Penny for Thought

You would not pass a dollar bill on the sidewalk without picking it up. Maybe not even a quarter. I am sure of that. But a penny? Do you stoop for that? I do.

Thomas Rowlandson. Two-a-penny Buns (1799). Museum of London, London.
Thomas Rowlandson. Two-a-penny Buns (1799). Museum of London, London.

And I just did this morning. Two at time were lying by my car in a local lot when I ran out for groceries. That makes three so far this week. The first was lying on Lexington Avenue outside of St. Jean Baptiste earlier in the week. As I bent to retrieve it, a passerby saw me and admonished: “It’s not lucky, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” I told him. “But it’s unlucky to leave it there.”

And I believe that. It is the one superstition I permit myself. Never mind black cats, Friday the thirteenth, or pressing #13 on an elevator. Walking under ladders does not faze me. And where I live, a bat in the house is not uncommon. But the smallest coin, even a penny, cries to be picked up.

Thomas Rowlandson. London Penny Post (c. 1800). Museum of London, London.
Thomas Rowlandson. London Penny Post (c. 1800). Museum of London, London.

Why? Perhaps because it seems too complaisant, even arrogant, to leave it there. If I snub so much as a penny, abandoning it to be stepped on, am I not tempting the gods to put me in my place? Won’t the gods of the purse pay me back in some unwelcome way? I can hear them: “She’s too flush to bother over pennies, is she? We’ll show her.”

In day-to-day transactions, I do not trouble over pennies or any change at all. But a coin on the ground is different. You have to break your pace, bend down, and get your fingers dirty. And be seen doing it. In its way, all superstition aside, bobbing for a penny is a small genuflection made in gratitude that I do not need the very thing I stoop for.

Domenico Fetti. Parable of the Lost Coin. (17th C.). Berlin
Domenico Fetti. Parable of the Lost Coin. (17th C.). Berlin