He was a hunter of Presidents, a flipper of couch cushions.
He had exhausted the personal finance section at the library. The experience had effectively ruined lattes for him for life. He no longer saw a cup of coffee—he just saw temptation and failure and another missing brick from the wall he was supposed to lay for retirement.
He had read that Sam Walton had continued to stoop down to pick up loose change well after he had assured his financial success, seemingly not content with picking bare the bones of every Main Street corner grocery across the country.
He had read that it would be a waste of Bill Gates’s time for the mogul to stop to retrieve a $100 bill from the sidewalk.
He would wake early on Saturdays without a hangover, with no wild stories, but no triple digit receipts either. He had dreamt once again of wading through a sunken wishing well, tiny Japanese children pelting him with the contents of their pockets.
He would eat a breakfast of Greek yogurt on his mattress, the better to stave off temptation later, and make an early pass by the bars he had not frequented last night, scanning the grooves of the sidewalk for what the late night revelers had left behind. He had the most luck on Saturdays, provided he woke before the street sweepers arrived.
He had begun walking to work, two and a half miles each direction. The journey saved him 450 pennies and usually netted him around 7.
The world looked different from his new vantage point. There were a lot of gum chewers out there. And a surprising number of folks walking around with Euros plummeting from their pockets.
On one morning walk, a man in a tattered camouflage jacket implored him to spare any loose change. He fingered the three penny haul in his pocket and gave him a look of regret. There was another penny just inches from the man’s shoes, once regal wing tips that now bared his toes to the November chill. Should he have pointed it out? He just kept walking.
He saw a jar in a store window that would count up how much had been amassed so far, displaying the tally in electronic digits. He resisted, preferring the mystery of not knowing how much he had raked in. And not wanting to spend 4,999 pennies for the pleasure of knowing. He preferred to carry a bag wheezing with jingles to the bank in Columbia Heights, one of the few branches that still offered a machine that didn’t clean 5% off the top. The lobby was always choked on Saturday mornings with lines of poor bastards with no ATM cards in their wallets. He would pour his bounty down into the gaping mouth of the machine in the lobby, and the cycle would begin anew.
It took enormous restraint to not pocket the dimes and nickels his friends carelessly left out on their counter tops, not even devoted to jars for laundry machines, certainly not chipping away at any usury. He met a group of them out at a bar for a rare happy hour and excused himself to a bathroom at the far end of an elegant corridor, lined with a sea of pennies pressed under smooth glass.
There were times when he could not help himself. He could not resist making a play for a rare quarter after an otherwise successful—and economic—date taking in the Christmas lights at the zoo. She did not return his calls later that week.
When he would visit his parents’ home on a long weekend, he would practically be entranced by the big, sweaty gobs of alloy and zinc in the cup holders of their Suburban, piled up as though his family regularly roamed anywhere near a parking meter or toll booth.
The girl who rented his apartment prior to his arrival had evidently been a saint. The mailbox teemed each day with fundraising appeals for her, shelter dogs and cleft lips waiting for him each day when he sorted through the latest bills and final notices. As it turned out, March of Dimes had sent out an envelope with an actual ten-cent piece prominently peeking out from behind a clear screen. The gimmick implored the donor to return the dime, along with a couple hundred of its brethren. He knew it was a new low point as he sliced open Melissa Moore’s mail, and took cents from the mouths of little children with polio.
He probably looked like he was just sad to strangers, forever sporting a hangdog pose. Everywhere he went, he scanned the ground. He had grown deft at navigating the phalanx of pedestrians without breaking his concentration.
It was easier than when he was very young, when he was forever bumping into fire hydrants and wandering into the path of oncoming trucks. His mother would scold him. He needed to stop gawking up at the stars all of the time.
Daron Christopher lives in Washington, D.C. photo by dave goodman