Giving no quarter in an effort to keep pennies circulating


Let's get the personal bias out of the way first: I happen to like pennies.

I pick them off the ground for good luck.

At the end of the day, I toss all my pennies into a cup on my dresser, which, frankly, is doing better than my 401(k).

And when I go to the convenience store to buy a Minute Maid orange juice and hand the sullen young woman with green hair at the cash register $1.40 for my $1.39 juice, I stand there with my hand outstretched waiting for my one-cent change.

She doesn't say anything, but I think this drives her nuts.

You can tell by her eyes, and by the slow, deliberate way she exhales.

Another penny freak, she's thinking. Boy, I can't stand this place.

I bet she goes home right after her shift and starts working on her resume.


She's not throwing my penny in that little plastic dish next to the register.

Anyway, the point is that I come down strongly pro-penny in almost every aspect of life, and have for many years.

But, sadly, there are a lot of people out there who hate pennies.

They find them annoying and grimy and terribly old-fashioned in an age when so many financial transactions involve plastic.

They say they're more trouble than they're worth.

Which means they're no doubt heartened by recent news stories that report it's now actually costing the government more than a penny to make a penny, leading to speculation the penny could ultimately disappear from our currency.

Oh, the sullen young convenience store clerk with the green hair, she probably saw those stories and cheered.

Maybe she even tore up her resume and poured herself a celebratory Slurpee and thought: Fine, I'll give this place a few more months.

But the rest of the haters are still out there.

There's even a tiny group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny, headed by a young man named Jeff Gore, who graduated last year from the University of California, Berkeley with a Ph.D. in physics.

I reached Gore on a really bad cell phone connection yesterday as he traveled by train through Connecticut.

He seemed like a sensible guy for an academic, something you don't find every day.

His main gripe about pennies?

"The use of pennies in cash transactions slows down transactions and is a waste of time," he said.

He then directed me to the CRP Web site, which cites a study done by the National Association of Convenience Stores and Walgreen's drug stores that says that customers fumbling for pennies adds 2.5 seconds to each cash transaction, which adds up to 4 hours lost per person each year.

I know, I know ... how do they come up with this stuff? Is, for instance, the sullen young woman with the green hair pulling out a stopwatch and timing these transactions?

Please. I've seen these people in action. This isn't a double-blind Centers for Disease Control study. It's done by people selling you Big Gulps.

But even if the study is legit, what the haters don't get - or what they fail to appreciate - is that the plusses of the penny far outweigh its minuses.

Take the penny's simple beauty.

C'mon, there's something inspiring about the stern, no-nonsense visage of the great Abraham Lincoln that graces one side, a visage that appears to be telling the nation: "Step out of line and, by God, I'll personally beat you within an inch of your life."

Even the austere Lincoln Memorial on the reverse side suggests a certain kind of beauty, particularly since it's devoid of the howling masses of digital-camera-toting, baby-stroller-pushing tourists who normally descend on the place.

But maybe what I like best about the penny is its penchant to surprise you.

You never know where you'll come across one: next to a cigarette butt on a city sidewalk, encased in Oreo crumbs under the couch cushions, stuck to chewing gum behind the car seats, in the oozing muck of a pond.

And here's the thing: According to a poll by Coinstar, the company that developed self-service machines that turn coins into cash, more than three-quarters of us will reach past the cigarette butts, Oreo crumbs, chewing gum and oozing muck to pick up that penny.

I wonder if the sullen young convenience store clerk with the green hair knows that. I should tell her - if she hasn't quit already.

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