Walking across a parking lot the other day, I stopped to pick up a penny - almost. It was right there beside my truck, a bright copper profile of our 16th president looking up at me and catching the sun. If I'm to believe the old songs and sayings, these things come from heaven, but if I'm to believe everything I've heard on the subject, we can't take them with us. Since I'm not much of a candidate in the first place, and it was one of those rare occasions when I was feeling flush, I didn't even break stride and went cruising right on by, a regular Rockerfeller and friend of the devil. What did give me pause was the idea that there was no reason not to pick it up, pocket it and be on my way that much the richer. And so the question became: Would I have stopped for a nickel? A dime? Surely a quarter, but why not a penny? Cold hard cash.
Like a lot of people, I have a jar at home where I keep pennies. Every so often I haul them to the bank and with great anticipation await the total. Half the fun is trying to guess what the tonnage will come to, and yet no matter how little it is, it feels like free money. Last time it was $4.20 which may not sound like a lot, but it's a pint of beer at happy hour, and I'm seldom one to turn down a free drink.
In high school I used to pitch pennies against the curb with friends while waiting for the bus. Then on the ride in we'd play penny-ante blackjack. I realize now it wasn't about the money, but the way it made me feel: grown up and a little daring. I liked, too, the way it stimulated my brain, made me think about the vagaries of fate and beating the odds. Pitching pennies was a whole different thing; it required skill and I used to pride myself on studying the way the soft coins would bounce depending on the spin I put on them. I see now it was the competition I was after, the squinted-eyed concentration, also the way the antipodal sides of the penny flashed in the morning sun, sluicing everything down to that one fine focal point we refer to as the now.
Even deeper in the past, I remember how I used to place pennies on the railroad tracks not far from my childhood home. For superstitious and aesthetic reasons it was always heads up. Even at the time, I knew it was an important ritual - a rite of passage and I felt bound by powers beyond my ken of knowing. There was a sense of danger too, that thin lick of excitement that comes from operating in the illicit. My reward was therefore twofold: the stern face of Lincoln transformed into something oval and sad, and the rich inner gratification of doing something my parents forbade.
"Money doesn't talk, it swears," said Bob Dylan. I curse myself on a regular basis for being without it. Which means that looking back I wish I'd picked up that penny. That I didn't hurts me right down to my parsimonious New England roots. And yet, I didn't pick that penny up because I knew it wouldn't make any difference, but follow such logic to its natural cul-du-sac and you arrive at a place where nothing matters: recycling, paper or plastic at the grocery store, even voting. But we do these things, at least some of us, and feel better for it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said the mark of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once and retain the ability to function. To test this theory, I'm going to have to start picking up pennies. I'm going to have to pick them up, take them home and put them in that jar. Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but to my way of thinking, life itself has always been the penny, dropped from heaven or spit up from hell, I've no idea. Regardless, I can't count on the dealer drawing a face card, and if jokers are cut into the deck that would be me. I mean, really, the whole damn thing's a gamble isn't it? A crap shoot, a train shooting past, and, on those lucky occasions when it all adds up and falls into place: happy hour.