I began playing with money as a wee youngster; or as my mother called me (and still does, occasionally), “a little shit.”
There’s just something about solid currency—the way it shines, maybe—that makes it irresistible to toddlers, i.e. they’ll stick it in their mouths. I must have been a bit older because I’m pretty sure I remember my old man saying “If you swallow a quarter, it’ll come out two dimes and a nickel.” Whaa? Really, Pops? This was going to be sooooo cool. I tried and … no dice, or coins, for that matter. So, like a fool before a rigged arcade game, I tried again.
I was absolutely mesmerized by those giant United Way funnels. Just drop a coin into the slot, then watch it go aaaaaaround … and aaaaaaround, down into the abyss. Putting two quarters in, at the same time on opposite ends, is an even better show. However, it’s apparently a big no-no to try and snatch the quarters back, just as they near the vortex.
Around this time, “The Amazing Jeff” began showing up at senior centers. This little boy was thinking about a career in magic. His favorite tricks were those involving real money, preferably dollar bills. Money tricks are great because they involve an everyday item that most folks habe on-hand. Plus, because it’s worth something, tricks with money keep the audience’s attention. And, it helps if it’s their money. If he’d stuck with it, The Amazing Jeff might have lived up to the moniker. But practicing money-tearing tricks is difficult, especially for those with limited finger dexterity, a sub-par understanding of magic, and a very nominal allowance.
To purchase a Nintendo-64, I withdrew all my savings in six crisp twenties. The night before the big buy, I huddled around the cash—just touching it, fanning it out, actually using it as a fan, etc. I’d never seen so much green before.
This, I thought, must be exactly what it’s like for millionaires. And now that I was a real Richie Rich, I turned to the movies for real-life guidance. I’d seen Blank Check, so of course I took the six twenties and threw them in the air with exuberance, enjoying that brief moment just after they’d separated and paused in mid-air before drifting lightly to the floor like a few disappointing raindrops.
Looking back, it was all a bit silly. I should have gotten all $120 in one dollar bills. It would have looked a lot more impressive.
In the summers, Ben and I had a lawn mowing business. Being the little shits we were, it was called “BJ’s Lawn Service—We’ll trim your bushes.” We made business cards.
There was a bit of cash changing hands—between the two of us, and between us and slightly put-off customers who now had our calling cards. It was around this time Pops showed me how to count bills like a man who actually knows how to handle money. With the stack in your left hand, you push the top dollar with your thumb, grabbing it with your right pinchers and pulling away. Done fluidly, the action makes a crisp, snapping sound. I practiced the motion for hours, counting my cash with each new sphp! of the dollar-snap. Finishing the stack, I’d flip it over and count again and again and again.
Once I had that down, Pops showed me the black art of money handling. Like how you can fold a few dollars in the middle of the stack and then fan out the bills. The amazing illusion almost doubles the amount that appears in your hand. I think Pops meant to show me as a warning against thieving customers. I took it more as a tip. Whenever I had a few dollars in my pocket, I practiced the maneuver. It’s a safer trick than trying to magically rip someone’s dollar in half, so long as I don’t try it out on anyone.
Children’s play veered toward the deviant and criminal. Sure, we still folded up dollar bills and played paper football. Between games, however, we talked about The Web and how it said all U.S. bills contained traces of cocaine. “Whaa? For realz, yo?” “Yea, all you need is, like, a box-cutter razor to scrape it off.” This was gonna be sooooo fucking cool. Soyeah … we were so foolish back then
And then there was weed! For pure giggles, I sometimes purchased my quarter-ounce bags with bags of quarter-dollars. And who would have thought you could see the NWO’s entire plan for domination laid out right there on the federal currency, in minute detail of Latin script and masonic symbols? When you looked and fondled and stared and examined it long enough—like an hour or two—it was so obvious, dude.
I was back to staring at money completely mesmerized and putting it in an orifice. Lesson: Don’t do drugs, kids. They’ll stunt your development.
This was a low point. Dropping out of college and injecting illicit and dirty substances can have that effect. The woeful affliction must have been going around, because the post-grad, degree-less drug dealers were no longer amused by the bag of quarters. It became all business. But for hard cash, they did have some coke. Notwithstanding the felonious drive home, the most pressing issue on my mind was how I was going to snort it. At the bank window, I pulled out a $100. Just a Franklin, if you please.
I’d seen parts of Scarface, so I knew how you were supposed to snort coke in real life. Since I couldn’t afford to sink my nose bridge-deep into a white heap of Montana’s finest, using a $100 bill seemed like the next best thing. I rolled up the Benjamin and admired my craftsmanship by sticking it up a nostril and prancing in front of the mirror.
Gawd, TheCokeWasAwesomeAndIWantedMoreALOTMORE! So I grabbed a box-cutter. The lowest point may have been trying to scrape a spare Washington after the hundred was rendered useless for anything but kindling. (Don’t do drugs, kids. They’ll stunt your development.)
