Throwing Good Money Around

I went into the grocery store Tuesday night, on my way to a meeting with my women’s group, and as I was running in, careful not to slip on the puddled linoleum in my high-heeled boots, I spied something in the garbage can. It was a dollar bill. Shut up — you’d stop, too. Someone had wadded up the receipt and tossed it, and the dollar that was the stranger’s change ended up in the trash as well. I looked around, nobody was there but me, and so into my pocket it went.

After my meeting, I had a moment to pause and pulled out the receipt, with the crisp bill still wadded together. Someone bought potato chips and paid with a five, and just threw away the paper. I wondered what had happened to the coins. I wondered if a dollar meant so little that it is now acceptable to throw them away. (In which case, I have a special bin for your dollar bills right here. And thank you very much for not littering.)

I wondered if the mystery donor had ever received a dollar in a birthday card. I remember getting a dollar on my birthday as a child, and Lordy, what a grand day that was. With a dollar, I could buy a Shasta cola – any flavor (25 cents). That was before recycling and redemption, so that was it – just 25 cents. I don’t think the cans were aluminum then, but I could be wrong. There was a trick to pulling off the tab top – that was before they became the safety tabs of today. You’d have to pop the ring up, then pull it all the way off. Woe betide you if you yanked too hard – you’d have to pour the drink into a glass out of the funky hole because it was undrinkable out of the can, with the sharp bit of metal sticking up.

The next thing was to save the pop-top tab in a pocket so we could make long decorative chains out of them. These decorating marvels were classier and also shinier than their counterparts, rubber-band chains, but while silvery and swaggish, tab-chains didn’t match the origami-like precision of gum-wrapper chains. There’s nothing like a zig-zag garland of Doublemint or Juicy Fruit gum wrappers to liven up a bedroom. (Here’s how to make one.)

The other option was to drop the tab back into the soda can, but you had to be careful drinking so you wouldn’t swallow the tab top. I never knew anyone who actually swallowed the pull-tab, but there were many urban legends about people’s throats being cut to shreds. Needless to say, we drank carefully.

Back to the dollar. After the soda, I’d go for the box of Cracker Jack, which was about 10 cents a box back then, and were they so much bigger or were my hands just smaller? Prizes were not child-safe, but they were good. Little puzzles and mazes and magic tricks with a bent wire or a couple of rings – guaranteed choking hazards that we enjoyed immensely (and did not choke on). There was always a good riddle on the prize wrapping inside the box. And there’s nothing like Cracker Jack. Yum.

I bought each item separately, going through the checkout line and getting each item in its own small bag (yes, they used to have different-sized paper bags. Little tiny ones if you needed them). At the end of the shopping trip I had four or five small bags of goodies, just like my mom coming home from the grocery store.

There was still room in the budget for a candy bar (which started at 10 cents and steadily rose in price as I grew up). I was, and still am, a fan of the Hershey’s with Almonds bar. After that, it was on to the Brach’s Pik-a-Mix stand. Selecting the right combination of caramels, Neopolitans, bonbons, starlight mints, root beer barrels, red-hot cinnamon candies, lemon drops and hard candies created a precise balance of flavor, color and texture, just as fine winemakers blend their favorite grapes into a delicate vintage.

Luckily, my mom wasn’t waiting for me, because in those days we just went to the store by ourselves. It was about six blocks to the Purity Market (which later became a Safeway). I crossed one neighborhood street and one major thoroughfare with lights and heavy traffic. I often went barefoot (walking on the painted crosswalks in summer when the asphalt was scorching hot). And I usually went by myself, at age 5 and beyond. No big deal. That’s just the way it was then.

When I’d bought just about all the sweet stuff I could carry, I might still have a few coins left over, and back then, pennies still worked in gumball machines. Nickels and dimes got you bigger gumballs or plastic trinkets, while a quarter got you an actual toy – a Super-Ball or a Troll doll or something equally desirable. And a dime left over also meant a ride on the mechanical horse.

And that, my friends, was what I did with a dollar if I got one on my birthday back in the day (circa 1970). These days, a dollar doesn’t mean much to my kids, because everything costs so much more. Give them a hundred dollar bill, and they might feel the same sense of awe and wonder, of vast and endless possibilities. Oh, the grape soda or the orange? The jaw breaker or the bubble gum? The plastic ring with the fake pink jewel, or the 30-second jerky lunge on the yellow horse?

Decisions, decisions. What to do with a found dollar today? I should tell you that I waited in front of the store for hours until the rightful owner reappeared. Or that I traced the owner from the transaction code on the receipt. Or that I gave it to a person in need out in front of the store. More dramatic yet, I could have found that dollar when I most needed it — just in time to pay the bridge toll or cover the bill for my coffee, or I could have gone back inside the store and bought myself a couple of Brachs’ candies for old time’s sake.

But, in the way of all things in a house with teenagers, next morning one of the girls didn’t want bologna and didn’t want peanut butter, she wanted to buy her lunch. And after a few minutes’ scramble, the dollar left my pocketbook and entered the ripped jeans pocket of a surly teen, and thence to school, into the till of one food stand or another, and onward in its merry journey.

My story ends here — with this solemn reminder not to throw away your dollar bills unless you want to hear more of the reminiscences of my Golden Youth. But if you do want to throw your money away, I have this handy bin, right here.

PS: This is the column for the April 20, 2006, Alameda Sun, which I won’t be able to post afterward. So dig it now!

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2 Replies to “Throwing Good Money Around”

  1. thanks — I so owe you a letter, just swamped as always. hope the baby is well (big boy, I mean) and all the kiddoes. i’ll say hi to Mia G for you 😉 I’m taking red whips and twizzlers to her.

    talk soon,

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