As I was about to place my body in the abdominal crunch machine at the gym, I noticed a penny on the floor under this gruesome-looking unit which hinted it was supposed to give birth to something. Because I’ve had a long love affair with the penny, I picked it up, noted that it was minted in 2010, and then placed the coin that costs more to make than it’s worth on the stack of weights that would rise and fall on the reasonable demands of my disinterested stomach muscles.
As I joined the chorus of the club’s grunters and moaners, I wondered how that penny got into that exact position. And why was it not a nickel or a dime? Was this a test, the wallet-on-a-string routine, exposing who would be willing to stoop so low for a lowly penny? Was I being set up?
Lately my family has been telling me that I have a visible crook in my neck and an increased tendency to look at my shoes when in polite company. They mean well, but I realize that they are trying to shame me out of my penny watch and my considerable success. I do have luck outside my fitness club. I think the reason for this is that a good number of young guys are in such a hurry to grab a cigarette, they empty their pockets of condoms, tissues and small change, unware of the spillage. I am interested only in the pennies.
For my family this activity would be merely an exercise in bad posture if I didn’t bring home these pennies, most badly flattened by car and truck tires, and place them at key places around the house, such as on the kitchen table, next to my night light and sometimes in my shoes for good luck as a bride might courageously wear a shilling in her heel, a gift from a great aunt, as a promise of fame and good fortune since medieval times.
I am not amused by the MIT professor who suggests that we not only retire the penny but build some great zinc monstrosity of the Tin Man out of discarded pennies and place it smack in the middle of Kansas. He has also suggested that we finally bury for good Ben Franklin and suggests that his crackling 18th century economic advice—a penny saved is a penny earned—should end up on the same zinc junk pile of history.
My passion for pennies might well be considered pathology, a romantic desire for the copper penny to bring back, not the fiscal discipline of the gold standard, but a slice of my childhood, mother and all. For my mother, the penny seemed to be central to every conversation from “a penny for your thoughts” when I was quiet to her “penny-wise, pound-foolish” remark, announced when I was older and fresh off a purchase of a time-share in troubled Bimini while still paying rabid attention to my penny jar at home.
Mother can still show up unannounced but in perfect character though dead for thirty years. It was after the 9/11 attack in NYC and the contaminated air was doing a job on my lungs. After frequent visits to my pulmonary doctor, he greeted me with a salutation that could have come from my mother: “Here he is again,” said the good doctor, “returning to me like a bad penny.”
I was astounded by his remark and quickly tried to parse his words. Why the penny? Was he of that generation? Did he, like me, search for those treasures underfoot? Or was he being a scold, somehow finding my mother’s voice and emphasis? Was he channeling the woman, suggesting this bad penny was also a bad son and wouldn’t be welcome anytime soon at the home of my birth? Was the man trying to get rid of me, suggesting I was losing currency and, moreover, couldn’t take a hint that had been in plain sight for some time? Was I an item that could be discarded in a New York minute?
Life’s many penny challenges and fiscal disappointment have not taken me away from my roots and my eternal admiration for the original British monetary system, namely pounds, shillings and pence. I had just managed to understand this complex money system that came to Britain by way of Rome and Charlemagne when, out of the blue in 1966, Britain went metric and just about killed my dreams of ruminating around in these old coins for the rest of my life. I mean, where else can one find pennies, and half-pennies, and farthings all puffed up and made more important by the flooding consonants of the Cockney tongue?
As an American citizen but still thoroughly British in a narrow, petty sense, I have taken every opportunity to repair the Empire and remind the metric crowd that its fascination with European tastes and mores will have a deleterious effect on the British soul. In that spirit, I continue my letter writing campaigns, speeches on Hyde Park corner, and some minor eruptions in Parliament. I am largely ignored but retain what my mother termed an essential pluckiness.
Nonetheless, fortune smiled in me when I became editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine and saw a way to bring back the majesty of the penny, so to speak. The talk at Bicycling was all about carbon fiber and titanium frames and parts, as if bikes were meant to be lighter than air and fly. I was too practical and too British to chase that false dawn. When I was given the chance, I pressed for the return of the penny farthing bike with the one large and one small wheel. I grew up in a neighborhood in north London where these bikes were all the rage, at least at Easter and on fair days, bringing joy and a certain weightiness to my boyish heart. What I saw in front of me moving at a modest eight miles an hour was something solid, permanent and able to withstand a lifetime of punishing English rains and noxious smog. I was in love.
From my perch at Bicycling I encouraged companies like Schwinn to develop a new line of penny farthing bikes for a new, retro generation that wanted to stand out above the crowd. I had fashion designers who were ready to produce a line of 19th century clothing, including striped leggings for men and pink parasols for women. I scheduled a place for these bikes in front of every major event in the U.S. from the New York Marathon to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
A few companies developed limited, celebrity-sponsored lines of the penny farthing to be sold as one-off or gag gifts. This was not a serious manufacturing effort, just a way to appease an editor who might write negative reviews of their other products. But I consider it no accident that Schwinn went out of business, selling its company scraps to the Taiwanese, soon after rejecting my idea of a robust line of penny farthings. I told the Schwinn brothers that they had lost their way, deciding to invest in bikes for kids rather than the historically true and meaty penny farthing. It was a loss they lived to regret.
The glory days of putting my penny farthing dreams on the roads of America are past but I remain vigilant, looking for the right currency under gym equipment, road kill and the flotsam and jetsam that I had collected during my service in the U.S. Navy.
But that is another sea story.