I ventured from the suburbs across the border into the big city the other day, unaware of any need to stop at the foreign currency exchange. I realized my mistake as soon as I attempted to pay for a Tastykake cherry pie at a convenience store with the new Sacagawea dollar coin.
"What's this?" the teenage clerk asked ever so cheerfully, not at all associating the bright golden object in her hand with cold hard cash. "It's the new dollar coin," I explained. "My bank just started carrying them, so I bought a whole roll."
"Oh," she said then, handing me back the coin. "Seventy-nine cents please." Not quite catching on to the Abbott and Costello skit that was just about to unfold, I handed her the dollar coin again. "Yes, it's very pretty," she said, a bit louder and slower this time, perhaps under the impression that I was a local crackpot captivated by small, shiny objects. "Seventy-nine cents, please."
"Right, and I'm giving you a dollar."
"I can't take this," the clerk said earnestly.
"You have to take it," I retorted. "It's U.S. currency. One dollar. It says it right on the coin."
She called over a coworker. The coworker had never heard of the new currency either. "It's the new dollar coin to replace the Susan Bs," I said. "That's Sacagawea. She guided Lewis and Clark across the wilderness."
Now, no doubt this store has accepted thousands of fake tens and twenties printed with the motto "In Gid We Tust" from a runny HP ink jet. But it was clear to me these two weren't about to allow me to pass a rogue Sacaga-whatever dollar coin. I shouldn't have been surprised by the exchange—the verbal exchange, that is, for no financial one was imminent. I had encountered the same bewilderment with my quixotic attempts to rescue the two-dollar bill from oblivion.
Back in my college days in Philadelphia, it was my wont to withdraw my entire monthly budget from the bank in two-dollar bills. Such a handsome note, I thought: the inveterate statesman Thomas Jefferson on the front and John Trumbull's portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the reverse. I wanted to share this most beautiful of American bills with the community and encourage its circulation.
The local merchants hated me. No slot in the register to stick two-dollar bills, they said. Looks too much like the twenty-dollar bill, they said.
My fascination with underdog currency began in childhood. My mother, an Italian, gave my siblings and me a crisp two-dollar bill every Easter Sunday, along with a bunny-shaped piece of sweet bread with a hard-boiled egg in the center, as was the local Italian custom. The only merchant who did accept me and my money years later was a character in the Italian market named Tony, who to this day calls me Deuce. My efforts to bring Thomas Jefferson into the hearts and wallets of my fellow countrymen failed miserably.
Meanwhile, back at the convenience store, I'd have had more luck paying in Canadian nickels. Worried that my Tastykake would soon go stale, I decided to flash the only currency that the whole world smiles upon: no greenback, no portrait of a dead President, but rather the bane of numismatists everywhere. I handed the clerk a piece of rectangular plastic. And then with a flourish I signed the receipt for my seventy-nine-cent transaction, inscribing the name Sacagawea. The clerk didn't even bother to look.