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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: A penny here, a penny there

Oh, Canada! Whatever have you done? And no, I don’t mean your bequeathing us the incomparable Justin Bieber, generous an act though that was.

I mean your penny. Getting rid of it, that is. You dumped the penny!

Not only did you stop making the little coin last May, but as of tomorrow you will withdraw it from circulation. No more will we Americans find tiny silhouettes of Queen Elizabeth II nestled close to the noble profile of Abe Lincoln in our penny jars.

And we all – at least if we’re real Americans – have penny collections. Usually our collections start small, a few pennies culled from the change in our pockets and dumped into small dishes on our dressers. And then they grow, become overflowing piles of pennies.

Soon we are lugging jars of pennies down to the cellar, where they sit waiting for us to get penny wrappers – you know, those small paper sleeves designed to hold precisely 100 pennies, so penny collectors can, periodically, lug their loot to the bank and exchange it for paper money. Do they still have penny wrappers? I keep meaning to check, but somehow it’s easier just to keep the jars of pennies in the cellar, forgotten.

And occasionally those penny jars can come in handy. I remember many, many years ago when my husband had finished law school in Massachusetts and we were planning to move back to Ohio. We were pretty broke. But my visiting sister and I cashed out the penny jar. Twelve bucks! So we hopped in our VW bug and tooled down to the Boston waterfront, returning to our Cambridge three-decker with a pound of butter and enough lobsters for a royal feast. Pennies are good!

Um, where was I? Oh, yes, Canada. Now apparently penniless.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Anyway, our northern neighbor has ditched the coin that has weighed down Canadians’ pockets for generations. And Canada is apparently joining a growing number of countries that are getting rid of their penny equivalents. Not even a “Save the Canadian Penny” Facebook page worked.

It seems there has been some loose talk about our getting rid of our wonderful American penny as well, talk which occurs regularly. I often suspect the people doing the talking have recently stumbled across their own penny jars huddled forlornly in a cellar corner.

And the talk has heated up a bit lately because it now costs two cents to make every penny. It involves, among other things, the increasing cost of zinc. Our copper pennies are now zinc, have been since 1983. And they all come from a Tennessee outfit called Jarden Zinc Products, manufacturer of U.S. penny blanks. Who knew?

We do now, thanks to Time magazine. We are as a nation facing total political gridlock in D.C., an unraveling of civilization in the Middle East and catastrophic global climate change. What better time to run a four-page spread on pennies, demonstrating again why newsweeklies are a vital part of our national dialogue?

There’s a lot of good penny info in the magazine, especially if one would like to forget about the aforementioned gridlock, unraveling civilization and climate Armageddon. As most of us would, I daresay.

National zinc cartel

And ultimately for those who love the penny the magazine is reassuring. Talk is cheap, just like pennies, but not likely to go anywhere, particularly if lobbyists for both Jarden and the national zinc cartel are on the job. And of course they are, which is frequently what really matters in this 21st-century government of, by and for the lobbyists.

Maybe this is a good thing. After all, if we lost the penny, how soon before we’d lose all the wonderful penny aphorisms and folklore we treasure? A penny saved is a penny earned. Penny wise, pound foolish. Turn up like a bad penny. Cost a pretty penny. Cut off without a penny. Penny for your thoughts! In for a penny, in for a pound.

Where would we be without penny candy? Or penny pinching? What about Penny Lane, for goodness’ sake?

What would we ever do without those little take-a-penny, leave-a-penny jars next to almost every cash register in small New England stores?

Take-a-nickel sounds entirely too Big Money serious. Only the most desperate would steal a penny jar, but one filled with nickels . . . ?

Then there are the things one can do with pennies. Recently cyberspace celebrated a Chicago couple’s story – complete with pictures – of the bedroom floor they covered completely with pennies, some 59,670 of them. It cost ’em just $1,000, $600 worth of pennies, and another $400 for cleaning and sealing them after they were glued. They look pretty sharp, and the whole treatment cost a lot less than a new hardwood or tile floor.

Pennies from heaven

And what about that perennial Dear Abby topic, pennies from heaven? Abby seems to have an inexhaustible store of anecdotes from readers who tell her of tragic events – the loss of a loved one is most common – which eventually are memorialized when they find a conspicuous penny with an auspicious date, perhaps the birth year of the late lamented dearly beloved. The pennies, readers proclaim, proved that they are being watched by their own personal guardian angels. Dopey, but kind of sweet.

What would happen if the guardian angels had to leave, say, quarters? Makes them sound more like a bunch of tooth fairies – clearly lower beings in the celestial pecking order.

They know this in Europe, which after all pretty much gave this country many of its cultural traditions, including a devotion to benevolent spirits akin to those who, according to Dear Abby fans, happily scatter pennies hither and yon.

Perhaps that’s why when the great minds of Europe devised one of the globe’s newest currencies, the Euro, they weren’t content merely to have a one-cent coin. For prudence – or for some other unfathomable reason – they introduced a two-cent coin as well.

A penny – and a two-penny! Eat your hearts out, poor bereft Canadians.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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