July 23, 2019
I was torn between my appointed slice writing this week and a looming library book deadline. You see nothing is more frustrating to me that an unfinished, long-anticipated library loan squandered by poor reading planning on my part. Truth be told, Susan Orleans’ rambling, loose, though not quite long, The Library Card, has sucked me in after 79 pages and six chapters and I don’t want to leave it behind until I see where she might be going with this. Plus I have waited for this book since early June. Having listened to Jennifer Serravallo’s podcast yesterday about comprehension and the differences between an actual book, a ebook, and audiobooks, I am deeply unsatisfied by this ebook. I gave the beautifully presented mysteriously red bound book to my son’s girlfriend for Christmas and of course, have wanted it for myself ever since, a problem we can discuss another time.
So here is my compromise, a story slightly like The Library Card, rooted in a moment in the past, carried through decades, and finally, the stuff of not only family lore but mission.
The Smashed Pennies
Sometime in the late summer of a year in the late 1990’s, my husband and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary, perhaps fifteen years, with a trip to San Francisco for a long weekend. Not as much of a commitment distance-wise from the midwest as it would be from New England, leaving two young sons behind with their grandparents gave me enough worry to leave a typed note in my chest regarding their care should something happen.
After much hustle and quiet a bit of bustle, we arrived in downtown San Francisco with the long list of must-sees that only two over-educated, ever-learners could compile. I could tell you about all of those amazing first sights and experiences, alleyway fortune cookie making, tea gardens, Ferlinghetti’s favorite book store, and fancy coffee shops before the rise of Starbucks, but that isn’t this story.
This little slice is about smashed pennies. If you haven’t seen a smashed penny, it’s just that, a penny that has been rolled through a machine until elongated and flat and pressed with the imprint of its current locations. They, of course, cost fifty cents along with that penny to roll them through the machine. However, this story begins before we had ever seen one of these marvelous penny smashers.
San Francisco was full of amazing sights and people. As we were taking in all end, we saw a young man with a tube contraption nearly as tall as he was. Noticing us, he said this is the only portable penny press in the world, I designed it myself. Using his arm and body strength, he pressed the penny until it was stamped. Having never seen a smashed penny before and taken by his ingenuity, we were sold. Then he told us there were many, many machines around the city operated manual with a crank. For the low price of half a dollar and a shiny penny, we could have a souvenir from each of our travels. In the age prior to ready phone internet access, we were off on a hunt to locate these machines around the city.
Thus began our collections of smashed pennies. These days, silly collections might not be in vogue. They seem so old-fashioned, the machines, the pennies, the impressions stamped upon them. Each son collection remains on their childhood dressers in decorative boxes with the other ephemera of their childhoods. They are a condensed travelogue of all the places we saw when they were young, dozens of zoos, aquariums, parks, and ships. There are ones from New Salem and something called The Sixth Floor Museum. There is a penny from Wall Drug and The Alamo, The Grand Canyon, and The Sydney Opera House. As I look through, I am reminded of all those halcyon days.
To this day as my husband and I travel around here and there, from habit or nostalgia, we stop when we see one of those old penny machines, and press one again for old times sake.