Friday, December 30, 2011

Musings on Pocket Change

Every Christmas season, while I was still living in my father's house, two year-end rituals were observed.  One involved a priest from a nearby Catholic church.  He would come into the house and go to the kitchen.  He would climb up on the kitchen step-stool, by the door we used most often, and wipe away the letters, C G M, written in chalk on the lintel there.  Then he would write the same letters, over again, in chalk, right in the same place.  He would climb down from the step-stool, was handed an envelope, and then he would leave.  Presbyterians, such as I was being instructed to be, don't do such things, but no one in that household was very good at meaningful, positive communication, so it took me a long time to puzzle out that these letters stood for the names of the Three Wise Men.  I suppose they were to be a kind of blessing.  I'm pretty sure the only person blessed in any meaningful way, by these initials on a green wooden plank, was the priest.

As New Year's Eve approached, a loaf of bread and some paper money, bundled together with saran wrap, would appear on the dining room table.  This, I learned, was to ensure there would be food and prosperity for the coming year.   This seemed reasonable enough as a stated goal, I thought, but it also felt more than a little pagan -- wrapping bread and money in plastic engenders prosperity?

I'm sure this isn't unusual, but my family had very distinct, and quite contradictory ideas about money.  I knew that we had very little, but I never knew, in any quantitative sense, what that meant, other than the fact that we always had the cheapest of everything.  I knew that other people had more -- often, much more -- my paternal grandfather was rumored to have made fortune after fortune, and my Aunt Marie lived in a lovely home with a piano -- but the mechanics of money never seemed clear.

And there was a TV show on at the time, 'The Millionaire'.  We watched it every week.  The show revolved around a mysterious man -- John Beresford Tipton was his name -- with untold wealth at his disposal.  Every week, Mr. Tipton chose a new person -- a total stranger -- as the recipient of a check, in the sum on One Million Dollars.  We never saw more of Mr. Tipton than his aristocratic hands, passing this life-altering amount of money to his deputy, who would set off to find this individual in question, and the drama would begin.

Looking back now, I think we really watched this show as a kind of religious experience.  I can remember the sense of genuine yearning in the room -- even the grown-ups seemed unguardedly engaged in what was unfolding on the black and white screen -- the wise, the generous, the foolish, the self-destructive choices these newly-rich characters would make.  'Oh, I would never do that,' someone would say, and we would all have to agree.  Often enough, the stories ended on a sour note, as, in spite of this unlooked-for gift of an unimaginable sum of money, the main character plunged into horrible despair.  This was the sort of ending my family enjoyed most.  (Did everyone?)

Money, in our house, was the most important thing in the world, but we were not supposed to talk about it.  And if it must be mentioned, it must be talked about it in a certain way -- like a creed, it now seems to me.  It went something like this:

Money is the most important thing in the world.
If at all possible, we are never to mention money, and certainly never in polite company.
We always want and need more money.  We never have enough.
Working hard is the only way to make any meaningful amount of money.
Working hard does not mean one will earn any meaningful amount of money.
Having a lot of money is a very good thing.  It will protect its possessors from harm and need.
Having a lot of money is a very bad thing. It will attract bad luck and punishment
Having money is a sign of God's good will.
Having money is morally suspect; most rich people have money because they are dishonest.
Wanting and needing money is more desirable than having enough money.  Those who want and need more money are normal and acceptable; those who have more than the barest amount of money necessary for survival should be regarded with suspicion.
People who look prosperous and self-confident are suspect, and open to mockery.  Our proper demeanor is a kind of humiliated, thread-bare cleanliness.  

Of course, my family didn't make all this up on their own.  Thess, and other money-centric attitudes have boiled up and sifted down through cultures all over the world, and there were probably similarly contradictory feelings afoot when the major medium of exchange was a handful of feathers, or some cocoa beans.  What I find bothersome (to say the least) is the residual impact that these beliefs have had in my life -- the way a peculiar, unexamined tangle of mysterious attitudes has kept me in a self-perpetuating knot for far too long. 