The building straddled the Arkansas-Missouri border on a ridge just above the highway, surrounded on all sides by dead grass illuminated by neon lights. As we drifted to a stop at what would be my first real strip club, I knew, even then, that nothing good would come of this.
A couple of beers in, my friend insisted on courtside seats. I declined his eager offer for “a little attention” from the lady gyrating on stage and instead turned my head to observe what appeared to be a very happy double-date in progress at another table. I turned back toward the stage and noticed a little oragami dollar folded like a pup tent in front of me. I remember thinking how odd and curious and adorable it looked. Then three successive things happened—(1.) On closer inspection, the dollar bill had to have been the worst origami I’d ever seen, (2.) I turned to my friend, who was looking at me with the twisted grin of a man completely incapable of folding origami of any kind, and (3.) a pair of legs anchored themselves on my shoulders, putting me face-to-face with a scantily clad vagina.
The whole thing took less than a second and it was absolutely horrifying.
Since then, I’ve discovered that most strip clubs are horrifying, sexually speaking. But they’re also tremendously fascinating, especially when it comes to economy. With prostitution, the exchange of funds is just the final transaction. In strip clubs, that monetary transaction is the game. Men fan out the bills and wave’m around. They stuff a dollar where they can. And don’t forget the guy extending his cash-clinching fist toward the lady on stage, aimlessly shaking the green like a chimp trying to paint the side of a barn.
Maturity began to set in, which basically means doing less drugs and thinking about larger sums of cash. As a result, the money games took on a more esoteric nature. Fooling around with actual bills no longer held much appeal. Not that I didn’t continue fantasizing about where I’d stick my cash, but it was on a much grander, theoretical scale. Like the time my Kiwi girlfriend called up.
My lassie, my baby, my sweetheart, my Queenie said she’d just won the New Zealand lottery, Divison 2. $15,000. My sugar-momma! We talked purringly about all the debts she was going to pay off and what we could do with the remainder. I asked what Fiji was like this time of year. Me and her, we spent a lot of our time together dreaming of ways to spend money—what clothes we would replace, what car we would get, where we’d take a holiday, which restaurants we’d frequent, what we’d do with the future, dammit. It was such a fun game! What would you do with $15,000?
Like our role-playing, this fantasy was fleeting. The day after her big win, she rang, sounding a bit deflated. When she took her golden ticket to the lotto center, the machine said she’d only won $60. So convinced and happy at the time, she even confessed to going to the actual counter and telling the cashier that the machine might be broken. But: In her excitement over the first four winning lotto numbers, she’d completely ignored the final, incorrect digit. There have never been two people so disappointed at losing imaginary money. I certainly have never felt that way again—even when losing real money.
For the first time in my life, I’m a waiter—a fine dining waiter, which means I’ve finally “made it” as a Struggling Writer. Financially, things aren’t looking too bad. With the influx of cash I’m paying off debts and trying to save. There’s this fascinating aspect of waiting where people tip you and you get to keep those tips. I leave work with a bulging wallet every night. A couple of years ago, I learned about “Makin’ it Raaaaain” from a fella who loves both rap music and skin clubs. He’d always stick out his left palm and make repeated brushing motions over it with his right. My friend is also the whitest Alabamian this side of a saltine cracker and his fondness and familiarity of strip joints took me by surprise the first time we went to one. I was awestruck by the casual way he extended his cash-filled hand toward the lady on stage and shook the green like a well-trained, barn-painting chimp.
Now that I have all this cash, I’m always tempted to try and make it precipitate. It looks like a lot of fun, even in the confines of one’s own room. But then I remember how badly I need every last dollar, and how much it’ll hurt bending my tired limbs to pick them all up.
On the ride home from work, I always stop by the all-night gas station. It’s just down the block from my old ‘hood. The lady working the register is nice as hell, and usually has good cracker music going (Dylan B-sides). There’s also a game right by the door, a “coin pusher.” It’s full of quarters teetering over two ledges, with a flat dredge at the end moving baaaack and foooorth, baaaack and foooorth. Just drop a quarter into the slot, and it’ll push the other quarters on the top level over the ledge to the second level, which, if done right, will drop more quarters into the little bin for you to collect.
It’s an incredibly fascinating and absolutely irresistible game, one that can be played by folks of any age. You just stick a coin into the machine’s gullet and hope a few more drop out the bottom. Your heart leaps when you hear the tin clink of quarters landing in the metal basket. Just don’t shake that money-maker. Giving the machine a healthy nudge is a no-no. It sets off an alarm. I am getting pretty damn good at it, even if there’s a chance I’ve lost more money on that game than I’ve won. But I really don’t care. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing with money in years.
Jeff Winkler is a freelancer in Arkansas.