Hunting Pennies

James Pfrehm - Ithaca, New York
Entered on August 12, 2009
James Pfrehm
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From across the parking lot he looks like an old man with one too many screws loose: eyes fixed on the blacktop, shuffling in an aimless wander, halting now and then to bend over and examine the pavement more closely. From afar it is, perhaps, hard to imagine that this quirky old man has inspired my personal belief.

I call him Dad, and because of him I believe in hunting for pennies.

Some years ago I tagged along when our car needed service. “About an hour,” the mechanic told us.

“Not a problem,” my father said and pointed. “We’ll be across the way.” I followed him outside and across the street to a Denny’s parking lot. It was early on a Saturday morning and the lot was still largely empty.

“I’m going to get strawberry pancakes with whipped cream,” I said as we approached the entrance. But when I turned around, my dad wasn’t behind me; he was stooped over in the parking lot.

“The first find of the morning,” he announced, holding up his prize: a grimy, dull penny.

For the next hour we combed the asphalt for coins. Some, my father narrated, were purposefully discarded. Others were the result of hasty patrons yanking their keys from change-filled pockets. Either way, he explained, their loss would be our gain.

Though I wasn’t exactly won over by his rationale for standing around for an hour, hungry and tired, hoping to pocket a few cents, I indulged the Old Man. So began our tradition: every time we were stuck with a wait, my father and I would go hunting for abandoned coins.

I only recently started to consider the larger picture of our ritual. Although we weren’t rich, my parents’ hard work had provided our family with what I would now call a comfortable upper-middle-class existence. It wasn’t like my dad needed to pick up random coins. Why, then, waste time looking for something we didn’t need? The answers I’ve come up with form the foundation of my personal philosophy.

First, be active. Instead of loafing in a waiting room, get up and move around. Like many Americans, there’s a history of heart attacks in my family. The less I sit around, the better it is for my ticker.

Second, keep an eye out for opportunity. I’d rather be one cent richer than one cent poorer; and it’s not going to happen unless I pay attention.

Third, have a goal. No matter how small, set your mind to it. Success doesn’t come without commitment.

Finally, don’t be too quick to judge. Sure, that old codger in the parking lot may look like an escapee from the local loony bin, but remember: he just might be the one who found that twenty-dollar bill you swore was in the left-front pocket of your jeans.

There are a lot of abandoned pennies out there. I believe each of us owes it to ourselves to keep a look out for them.

James Pfrehm is a professor of German and linguistics in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his two wiener dogs, Frida and Diego. On a Saturday morning you can still find him (and his dogs) scanning empty parking lots for abandoned coins.