Your recent column about the guy who may be a miser reminded me of something I've been meaning to ask you about. It happened at a local food cooperative that shall remain nameless. I'd done my usual Saturday shopping: catfish, veggies, bread and granola. And my total bill came to $33.64. I've heard that the store prefers cash over credit or debit cards, as it saves them a fee. So I handed the cashier $40 and fished around in my pocket for 65 cents, thinking I could lighten my load and simplify the cashier's job of making change.
The cashier gave me an even seven dollars and asked whether I would like my receipt. I thought, hmm, I have $7.01 coming back. So I said, "Yes, and I would also like the one cent." From the look on the cashier's face, I could tell that I'd committed some kind of petty crime. Which brings me to my two questions: Was I wrong to ask for the penny, and was it wrong for the cashier to assume I didn't want it? I'm not a tightwad. Really! But it seemed like there was some kind of principle involved, although I'm not sure what it is.
Penny Ante: I'm so glad you wrote in, because I not only have the penny you got cheated out of, I have another 300 or so that you can have free of charge. They're in a Mason jar I keep on a shelf in the kitchen, and whenever I come home the first thing I do is separate the copper from the silver in my pocket change and toss the pennies in the jar. If fills up every few months or so, and I used to hand the pennies over to the kids next-door, who'd cash them in and split the proceeds with me fifty-fifty. But the kids aren't as young as they used to be. I doubt if I could interest them in my stray bills these days, not that I'd try.
The problem with pennies is that they're a dime a dozen. They're everywhere, and they're practically worthless. Used to be, a penny could buy you something - penny candy, for instance. Today, you can't even get somebody's thoughts for a penny. Most people won't even lean over to pick one up on the street. Heck, I know people who won't go down for less than a quarter. Compare that to Honest Abe Lincoln, who, while clerking at a general store long before he was president, walked six miles to return the two cents by which he'd overcharged a customer that day.
Or was it four miles and four cents? Six miles and three cents? All night long and "a few cents"? I've heard various versions, but the principle remains the same: Abe didn't have much to do that day. Lincoln's portrait famously appears on the penny that's been minted in his honor since 1909, the centenary of his birth. And it's like we're spitting on his grave every time we drop a Lincoln head down the couch and say to ourselves, "Oh, I'll get that later." Then again, is it our fault if a penny isn't worth the copper it used to be made of?
I remember when the practice of keeping a little container of pennies next to the cash register began. Everybody felt good about it - the people who dropped their extra pennies in there, the people who took out a couple when they needed them. It was all very pay-it-forward. But the penny's gotten so worthless that some people can't even be bothered to reach over and grab one anymore. Hence, your cashier, who shouldn't have assumed that you're one of those people. On the other hand, you probably should have let it slide. Now, if she'd held on to a nickel, that's a different story.
To coin a phrase, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR EMAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.