Saturday, May 05, 2007
To Capture the Dust
The other day I found a penny. It was dated 1976. My first real job was as a writer-editor at Rolling Stone in 1975. My salary was $16,000 a year. That was more than my Dad had earned in any year of his long career. It also was more than a rookie Major League Baseball player then earned. They got about $14,000 a year at that time. Yes, times have changed. Baseball stars now make multiple millions each year, and the Boston Red Sox paid over $50 million this year simply to meet a top prospect before signing him. Then, they threw in another $50 million or so to get him on their roster. Meanwhile, the per-word rate for freelance writers has hardly budged, and still hovers around $1 or less at many outlets. Editors are somewhat better compensated, but they don't get signing bonuses, long-term contracts or the super-lucrative product endorsement deals that elevate athletes from simply rich people into the super-rich. But none of this was what went through my mind when I squinted out the number "1976" on that random penny. The most important thing about that year for me was that my first child was born on Memorial Day weekend. She was tiny, only a few ounces over five pounds, and emerged into this world as perfect as any baby I've ever seen. Nurses and other parents gathered around her incubator to admire her beauty through the window (in that era, at UCSF, they displayed the newborns side by side so that fathers and other family and friends could see what their wives, sisters, mothers, lovers, or friends had produced.)
Every time I find a penny I scrutinize its minting date, and start wondering what story that coin could tell, if only it had a voice. How many human hands has it touched, and how widely has it traveled? Thirty-one years is a long time in the life of a coin. So much so that, in the case of this penny, it has almost completely lost its former sense of status. Today, pennies are throwaways, literally. Most storekeepers don't bother giving you change in pennies -- they round the total up or down and discard pennies like meaningless recyclable tidbits into an ashtray or some similar vessel for customers to use at their will.