Dirty Money

My father kept essential personal items like his wallet and car keys on a shelf near the front door of the trailer. As a boy, my dad was something of a mystery to me and I was keenly interested in these things. He had a silver Timex watch. “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” the commercials used to proclaim. That was my father—tough and unpretentious. The watch is broken now and my father is dead. The times and the timepieces have changed. No one wears a watch anymore. We all carry smartphones instead. He smoked a tobacco pipe that he kept there and a glass ashtray. He also had a pot pipe and rolling papers. That activity, at least, remains quite popular.

One day I was playing with his spare change and he told me to wash my hands.

“Money is dirty,” he said.  “It’s handled by hundreds of people.”

He seemed annoyed and stern. As I rubbed the coins, the raised contours of our dead presidents did seem greasy. I could see what he meant, although I recognized his germaphobia as irrational and overprotective. It was a comment that would get permanently embedded in the folds of my brain, one that I would compulsively remember every time I pulled a bill from my wallet for the rest of my life.

Money hardly looks like money anymore. For many decades the images of our dead founders were constant as if etched in stone. It was only with the advent of laser printers and easy forgery that the design of our tender was altered by the US Mint so often that no one was really sure what it was supposed to look like. I’m not sure why there is such a delay in putting Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the twenty-dollar bill, a change inspired by a 9-year-old girl’s letter to Barrack Obama. If a twenty-dollar bill buys twenty-dollars’ worth of shit, no one will care who is on it. Maybe that’s always been the problem. Andrew Jackson was a slave owner who opposed abolition and signed the Indian Removal Act which resulted in the ethnic cleansing tragedy known as The Trail of Tears.

My father’s comments certainly reflected his mistrust of capitalism and his disdain for the rich. Money has always been considered dirty. That hasn’t changed. Look at the sordid life of Jeffrey Epstein and his friends. Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, just shot himself into space. The rocket, if you watched the launch, actually looked like a penis. The made-for-TV spectical, comical as it was, reflected just how accessible advanced technology has become, as well as how concentrated wealth has become in our society.

Perhaps his bald, bug-eyed face will adorn a bill one day.  Or he’ll author his own form of Bitcoin.  As the Apostle Paul once said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

I don’t think I ever loved money, but it did fascinate me as an object. Perhaps because all that handling seemed like a kind of story. I collected it in books for a while which was a pretty geeky activity. None of it was worth anything more than the denomination. I never had any buffalo nickels or anything. I was always excited when I came across a wheat penny. I liked Canadian coins more than American ones because they reflected an appreciation of nature. Their nickel had a beaver on it and their quarter a caribou. The dime had a sailing ship. Our dime has a bust of Harry S. Truman who dropped a pair of nuclear bombs on Japanese cities, killing mainly civilians. My father showed me how to fold a one-dollar bill so George Washington’s powdered wig and neck look like a mushroom cloud. Even the American quarter seems rather sinister with the bald eagle clutching all those arrows. And I’ve never known quite what to make of the masonic symbols on the one-dollar bill—the pyramids with eyeballs. What the fuck is that?

The worst thing I ever did as a kid was to lose my father’s paycheck. 

I was spacey the way my eleven-year-old son is now.  In my trailer court, mail was delivered to a centralized location.  At first there were traditional metal mailboxes with flags on the side that were attached to 2X6’s on posts.  Then, as the trailer park grew and the post office modernized, cluster-box units were installed.  You needed a key to get into those.  Checking the mail was one of my approved chores.  One day I got back and handed the letters to my father.

“Where’s my check?” he asked.  “I was supposed to get my check today.”

I had no idea whatsoever and protested my innocence. Sure enough, he retraced my steps and found the check lying on the ground as if none of his labors mattered and money grew on trees. I could hardly believe my own carelessness when he shoved it in my face.

Around the age of twelve, I began to engage in acts of petty juvenile delinquency. I stole candy bars from the neighborhood convenience story and bills from my own mother’s purse to squander at the arcade. She never said anything because she thought my father had taken them. One night as I lay in bed pretending to be asleep, he snuck in and raided my lime-green piggy bank while she was at work. I knew it was for beer money. My grandparents had taken a trip to Canada and sent me colorful bills with the British queen on them. I had a sentimental attachment to that currency. I would never have spent it. My father’s theft made me angry, but it only fueled the immorality of my own misdeeds.

One day, me and my friends were exploring in the machine yards and we happened on a Winnebago. The door was unlocked so we went inside. I opened a cigar box that was filled with Susan B. Anthony dollars which I took home. Rather then saving them–those might really have been worth something—I simply cashed them in at the Get-N-Go on treats and video games. I was nervous about it, but I didn’t get busted. A cashier asked me where I got them and I just said my grandparents gave them to me. She seemed excited and really didn’t care. I suspect she traded them in for ordinary one-dollar bills and kept them for herself. Maybe she passed them on to her own grandchildren. I wish I still had them. Even more, I wish I’d never stolen them in the first place.

Like most folks nowadays, I pay for everything by credit card. With the arrival of the pandemic, it seems rude to use cash. I’ve noticed signs at the store registers saying there’s a national coin shortage. I guess I can hardly be nostalgic for a world I helped destroy, but I shudder to think what things will be like in another decade or two. I’m sure, no matter what, the filthy lucre will still be a part of it. The rich will always be different from the rest of us because they will have more money. I only hope I’m one of them.

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