When is a penny “just a penny”?
Depends, I guess.
While we were in the hospital for Sunny’s surgery, part of my daily ritual was to run downstairs to the cafeteria to grab a little breakfast and bring it back up to the room to eat with Sunny. Granted, what she was “eating” was chicken broth and Jell-O, but you get the idea. (It’s not like my eggs from a box were a tremendous upgrade over her meal anyway.) After a couple of days, I got a little tired of the weak cafeteria coffee, though, so I decided to walk down the hall to the Starbucks kiosk just outside the Family Waiting Room.
Some people really love the options at a place like Starbucks. (Think of the Meg Ryan monologue from “You’ve Got Mail”, a severely overrated movie in it’s day, by the way.) I’m not one of those people. I just like coffee. Black. No sugar. And I always have to double check myself before ordering. (“What’s the fancy word for ‘medium’ again?”) Say what you will about the Starbucks experience, but the coffee packs a wallop. And on this particular morning, after another fitful night’s sleep in a recliner with doctors, nurses, and techs in and out of the room at all hours of the night, I really needed a boost of brew.
So I stood in line and waited patiently until it was my time to order: a grande Pike’s Place brew. (Shouldn’t grande be the largest size available to order? Makes sense to me. On a Tim James level.) The order came to $2.01. Over the course of the week, I had developed quite a pocketful of change thanks to all the meals I purchased in the cafeteria and food court. But on this particular morning, in my haste, I simply grabbed my wallet and left all my loose coins in the room. I checked the “community penny repository”; no luck. I looked back at the mini-barista and asked her to verify the total. “Did you say two-oh-one?” I elevated my voice an octave at “one”, implying the complete inconvenience this one cent was going to cause me. “Yes, sir.” This calloused soul was clearly unsympathetic.
I did the only thing I knew to do: I pulled out three crisp $1 bills from my wallet and handed them over. “Sorry, I don’t have any change,” I said. Again, that’s what I said. But what I meant by that was, “Look, can’t you see that I don’t have a penny on me. And your little ‘leave a penny, help a friend’ chest is bone dry, too. So rather than counting out a whole bunch of loose change — which you don’t want to do and, to be honest, I don’t want to carry around in my pocket — why don’t you just bail me out here and give me a penny. After all, it’s only a penny.”
I have to be honest — this little trick has proved to be fairly effective over the years. The shrugging, “Sorry, I don’t have any change” maneuver has worked in most any environment you could imagine. I suspect I’ve saved myself somewhere in the neighborhood of .37 cents over the years with this move. But to reach .38 cents, I’d have to find another hapless sucker. My kiosk barista couldn’t care less. I have to give her credit; she’d probably seen this same move from street wise, frugally-conscious coffee drinkers every day in the hospital. She counted out my .99 cents with the precision and speed of an oil rigger, a U.S. soccer player, a Samba-dancing toddler.It was at that moment I realized I was dealing with the Penny Nazi.
I’m reminded of a story from my youth involving my Dad and our mail carrier. I’m not sure if you can still do this or not, but back then, my parents would take a letter and put it in the mailbox without a stamp. They’d put the appropriate amount of change in the box (.22 cents at the time, I think), and I guess the mail man would take the change and put the postage on the letter for you. Maybe that was just a small town thing, I don’t know. One time my Dad was trying to get rid of some change, so he counted out 22 pennies and put them in the mailbox with a letter. I guess the mail man didn’t like it, because when my Dad went out to check the mail, he found his letter, along with the 22 pennies still in the box, along with a Post-It note with the following written on it in big, block letters: “I DON’T LIKE PENNIES!!!” My Dad, not to be outdone, wrote back “I DON’T EITHER!!!” and put the note, the letter, and the 22 pennies back in the mailbox the next day. To my knowledge, the letter was mailed.
As the barista went to hand me my change — all .99 cents of it — she actually dropped one of the coins behind the cash register. I heard it clank and land between the register and the kiosk back. Penny Nazi and I watched the penny fall, as if in slow motion, and then our eyes rose to meet one another. She shrugged and said, “Ooops. Oh, well. It’s only a penny.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call irony.
I guess a penny is never JUST a penny.