Does anyone still pick up a penny when they see it on the floor? C’mon- anybody? That’s what I thought. For baby boomers, there was a lot we could do with a penny or two.
Back in the early 1960’s, there was lots of candy that still cost a penny. In September 1964, I spent seventh grade in a private school in the Chicago Lakeview neighborhood. The school was in the middle of the first block in from Lake Michigan and Sheridan Road on Melrose Street. At the northwestern corner by Broadway there stood a small candy shop. It was a gold mine for the elderly couple that owned it. Not only did they have our school as a locked-in customer, but directly across the street was a public grammar school.
Our nickname for the old man behind the counter was Mr. Miser because he distrusted all regardless of age. In his mind, everyone was out to try to steal his merchandise. Well, not exactly everyone. Most girls were given the benefit of the doubt. But, if you walked in wearing a pair of pants- look out. It was like strolling in a prison yard during the designated time break with cops wearing sun glasses and pounding billy clubs against their open hands watching your every move. And heaven help you if you took too long to decide what you wanted or changed your mind after Miser put the goods in a paper bag. Anything to ruffle his feathers guaranteed an unleashing of verbal abuse and a demand to leave the premises immediately.
Putting all that aside, we quickly ate our lunch at school during the forty minute allotment and took the less than ten minute excursion back and forth to the store in preparation for the start of afternoon sessions. When you laid three cents down on the counter and received in return three grape sour gum balls to chew, life became a rejoicing for the rest of the sun’s daily visual orbit in the sky.
In the pre-environmently conscious era, we kids would gather pop bottles and return them to the neighborhood corner store for the two cents refund of the deposit tax. Exactly- a ten cent bottle of pop had an additional two cents deposit tacked on. This was to encourage people to return the bottles. It was not so much a concern for keeping the sidewalks free of broken glass but for the manufacturers to save money and get by on re-using bottles.
We’d scrounge the alley looking for any appearance of a whole re-usable glass bottle. The big 32 ounce bottles were worth five cents each. A good day’s scavenging could lead to nearly fifty extra cents in the pocket. That translated into a few packs of baseball cards or even a trip to the movies.
Pennies also had value in transportation. To get to the Lakeview area from the West Side, we needed to take two buses and two elevated trains in each direction. Back then, we could purchase a one-way fare along with a transfer that was good for up to one hour. The fare for students was twelve cents; the transfer, five cents. I recall a handful of times where we waited quite a while for a connecting train or bus and the driver gave us a hard time about the hour that elapsed from the time stamped on the transfer. We would have to explain that the fault not lie with us but with his employer’s equipment and schedule keeping.
The newspaper cost seven cents during the week and ten cents on Saturday or Sunday depending on the publication. Newsstand vendors did not like to give change so having pennies available meant a lot. In those days, stores did not have a tray with loose change and a note next to it encouraging one to use it when they were short a penny or two after tax was added.
We used to collect the non-copper pennies that were minted during World War Two as we were convinced that they had extra value. Or a penny with an S stamped below the date to signify it was made at the San Francisco Mint. We were told that they were scarce as they were no longer minted. All other cents were bargaining chips to get what our hearts desired.
Yes, we were truly penny minded. Oh, and I do bend down to pick up a penny- but only if it is shiny.