the income they could from the hard labour they performed.

And so did Ishmael seek more than the 300th lay on his maiden whaling journey on the Pequod (which, incidentally, the Starbucks founders also considered for the shop's name). Who doesn't want a higher crew share? My own often depended on those negotiated miniscule amounts-and still does, though I fish mostly in inky waters now.

And if Starbucks raises the price of a latte by a few pennies, who really notices? And if Starbucks-the largest coffee chain in the world, named for the fiscally conscious first mate of the Pequod, who said of Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick, "How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market"--if that Starbucks threatens and intimidates its employees who try to unionize, if that Starbucks promotes a benevolent capitalism wholly dependent on the whims of the wealthy, who will raise a harpoon against that implacable twenty-first-century white whale?

No, the penny is not so easily dismissed.

Also in my special drawer are a handful of Newfoundland pennies that my father carried as lucky charms all the way through the Second World War. Pennies of the independent nation of Newfoundland, a nation which, per capita, lost more men than any other during World War I, a conflict that most historians now agree was extended for years largely in the name of profit. Money--even in the form of pennies or Ahab's Spanish doubloon nailed to the mast as a prize for the sailor who first spied Moby Dick--is always power, and power is often bloody. It was Sitting Bull, after all, who said, "What white man can say I ever stole his land or a penny of his money? Yet, they say I am a thief." A coin can be many things: "a white whale's talisman," a young telegrapher's survival on a minesweeper in the North Atlantic, or a rare gift in the bottom of a knitted sock on a Christmas morning in the slums of Toronto in 1932. But a coin is always a coin of the realm, and pennies once were placed on the eyelids of the dead. And what are the dead if they are not unaware?

So I will not only keep my 1893 Indian Head penny, but I will also take it out of hiding every now and again, to hear the voice of over a hundred years whispering, but also to relearn the lessons of basic human rights. There are the powerful and the disenfranchised. Always. I hold the penny up to hear its last words, Ishmael's last words, my gift from the Canadian government and the Starbucks chain:

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

TIM BOWLING has published four novels, twelve books of poetry, and two works of non-fiction. A Guggenheim fellow and two-time nominee for both the Governor General's Award and the Writers Trust Award, he has recently been awarded the 2015 Canadian Authors Association Award for his poetry collection Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief (Gaspereau Press).
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Author:Bowling, Tim
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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