“A humble question: How many pennies should one be allowed to use from the penny jar at the local gas station? Recently I filled up my gas tank and was 6 cents over $15 and without a credit card. I went inside to the cashier — a surly woman of modest pretense — and set down my $20. Seeing a dish labeled PENNY DISH on the counter, I decided to save her from what I thought might be a potentially difficult calculation for her. So I picked 6 cents out of probably 20 there and placed them on the counter, whereupon this self-appointed queen of the penny dish protests loudly in front of a long line of people behind me, ‘Please take only one, Sir!’ Ashamed, I put them all back got my change and dumped all my coins into the dish and said, ‘There, that is for anyone who needs them.'” – L.B.

A.T.: The first thing to say is what my grandfather apparently said following some sort of embarrassing altercation with a subway token booth attendant early in this waning century. “And that’s why that man is a subway token attendant,” were the wise words that have been passed down through my family for generations.

If you ask me, this surly woman was a penny-pinching fool. Just one? Just one? And since when did the penny dish, that most voluntary and civil of institutions, become subject to oversight of any kind. The penny dish is one of the few entirely discretionary venues remaining in our commercial world. Taxes and prices and FICA and all those things are determined by others. Tipping is voluntary, but in truth we know what is expected of us. Ah, but the penny dish. It’s there for your convenience and for the free expression of your personality. There are those who put all their pennies in it and wouldn’t dream of lifting one out; there may be those who take but do not put, though I expect they would be so much in the minority as to leave a large penny surplus at almost all times, hence the 20 you found. The penny dish is such a good idea, and one of its best features is its lack of oversight.

So I’m really angry with this woman.

But six pennies? This does break the nickel barrier. To those who see the penny dish as nothing more than a means to avoid pennies in the first place — you leave ’em when you get ’em and you take ’em when you need ’em to avoid getting any more — I suppose the etiquette might be as follows: Take one or two to avoid getting three or four, but never take three or four to avoid getting one or two. And never take five to avoid getting silver, or 25 to avoid paying for a pack of gum.

Still, I’m with you. The surplus in the penny dish arises from people like you and me who usually leave and do not take. And if, on rare occasion, we choose to recoup from our cup of copper capital — even breaking the nickel barrier — no one should question our moral compass.

Here I stand.



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