Quarters

by Jeff Oaks

I keep quarters but I throw anything less into a jar until it builds up to something, a real weight I can take into the supermarket’s Coinstar and turn into a piece of paper that let’s me buy groceries. I’ve been known to drop pennies on the street rather than have them jingle in my pockets, against my phone, my keys, my wallet.

I’m old enough to remember when parking meters used to accept small change, but now the lowest denomination is the quarter, which makes quarters to new pennies. 8 minutes per quarter at the meters I usually use near work. At the University Club, I can get fifteen minutes per quarter but I’m only allowed to park for two hours, which is more than enough time for me to complete my gym routine.

Remember fifty cent pieces, Sacajawea dollar coins, and silver dollars? They’ve all failed in the American currency system. Why has the quarter done so well and those others so poorly? Why do we go 1, 5, 10, 25, and then suddenly 100? It’s a weird jump. What accounts for it, I wonder? Why don’t we have 25 dollar bills?

Is it that quarters exist at some balance point between weight and value in contemporary American culture? In an age of plastic and swiping and the use of email receipts, the physical weight of change is a burden, an unfortunate friction against our lightweight clothing, our chic purses and bags. It must therefore go, because after all it can go. We hardly need it for anything anymore. Whenever I get back change, I always look for a charity box next to the counter where I can relieve myself of what might after all scratch my phone. A suggestion to those companies who might want to raise funds is to keep a small box clearly labeled right at the register.

We walk so soundlessly now. I can remember the sound of grown men being the sound of pockets full of change, out of which they’d fish us kids a nickel, a dime, sometimes a quarter so we could buy candy or soda or comic books. Fathers were often full of such small presents, a casual and largely unpredictable largesse I wonder still exists in the absence of pocket change and penny candy.

At the same time, we had a teacher in sixth grade whose perversity, we thought, was revealed by the constant jingling of his right hand adjusting the change in his pocket. We called what he did “pocket pool,” by which we meant he was always playing with himself, masturbating, while he talked to us. It was disgusting to us but it gave us a reason to feel superior to him. Doubtless the gesture was masturbatory, but I think one of the reasons it rankled us was because the sound he made was the promise of money without any actual gift of it, which felt miserly. That he also, in my memory of him now, was the kind of teacher who delighted in knowing more than his students, who spent our time together performing his own intelligence instead of drawing ours out of us, makes the constant noise of his pocket a kind of metaphor for a kind of person who goes into teaching because he wants to play it safe.

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