Thursday, July 29, 2004

Penny, Brown Penny

Yesterday, when I got change back after paying for a Hunan chicken at the corner Chinese place, the cashier put a wheat-leaf penny in my hand with the other coins. I might not have noticed if she had given it to me heads-up, it was so clean and bright, like a new-minted coin. But there it was, from 1957, looking like it had fallen down someone's sofa cushions and hidden there unused since three years before I was born.

Coins fascinated me when I was a child. I studied the old U.S. designs, and foreign coins (the French had the most beautiful money, the British had the most important). And I horded wheat pennies when they came my way. But I can't tell you how long it's been since I got one in change. Two years? When I first became aware of money, in the late 1960s, they were common. I still have a big jar full of them that I saved. Slowly their numbers diminished and all but vanished.

Silver coin still lived then, too: dimes from 1964 rang differently on a countertop than the cheap alloy ones that came later. My grandparents, when they moved to southern Florida in 1962, still would get Indian head pennies in change at the local grocery.

Something about the look of this design takes me back much further than 1909 (when it replaced the Indian head cent). The dominant element is the big "one cent," as if it had to be made very clear to people what this was, what it signified. In that, it's like the earliest American money. And there's a point to it. Nickles issued in 1883 had a new design with a prominent Roman numeral V but no "cents," and sharpers brass-plated them and passed them off in rural regions as 5-dollar gold coins. The government fixed that the next year.

The old penny is clean and Roman in its design, it seems to me. The silly architecture of the Lincoln memorial is appropriate to a commemorative coin, not to a working money; it's like those ungodly state commemorative quarters.

But I turn 44 today, and maybe I'm just getting old.