“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pennies from Heaven

Being poor, I miss a lot as I walk the streets.  Instead of observing the people around me, or the surrounding buildings, or the traffic, I find my eyes scouring the sidewalk, the gutter, and the street -- at least the first foot or so of pavement in front of me.

I am looking for coins or cash or anything else of easily realizable value.  I have found quite a lot of money on the sidewalks and in the streets, including a one-hundred dollar bill on the street where I used to live.  And in the past twenty-four hours I have found forty-four cents on the ground: nine pennies, one dime, and one quarter.  I also found an ATM card, which I will return to the next Bank of America branch that I pass. [OK -- so I held onto it long enough to use it to buy one bus ticket, which cost 75 cents, from a vending machine.]

When I was a little boy, I would, once in a great while, find a penny lying on the sidewalk.  I would grab it quickly, with great excitement, and my mother would proclaim, “That's good luck!  Hold on to that!”  When we got home, I would place it carefully in a special box or drawer, and I would treasure it for the luck it was sure to bring me in the coming days.

My maternal grandmother told the story (though I believe I only heard it second-hand from my mother) of her Uncle Lou's disgust when the one cent coin was introduced in 1909.  Whenever he received them in change from a merchant, he would toss them with contempt into the gutter and say, “Worthless coppers!”

Inflation and deflation have cycled 'round more than a couple of times in the years separating Uncle Lou's worthless coppers and the penny of my boyhood from what I find today.  But I have been struck by the apparent evidence in the street that we are once again in Uncle Lou's world, at least economically.  For most people, it seems, a penny is once again not worth the effort of bending over to pick up, or at least not worth carefully holding on to.

I have considered whether the penny's worth depends on the class of the holder, but the fact is that I have found them on the streets of every kind of neighborhood.  It seems that today all classes share Uncle Lou's low opinion of the coins.  (I must here note that the exception is the wealthiest neighborhoods, where their absense is probably due to the fact that no one walks along those streets anyway, and if they do, they are not fishing through their pockets or purses for coins to feed a parking meter or to pay bus fare.)

I have however also discovered a couple of differences between the classes in the course of my search for money on the street:

In poor neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin, you will find no money on the street late in the month.  In the days immediately following the first and the fifteenth of the month, however, at the time when General Assistance, Social Security, Disability, and other state income programs send out checks, a veritable thunderstorm of coppers seems to have descended overnight.

In middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods one finds not pennies but currency, even large denominations, suggesting of a carelessness about money that could obtain only among those for whom money is so abundant as to be almost unnoticeable.

When I say "unnoticeable", I am thinking of Heidegger's (or is it Husserl's?) observation that we only notice things that have broken.  His example is his pencil.  As long as the pencil is working, he writes page after page unaware that it is in his hand.  He doesn't notice the pencil until the moment it breaks, when it suddenly leaps into his awareness.  His attention is no longer on his ideas and the words that communicate them but on the piece of wood and graphite squeezed between his fingers and thumb.

Money must be like this for the privileged classes: invisible, because for them it works so effortlessly.  But wait until you've made that one mistake, trusting in someone too easily perhaps.  Only then will you begin to learn what money is.

I see a certain man from time to time, usually just around the corner from my hotel and half-way up the block. It is always night, and he terrifies me.

I do not know whether he knows that I am there when I see him. I have never seen more than a quarter of his face, by which I can tell little more than that he is of Asian descent, but beyond that I couldn't identify him. He is always looking down at the pavement and is always very close to it. He squats on his heels, balanced on his toes, and his hands are busy with a miniature broom and dustpan.

He is sweeping the cracks in the sidewalk and examining the dirt closely. On two occasions I have seen him pick something up with his fingertips. My guess is that he is looking for crack cocaine or crystal meth.

The block on which he prospects is crowded most times I walk up it. Since my favorite neighborhood market, "Amigo's", is at the end of the block, at Ellis Street, I walk that way most every night or two.

The crowd is almost exclusively African-American, 90% male, and arranged in clusters that force the pedestrian to swerve and say "excuse me" four or five times in the block. One sees something being handed off, and hands disappearing quickly into clothing, as one makes one's way through the gauntlet. Occasionally hands are cupped around a flame which is also quickly withdrawn and whatever it was lighting or heating disappears just as quickly.

So I assume that the crouching prospector is seeking bits of what is passed between hands or heated or lit in the hopes that they might have fallen to the ground. In some ways he is heir to those who first created the city in the 1850s. And I would wager that he, like most of them, will find little more than fool's gold.