My own earliest experiences of money, as both debt and asset, began when I was seven years old.  It was 1955, in Belleville IL, and I was in the second grade.  I was often sent to the grocery store, to pick up a few extra things for my mother.  We had an account there, and I would order some lunch meat or a bottle of milk.  No money changed hands, and for some reason I decided this meant I could add an occasional treat for myself -- usually a package of those chocolatey cupcakes with the squiggly frosting and the creamy filling.  On the way home, I would wolf the cupcakes down, and then, because I knew I wasn't supposed to have extra snacks, I would use the rear-view mirror of a parked car, to wipe any chocolate smears from my face.  I was shocked when, maybe two months into my cupcake binge, my mother accosted me with these thefts.  I hadn't understood that, even without actual bills or coins involved, there was an eventual accountability.  (Once in a while, I get a yen for those cupcakes, but now they don't taste the same)

At the same time, I got weekly 'allowance', of $2, late very Saturday morning.   With that money in my pocket, I went the two blocks, to the center of town, where I was to spend all of it.  For a seven-year-old boy, in 1955, $2 was a considerable sum.  A movie -- even a double feature -- might cost 35 cents.  After movie, I still had more than a dollar and a half, so I went to the 5 & 10 cent store (God, I feel prehistoric), to climb up on a seat at the soda fountain and have a hot fudge sundae.  I especially like the cherry on top, and saved it for last.  Then I wandered through the toy section of the store, where the goods were arrayed in open bins, beveled glass slats separating the whistles from the yo-yos, the price of each item noted by a tag, held in a metal clip-on frame.  I pored over my options, usually picking out something I'd already bought before, but that my younger brothers had broken.  Boxes of 48 crayons were a must.  Or  I would buy a gold fish or two, to carry home in a paper carton and, in about a week, to flush down the toilet or bury in the back yard.  With all my purchases, and a stomach full of fudge and ice cream, I would finally walk home.

I never got the sense, with this weekly income, that I might save anything, or that there was anything to save the money for.  Nor did this weekly spending spree bring me joy.  Only years later did I piece together the rest of the picture -- the money didn't come from my father, as I'd taught myself to remember.  The money came from a different man, who wanted me to go away from our house, for a good long time, so he and my mother could be alone.  As a result, and as I was whiling away a Saturday afternoon, spending money, there was a kind of guilt, beneath the surface of this compulsory gratification.  I felt complicit, and part of something bad.  I was being a good boy.  I was doing as I was told. I was involved in betrayal.  I was reaping enviable benefits.  I was somehow doing the wrong thing, but how was I to do the right thing, without being bad?  I still hate going to the movies alone.

Meanwhile, money -- and more particularly, the lack of it -- was increasingly the topic of bitter arguments, when my parents were at home together.  My father had a job in St. Louis, but I had no idea how much money we would need, so my parents wouldn't scream at each other, and throw things, and threaten to get whatever a divorce was.  Money was a very powerful thing; it could make me do confusing things, and its scarcity could drive adults mad.

In the orphanage, money was never an issue, because we never had any.   Afterwards, living with my father's second family, I had the obligatory restaurant-cleaning job, for which I was nominally paid, but which money was never really mine.  My parents decided when I would spend it, what I would buy, and when I would buy it.  I have no idea how much a round-trip bus ticket between Pittsburgh PA and Clearwater FL was, in 1959; I have no idea what I might have bought with that money, instead.

And in what seems a recurring life-theme, there was no more prosperity in this new family than there had been in the original one.  My three brothers had all just come from the orphanage (they lived there for at least a year longer than I did) when my stepmother learned that she was pregnant with her first child, and my father lost his job.  The only thing we had in abundance, for the next seven years, were stress, anger, violence and recrimination.  Underneath it all, there was the intense yearning for money.  Money, we were all forced to agree, is the root of all evil, and it can't buy happiness, but it could buy real milk, instead of the powdered kind, or cheese that didn't come in a green, government-issue surplus can, or shoes that didn't fall apart in the rain.  

By now, I was a freshman in high school.  I was smart.  Very smart.  I knew it.  The teachers knew it.  The other kids knew it.  I got another money lesson.

Every six weeks, in our freshman science class, each student was required to hand in a notebook, on a subject assigned by the teacher.  I think I already had a reputation as a guy who would do other people's homework (how else could I get them to like me?), so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, partway through the first half of that year, a kid from across the room, where the D students sat, came up to me during lunch period, with a proposal.  "If you do my notebook for me," he said, "I'll pay you $20."

