My two cents: A penny is still a penny - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

My two cents: A penny is still a penny

I can’t imagine this happening in Baltimore.

Around the Fourth of July, I was drinking a “Blood Transfusion” cleanser shake (Thai coconut blended with spirulina and coconut water)  and watching the hipsters line up outside of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood when a hail of pennies flew past my head.

The coins landed in the gutter outside of Real Raw Live at 5913 West Franklin Avenue, where I had purchased the drink for $5 and was enjoying it in a plastic chair next to the glass doors.

Like a fool – Killgrew, Gimpel, the one on the Hill – I looked up to see if the pennies had come from an upstairs window or the roof. Perhaps they’d fallen from sky, the clouds of Los Angeles encouraging me, as they had der Bingle, to carry my umbrella upside down.

I calmly pocketed the change – one penny short of a dime – and sat back down to read my book, “The Shawl,” by Cynthia Ozick, purchased for a dollar on the same block.

When I’d finished the drink, I walked back to where I was staying in the shadow of the Castle Argyle. On the way, I stopped in the Bourgeois Pig for a double espresso (the dual nature of my Gemini birth – caffeine versus coconut – in battle) and dropped the pennies in the coffee house tip jar without incident.

The next day I was back at Real Raw Live for a $5 “cleanser” of lemon juice, clove and maple syrup.

I was waited on by the same guy who’d made me the coconut drink the day before: an aloof somewhat surly manager in his late 30s or early 40s given to salt and pepper stubble and zippered hoodie sweatshirts.

After paying for the drink, I dropped a couple of quarters in the tip jar. The manager turned to me and in front of two employees and at least one customer said: “We don’t want your pennies.”

“Those were quarters.”

“Yesterday,” he said. “Pennies.”

“Are you the guy who threw them into the street?”

Smug and righteous he said yes.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because pennies are an insult to my employees.”

The allegedly offended employees, two young women manning juicers behind the manager, turned and caught my eye. I think they looked embarrassed but I’m not sure.

There was so much I wanted to say to this guy.

That my mother and grandmother rolled coins when I was a kid to help pay for a family trip to Spain, whether he’d asked the help if they believed a penny saved is a penny earned, if a dime was only nine cents away from being offensive.

How a penny is still a penny where I come from.

But I was angry and afraid my thoughts might spill out in three words or less.

Mystery solved – the pennies were mine and they’d come back according to the proverb – I took my drink and left.

Walking to the Gelson’s supermarket across Bronson Avenue, I tried to remember how many pennies I had dropped in the juice bar’s tip jar the day before. I wasn’t sure but it was less than the nine I collected from the gutter.

I’d made a few cents on the deal.

Leaving Gelson’s, I noticed a guy who’d been at Real, Raw Live during the confrontation. He was sitting at an outside table eating a sandwich with his health drink. Begging his pardon, I asked if he’d witnessed what had just happened and what his thoughts were on the validity of pennies as tips.

“If they are going to give you pennies as change,” he said. “Then they should expect to get them back in the jar.”

Then he allowed that he had often seen the manager act like a jerk in the past – “three or four times,” he said – and, like me, would not be returning.

His final observation echoed my own thoughts: It is especially unsettling to be treated rudely at a place in business to promote wellness.

As I continued the campaign to eat a healthier diet, I had lunch later in the week at Leonor’s “100 percent vegetarian” Mexican restaurant on Moorpark in Studio City. Leonor’s is a family-owned business and when I paid for my wheat-crust pizza with soy “cheese,” I asked the young woman at the register if they minded pennies in the tip jar.

Not at all, she said, giving the impression that it was a silly question.

I asked what they did with their pennies.

They are counted out; rolled and put them back in the register, which saves the owners trips to the bank to get pennies for change.

I love pennies.

I like finding them, collecting them, rolling them into 50 cent tubes to trade for coffee and turning over a face down penny in the street so the next person that comes along finds it heads up.

Heads up pennies – Honest Abe facing east – are often left on the Booth family graves at Green Mount cemetery. The actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth lies with his kin somewhere below the sod, the exact location unmarked.

When I wrote for the FX show “Thief,” in 2005, I had the good-hearted girlfriend of one of the safe-crackers sport earrings made of pennies. Wearing the lowly pence made her more attractive – at least to me – in contrast to her boyfriend’s lust for millions.

In an unproduced 2010 pilot I wrote for the Sundance Channel, the lieutenant in charge of the homicide squad sits at his desk sorting through water jugs full of pennies as a way of calming his thoughts as he puzzles through cold cases.

Last year, with the help of many friends, in particular Beth Sherring and the Farantos family at G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs on Eastern Avenue, I collected $700 – the bulk of it in pennies – to help keep the doors open at the embattled Poe House.

The “Pennies for Poe” idea was inspired by a similar collection by Baltimore schoolchildren after the Civil War to purchase a marker for Poe’s grave in the Westminster Churchyard downtown.

Every day, tourists and others enamored of the great poet leave pennies on the handsome monument bearing a disc – not unlike a giant penny – of Poe’s face. The Westminster staff dutifully collects them – “see that my grave is kept clean,” as Blind Lemon Jefferson sang – and the next day more have taken their place.


About the author

Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez has lived in Baltimore his entire life except for a brief and cautionary exile in Hollywood. A former City Desk rewrite man for the Baltimore Sun, Alvarez has published books of fiction, memoir and very provincial history. Best known works include "The Fountain of Highlandtown" and the on-going "Orlo & Leini" stories, each detailing life in Crabtown, USA. Alvarez also worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun prior to starting a career in television. He has worked as a writer and story editor on the Home Box Office drama series The Wire and a writer and producer on the crime dramas Life and The Black Donnellys. He has written several books including a guide to The Wire, a non-fiction guide to the archdiocese in Baltimore, a short-fiction anthology and two collections of his journalism. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com or books@alvarezfiction.com. Contact the author.
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