It was a Friday, the warmest day of the week, the humidity rising, and I was carrying two bags full of weekend necessities: two sets of page proofs to work on, a new frying pan with which to make dinner, a bottle of wine. The temperature of the street hot enough already, I descended steps to the even-hotter environment of the subway, swiped my card, and stepped through the turnstile. My focus was near the floor, having paid close attention to not knocking my belongings (i.e. the bottle of wine) into anything as I stepped through the turnstile, and that’s when I noticed it, shining up at me where the floor meets the wall: a dime.
Ugh. Not now, I thought as I shrugged the straps of one bag higher onto my shoulder, conscious of the weight I would have to carry all the way home.
I walked past the dime and lunged up the steps to the platform, where I saw my train chugging away without me.
I started walking to the end of the platform, ready to wait an indeterminate amount of time in this oven for the next train. But with every step, the dime drilled an agonizing hole deeper into my brain. I felt compelled to go back and get it.
You’ve got time now. Discipline. I turned around and headed back to the stairs. I walked down, past people who were headed up to the platform, receiving annoyed looks, trying to control the sway of the bags over my shoulders so I didn’t hit anyone. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I met even more people. Rush hour. I stepped to the side and waited, peering through the gaps in the passing crowd, looking to see if the dime was still there. It was.
When the crowd thinned, I quickly stepped over to the wall, knelt down, and picked up the dime. Holding it in between my fingers, I ascended the steps to the platform once more, smiling this time. I was ten cents richer and oblivious to the fact that I had just missed my train seconds earlier.
Allow me to explain myself.
A couple of months ago, while walking to work, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. Flat brown in color, with not a single speck of shine, it could have been mistaken for a spot of dirt or an artifactual chunk of chewed gum. I did what I assumed anyone else would do: I turned my nose up at it and carried on my way. It was a penny on a New York sidewalk, which is a rushing torrent of pedestrians. No one in their right mind would disrupt the flow of traffic to bend down and pick it up. After all, it’s just a penny: one cent—on one-hundredth of a dollar. You’d need ninety-nine more of them just to afford for the worst cup of coffee imaginable, and then you’d be paying for a shitty cup of coffee with a bag full of dirty pennies. They’d either throw you out of the store or into an insane asylum.
I quickly forgot about the penny, but it came back to mind a moment later.
Less than fifty yards away from the penny, I walked past a man sitting on the sidewalk, a sign at his side with the word “homeless” written on it, an empty cup at his feet. I wondered if even he would ignore the penny, and I was pretty convinced he would. But what would he pick up? What would I?
What’s the minimum denomination of money that I would stop and pick up? What would be enough to halt my day, to make me think it worthy of the time to pick it up? A nickel? Nah. A dime? Too small. A quarter? Now we’re talkin’.
And that’s when I got the idea for what I thought would be a neat little experiment: What would happen if, for one whole year, I picked up every coin I came across on the street? I assume most people are like me, in that they usually disregard most coins they find. After all, our eyes are way up here, and the coin is way down there. It is literally beneath us.
Initially I was just curious about the total: How much free money could I just happen upon in a year?
And then one morning, I saw another penny on the sidewalk. So I bent down and picked it up. I held it in my hand and inspected it as I walked. It was dirty, scuffed up on one side.
When was the last time I picked up a penny? I wondered to myself. How many people have passed this coin, seen it, and ignored it? The more I inspected it and the more questions it brought to mind, the more I became endeared to this little coin. OK—I tucked the coin into my pocket--I guess I’m doing this.
That was almost a month ago. And I’ve since been stopping and picking up every coin I see, sometimes mid-conversation, sometimes cutting across and stopping the flow of foot traffic. I’m to the point where, if I see a coin, I can’t not pick it up. I am compelled. After the first few finds, I was obsessed. At times, my eyes were glued to the sidewalk, trying to find the next one (this never works, by the way; they only appear when you’re not looking for them).
Before today, it had been all pennies, and then I found a dime. But, weighed down by my desire to get home and start the weekend, I almost let it go. I almost ignored it. And if I had done that, my experiment would have instantly crumbled. I would have failed. But, thankfully, I missed my train and the universe gave me a chance to rethink my commitment.
And, later, on the back end of that same subway trip home, still weighed down with wine and paper and a frying pan, I found another coin, a penny: two coins in one day (a record). Eleven cents in all. It was as if the universe was rewarding me for my discipline. I had been tested, and I had passed. And it was the closest I’ve come to not following through with this experiment.
My commitment had been renewed, energized. I will not pass up any coin, no matter what I’m carrying, where I’m going, or how many people I have to briefly inconvenience to get it.
I’m in it now.
I keep the coins in a little jar, in a spot in my apartment where I can see them every day. And every few days, I find and add a coin to the jar. One by one, these near-worthless things keep stirring up interesting questions when I find them: what does it say about us that we think ourselves above certain amounts of money and not others, why are coins called “change,” at what point does a misplaced coin stop being someone’s property and become free for the taking? Questions to consider more closely as I go.
As for the coins, I’ve already lost count of how many I’ve found, but I’m going to keep collecting. And after a year, I’ll be richer, one way or another. I’m looking forward to sharing what I find along the way.