• Otter Views: Small Change

    by Tom Stevens

    Many years of diving under waves and working in the bell-shattered din of public schools has cost me some high-end hearing.

    It’s not a big deal. Most rock fans and nearly all drummers have lost far more. But as I get older, I understand why the “ear horn” was a longtime cartoon fixture.

    In conversation, I make an ersatz horn by cupping one hand behind the ear nearer the speaker. By tilting my head toward the voice and leaning in close, I can hear a faint buzzing sound, like a bee trapped in a bottle.

    Coupled with thoughtful nods and frequent repetition requests, this posture gets me through most conversations, although these seem to be growing fewer and briefer of late.

    As opportunities for human discourse have dwindled, I’ve turned for auditory consolation to my dresser-top coin bucket. Topped by a sturdy wire handle, this blue tin unit awaits each day’s discharge of pocketed pennies, nickels and dimes. (Quarters, more precious, go into their own bowl to feed parking meters).

    Like many pants wearers, I empty my pockets each evening so their linty cargo of coins, paper clips, ticket stubs, and rat-tail combs won’t go through the wash. The small change gets pitched into the blue tin bucket, producing a pleasant rattling noise even I can hear.

    There was a time, back in the ear horn era, when I would have sifted through these coins looking for a rare 1916 “D” dime or 1904 “SVDB” penny. But at this end of life, time seems too fleeting for such laborious scrutiny. Now I just want to hear the metallic clangor of coins jettisoned into the bucket.

    My auditory apotheosis comes when the bucket is full. Gripping the wire handle, I carry it to my truck, set it carefully on the passenger side floor mat, and drive to the supermarket. Just inside the store, near the t-shirt display, sits a wondrous coin-counting machine.

    In the ear horn era, only casinos had these machines. People living near Tahoe, Reno or Vegas could take their coin buckets to Harrah’s and emerge with ready cash (or not emerge, as the case might be). Everyone else had to pack their coins into tight little paper tubes available from banks.

    Vexing and time-consuming as it was, this tube-packing process had educational value. First, you had to separate your coins by denomination and recognize random outliers like francs, drachmas, washers and “slugs.” Then you poked each coin carefully into the tube, counting as you went. This taught the sort of fiscal exactitude once esteemed by banks and their Calvinist founders.

    But as banks have grown more like casinos, paper tube stuffing has gone the way of The Glass-Steagall Act. And now that coin-counting machines are supermarket fixtures, their speed and convenience gladden small change hoarders everywhere. As at the bank or casino, the house still takes its 10 percent vig, but the customer gets a chit redeemable for actual groceries.

    In my case, the coin machine also delights and entertains, though as the market is a public place, I try to be discreet. I generally use the coin counter during off-peak hours to avoid suspicious bystanders and fellow change bucket toters.

    Feeling like a reverse bank robber, I “case” the supermarket foyer for other coin redeemers before carrying my bucket into the store. After punching in my language and payout choices, I lift the bucket gingerly over the perforated coin intake ramp. Then I hold my breath, start tilting out the contents, and listen to the merry mazurka of falling money. It’s the poor man’s Las Vegas.

    The pizzicato clink, chime and ching of dancing coins is music to my treble-starved ears, but that’s not all. The tray clanks and bangs. The engine adds its bass section of churning throbs, thumps and rumbles. Mysterious conveyers deep within the mechanism shuffle, clap, shimmy and syncopate like mummers at the Mardi Gras.

    As you might imagine, I want this auditory high to last. I scoop out small mounds of coins, spread them evenly across the latticework tray, then lift the ramp so the machine gets only one gulp at a time. As the coin downpour diminishes to a few nickel and copper drops, I release another scoop, cup my ears, and lean eagerly toward the intake maw.

    Sick? Weird? Pathetic? Yes, you could say so. But I’d probably have to ask you to repeat it.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 2, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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