The penny: Assailed from all quarters

January 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- "Take a penny, or leave a penny," the sign suggests with indifference. It sits by a dish on the sales counter of the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Broadway near 73rd Street.

Some customers look pleased and weed out their change.

"People come in and give us whole bunches of pennies," says Chandra Muguercia, a clerk at the bookstore. "They say, 'I don't like them.' "

After all, a penny saved is probably a penny added to a glut of other pennies stashed in a jar or drawer.

A nuisance for many, the humble but omnipresent penny has come under attack from many quarters these days. It buys little, weighs down pockets and exasperates cashiers. Its ignominy shows in the growing presence of penny baskets near cash registers that make a subtle call for a penniless transaction.

"A penny is nothing," said Dwight Bravo, a New York security guard who says he wouldn't stoop to pluck one from the street. "You can't get candy for a penny. What are you going to do with pennies? They just take up space and time."

To be sure, there are penny sympathizers. A Gallup poll last year found that 62 percent of Americans surveyed on the issue want the Mint to go on making pennies even if they are a bother (although New Yorkers were the least enthusiastic).

Some people do pick them up. There is, after all, the question of fate. "See a penny, pick it up/All the day, you'll have good luck," quoted Darryl La Fitte, another Barnes & Noble clerk, who admits to being "kind of superstitious."

As for Mr. Bravo's question about its worth -- a penny can still buy a stamp, although you couldn't mail anything with just one.

Well, you could, hoping that the person on the other end would pay the postage due. Except that mail with no stamps gets returned directly to the sender.

And you can still get penny candy if you search hard enough: 1-inch Tootsie Rolls, for instance, and gum. Jars of them are found here and there in convenience and other small stores.

True, even multiple pennies are spurned by vending machines, automatic toll collectors and New York City bus fare boxes (although some drivers don't fuss if you slip a few in).

But if you poke pennies into 50-cent rolls -- an awkward task -- you can redeem them at a bank, at least if you are a customer there and write your account number on the outside.

"We've had people wrap old batteries in lieu of coins," explains Ken Hurz, a spokesman for Chemical Bank.

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