This is the first picture I took after arriving in Ireland on July 8, 2013.
It wasn’t Temple Bar, it wasn’t O’Connell Street, it wasn’t a pint o’ Guinness. It was a penny*, in my hand, found on the sidewalk in Sandymount.
*Ok, a one-cent euro coin. Ireland abolished their first penny (worth 1/12 of an Irish shilling**) in 1971, and their second penny (worth 1/100 of an Irish pound) in 1999.
I am, have been, and feel that I always will be, a coin picker. It began in 2007, when a chance conversation with a school custodian sweeping the hallways after classes took an interesting turn. I noticed several coins among the dust bunnies, broken pencils, and Mountain Dew bottles rolling before his wide broom.
Me: “Wow! I see three or four quarters [$0.25 coins] in that pile. You could buy yourself a Mountain Dew with that!”
He: “Yeah, I always grab coins when I find ’em in the hallways. I throw ’em in a bucket in the office, and at the end of the year I have fifty or sixty bucks!”
I was astonished, dumbstruck, twitterpated, blown away, floored, and other adjectives. At the time, my newly-minted adult brain (the ink was barely dry on my university degree) couldn’t have imagined those dimes, nickels, and pennies adding up to a substantial sum over 185 school days diligently picking dirty coins from among other floor sweepings. Deciding that I wanted some of this free cash for myself, I began scanning the world below my feet for treasures everywhere I went.
It became something of
an obsession a hobby as I expanded my search to include Iowa returnable cans and bottles, each one worth $0.05 if I was willing to pick up garbage of unknown origin for a pittance—and I was.
This income source also appealed to my sometimes meticulous nature; I began tracking my monthly take and keeping totals as I stooped on street corners and scanned the floor around supermarket checkout lines for treasure. Cans and bottles were counted and figured into my total, and I smiled every time I brought a box of mismatched and dirty drink containers into my local collection center to collect my brass.
I also calculated the compound interest I was earning on my findings. My spreadsheet grew month by month, and I began to watch the interest collected grow, first by steps, then by leaps—especially after a month in which a lazy Bud Light drinker threw four garbage bags full of cans at me as I returned my weekly take.
But this collecting had to be kept clean and on the level; I wasn’t financially desperate, after all, mostly curious. Over the course of my first year as a coin picker, I codified my own set of picking regulations—self-enforced, of course:
- No Stealing: Any coin dropped within picker’s sight MUST be ignored or, if possible, politely returned to its rightful owner. Coins may only be picked up if they are abandoned: left alone in a public place with sufficient lag time required for the original owner to exit the immediate area. Application of this rule must be made carefully, especially when returning dropped coins, so as not to violate Rule #2.
- Do No Harm: In the process of collecting coins, the collector is not allowed to violate the personal space of a stranger; family and friends are excluded. Coins directly at the feet of strangers are allowed to be watched—coin only and inconspicuously—until such time as any nearby strangers have cleared the immediate polite area before collection. When returning dropped coins, do not run after women on the street saying, “Excuse me, Miss! You dropped this!” as this may cause the woman to run away in fear.
- Coins Intentionally Left: No coins left for a specific purpose may be collected. Coins seen in wishing wells, unattended charity jars, “take a penny, leave a penny” dishes, and in public works of art are not to be considered abandoned (see above) and must be left to fulfill their original purpose as intended by their rightful owner, who still maintains authority over these intentionally left coins in absentia.
- Coins Near Buskers and Panhandlers: Coins within sight of a panhandler, street performer, or charity collector are to be either ignored or collected and immediately donated to any coin-askers in the immediate area. No matter what you think of their lame Coldplay covers, it’s still a jerk move to pocket a free coin in the face of someone specifically asking for them. In busy areas with multiple coin askers, a picker may use his or her discretion when choosing a coin recipient.
When we arrived in Ireland—after I discovered that lone penny in Sandymount—I was happy to see that the higher-value one- and two-euro coins would also grace the local sidewalks and gutters alongside the abandoned coppers, obviously much more rarely. Since 2013, I have collected hundreds of coins, totaling well over €100, mostly in the one- and two-centers.
And most of these coppers have landed in a supermarket self-checkout kiosk. When I learned that our local bank charged a fee for coin collection, I said “nuts” to that and began bringing bags of forty pennies to the supermarket to buy cans of tomatoes, one at a time. I have bought dozens of these cans, carefully and slowly plugging coins into the machine while willfully ignoring the annoyed stares coming my way from store staff and other customers, and they have kept us well fed with pastas and pizzas. Our tomato supply depends on my copper collecting.
Which is why I was worried when Ireland announced its plan to roll back the pennies in favor of a new rounding scheme. As inflation devalues the smallest denominations, costs of raw materials rise, and more people simply abandon them—or, as one English acquaintance said of his pennies, “shlub ’em in the bin!”—it becomes increasingly unfeasible to continue with their use. From this month, businesses will have the option to round all change for cash transactions to the nearest five cents: 1, 2, 6, 7 round down; 3, 4, 8, 9 round up.
I am concerned as to how this will impact my picking income. The official rounding website doesn’t address the issue, surprisingly. Will there be a sudden glut of abandoned coins as people realize they have become redundant, followed by an eternal, penniless void? Will they dry up right away as people greedily hoard them as collectors’ items? Will my pickup rate of five-cent coins suddenly spike, causing a net rise in my takings? Will my pickup rate not change at all?
I’m all for practicality, I’m all for frugality. But have the Powers That Be really examined the impact that depriving us of our pennies will have? What are the ripple effects of raising the price of a child’s wishing well wish? What about the fairies living in Ireland’s fairy trees? Are they in for a raise or are they heading for the fairy breadline? What about me, the little coin picker who likes a can of tomatoes earned the old fashioned way?
With this news, I’m even more excited to be moving back to the States this summer, where they would never get rid of the proud penny institution…