I was obsessed with these pennies. Not at first; the obsession grew over the course of a couple weeks. Previously I had never liked these coins. I remember in my first week or two of working as a cashier, I wanted to strike up some small talk with one of the boy cashiers. I never knew what to say, so I made jokes. “I hate pennies,” I told my coworker. OK, so it wasn’t a joke, just a random thought that had made it past my verbal editorial board. “Panties?” he asked, half confused and half wanting to make a real joke out of it. “Hey guys, what do you do when a girl tells you she hates panties?” Ha ha. But it was true: I hated that little copper nonsense trinket.
A cent? What for? They only pass back and forth between polluted hands, unwashed, unwanted, unsung. Let’s eliminate the need for pocket clutter and just round up. Or down? This concept may be too Fascist for these times…
That dirty little Lincoln is the estranged, drug-addled, red-headed cousin of the affluent silver family. Quarters, nickels, and dimes; always useful. Fifty-cent pieces; yessir. Silver dollars; how regal! But pennies just make me eye the bottle of hand sanitizing gel, longing for hygienic absolution after every monetary transaction.
“You can keep the pennies,” many a customer has allowed me. Or better yet, “The register can keep the pennies.” No one wanted them. To make them sound important, I often counted change back to people in terms of pence. “Two pence is your change today!” Or: “Here is your 6p, good sir.” I was only hit back with blank stares. Occasionally I used “two bits” in place of “twenty-five cents,” but I really wanted to make the penny into something it wasn’t.
Until we got the new rolls.
The day they arrived in the register I barely noticed their fresh new packaging: paper rolls instead of plastic. However, when I twisted open the roll and released the coins into the drawer, my eyes thrilled at their sight: shining brand-spanking-new pennies from THIS YEAR, fresh from the mint, gleaming in their copper glory. My good god, these fresh beauties had never been spent, never been touched by filth-grubbing bums, never ground by a dirty boot into the feculence of the earth. They were sparkling virginal legal tender; the pride of US currency. I took it upon myself to defend and protect these little gems.
“And here are two shiny new pennies as your change,” I told one customer. He held the practically worthless two cents in his hand and stared at them as if they were either gold or shit. No one shared my pride. No one deserved this treasure.
After a few days of coveting these paper rolls in my drawer, I grew increasingly protective of them. If any tainted pennies rested in my drawer, I made sure to give them all out as change and empty the penny compartment completely before filling it with the new rolls. I’d give all the old rusted patina coins as change and secretly smile down at my own stash of brightly burnished copper.
I was fixated on them. Not even just my shiny new ones, but pennies in general had entered my greater consciousness; I looked out for them, desired them. A customer had left three cents on the counter, finding them unnecessary to take with him. This happens quite often and I find it somewhat generous, even if it was just a 100th of a dollar. The next customer came along and needed one of the pennies to complete his purchase of $40.01. I gladly allowed his use of the communal penny and started bagging his CDs. As I directed him to the front to pick up his bag, I watched his hand grab the remaining two cents. As we both walked toward the end of the counter, I eyed him tapping the pennies along the counter top nonchalantly as if he hadn’t just stolen money from us. He obviously planned on taking those two cents, even though he had just spent $40 on music. Even though he earned a salary, he simply couldn’t resist taking those two remaining dirty little coins.
“You can’t just take those. They’re for people to spend,” I called. My greater sense of perception understood how trivial the two cents were, but my overprotective cashier power came forth and secretly reveled in making him lose face over two cents. He fumbled them back onto the counter, apologizing.