Twenty dollars?  Hell, I would do his notebook today for $20.  Twenty... dollars?  He got the most beautifully-crafted science notebook known to humankind.  And after class, in the hallway, he handed me a twenty dollar bill.

Of course I had seen such a thing before -- there were one or two $20 bills in the cash register at the family restaurant, but they were practically mythic; no one actually touched them.  And now, I had one, right in my own hands.  Twenty dollars.

What was I going to do with it?  I couldn't take it home with me -- all our things were searched on a regular basis, our clothes drawers inspected, the contents of our pockets open for questioning.  Even if it had occurred to me to put it in a bank, we weren't allowed out of school during the day, and I took a bus back and forth -- even if I took the later bus home, there still wasn't enough time to get downtown to open an account, and besides, all the banks closed at 3 pm.  And wouldn't I get a statement in the mail, before I could get home to destroy it?  How would I explain that?  Twenty dollars.

So I spent it all.

There were a couple of small businesses near enough to the school that, after classes were out, I could run and maybe spend some money, before the last school bus left for my neighborhood.  I discovered a little jewelry shop, and I went in, to pore over the costume baubles I could afford.  There were a couple of girls at school that I decided that I 'liked' (in the remote 'seeing someone across a crowded hormone-laden classroom' sense), and I decided to use my $20 to buy them presents.  A cultured pearl bracelet.  A rhinestone pin.  A locket.  Because I created a few six-week science notebooks for my patron, I became almost a regular customer in this little shop. And every one of my purchases was handed, in a hasty, embarrassed way, to the unsuspecting, bemused object of my imagined affections.  Mission accomplished: money earned, money dispersed.   
Finally, two more recent monetary tales, for the time being.  (The topic, it seems, is inexhaustible)

In 1982, at the end of a season of summer theater, I broke my leg.  Tendons and ligaments in my foot were torn, and had to be sewn back into place, and the doctors also needed to insert a pin, to hold the bone in together while it healed.  Because my health insurance wasn't active at the time, I ended up with a sizable bill for the surgery.  Every two weeks, I would make a stop at the doctor's office, in Greenwich Village, to make another payment.  Sometimes the doctor was in, and sometimes he would say hello to me.  My leg had already healed, so these greetings were purely social, but it still felt nice to see him -- after all, he'd cut off the cast I wore for three months (home at the time was a fourth-floor walk-up?), and I still felt grateful.

Then it was time for the last payment.  I wrote out the check, handed it over to the receptionist, and was startled to feel a sudden up-rush of anger.  I'm sure my face turned bright red.  I wanted to yell at her, or hit her, but I couldn't figure out why, until days later, when I had... the realization.  This debt (and, I've come to learn, others like it) formed a connection between me and the man who had been so kind, and had healed me.  This debt felt to me like a family bond -- a personal asset, making me valuable and of interest to an otherwise overworked surgeon in a city filled with people needing his help.  With my bill paid in full, I was being set adrift, back out into a sea of indistinguishable faces.   Even now, I live with the sad suspicion that when I am in debt, someone somewhere has a slight, accounts-receivable-style interest in my continued existence.  Debt- and obligation-free, I tend to feel vulnerable, ungrounded, expendable and almost disembodied.  This is a problem.    

And finally (for today):  One late spring day, I was walking on Washington St. in Hoboken NJ, at the corner of 10th., right by Tucker's Drug Store.  I looked down at the ground, thinking I'd spotted a dollar bill.  Or maybe $5?  It was $100.

I spent the next hour, going in and out of any open businesses that were open, asking if someone had come in recently, looking for cash they might have lost.  I felt burdened.  The business owners all said no.  I felt guilty.

For months, I kept the bill hidden in my wallet, folded up like some secret spy transmission.  Later that summer, John and I were camping in Vermont, and while we were out biking one afternoon, we passed a local firehouse, having its Famous Annual Chicken Barbecue Dinner.  Maybe $5 per person, I don't really recall.  I do know we were hungry, and we thought: Vermont chicken barbecue? At a firehouse?  How hot is that?  It was going to be terrific.  But we didn't seem to have quite enough cash in our bike packs... until I remembered the secret spy transmission.

I finally broke the $100 bill.  The barbecue wasn't all that great.

©  2011   Walter Zimmerman 

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