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Irwin: I’m worried about change
Andy Irwin

It appears that there is yet another problem resulting from the coronavirus pandemic: a shortage of coins.  

“What’s happened is that, with the partial closure of the economy, the flow of coins through the economy has gotten all — it’s kind of stopped,” 

— Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, speaking at the “Monetary Policy and the State of the Economy”  virtual hearing for the House Committee of Financial Services. 

Chairman Powell may be correct as to the cause of the coin shortage.  Or,  there may be something more afoot. So sez me. 

I am a fan of coins as legal tender and I try to do my part to keep that form of currency... current. 

I am the smallest of small businesses, so when I am on the road I am strategic about spending. The self-employed driver no longer has to keep gas receipts; that particular Schedule C business expense is calculated by mileage, not how much is spent at the pump. (My mileage is miraculously logged and mapped by an app in my Swiss Army phone.) Since some filling stations give a discount for cash money, that’s my method of payment for what goes in my tank. Therefore, from my fill-ups, I have real coinage in the little cubby to the left of my steering wheel. 

That change in the cubby is my rest-stop reward.

As you might imagine, after many repeated drives on the interstates of this great land of ours, I have a set pattern of places to gas up, eat, and (euphemistically and literally) rest.  Therefore, I know the rest areas with recycling bins. I know the rest areas with functioning water fountains. I know the rest areas with shade. (I’m the guy asleep in his car, the one you don’t want to park next to.)  I know the rest areas with covered concrete picnic tables on which one can recline for a cool nap. (Again, that guy.) 

Sometimes, if I have succeeded in a particularly beneficial nap, I will reward myself with some peanut M&Ms from the vending machine.  

When I grab my fist full of change from the cubby in preparation for my visit to the vending area, I always give the coins a quick check. It’s a childhood-born habit to be on the lookout for Mercury dimes, Buffalo nickels, wheat pennies, and the like. 

The Mercury Dime

This isn’t Mercury, really, rather Lady Liberty in a winged Phrygian cap. It’s the wings on Liberty’s head that cause the cross-dressing confusion. Regarding those wings, Mercury does have an advantage over Liberty, for he has wings on his feet as well as his head, putting him in much less danger of severe neck strain as he flies. But it is important to remember, the dime is indeed Lady Liberty, not Mercury. Mercury would be a poor choice to adorn a coin. Sure, he’s the Roman god of financial success, but he’s also the god of trickery and thieves. 

In 1945, the then recently deceased President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been a fitting replacement for the dime, but I must say FDR’s profile thereupon leaves a lot to be desired. Truly, if you hadn’t been told that the generic white fellow on the dime was FDR, you wouldn’t know it. If I were in charge of the Federal Mint, President Roosevelt would be depicted wearing his pince-nez spectacles and his “lucky fedora” with the upturned brim, and he would be smiling with his cigarette holder between his teeth at that famous 2-o’clock angle.  Of course on the reverse side of the coin, we would have to replace “e pluribus unum” with the Surgeon General’s smoking warning. 

Buffalo Nickels

In sorting my M&M change I rarely encounter Buffalo nickels, and for my task at hand, that’s a good thing. When the nickel’s design was introduced in 1912, there was opposition from vending machine manufacturers, specifically from the Clarence W. Hobbs Company, because Mr. Hobbs held that his machines had a way to detect slugs, rendering the machine inoperable, and this new nickel was particularly... sluggy. 

Of course, this nickel was also known for its obverse side: The Indian Head Nickel. Today, thinking and caring people squirm at that exonym. And indeed, it demonstrates a benighted ethnocentricity to have an indigenous man’s head on the coin without regard to his tribe or nation or even who this fellow is. The nickel’s sculptor James Earle Fraser named several men that he had used for models, including Two Moons, the Cheyenne Chief of Little Bighorn fame. Two Moons’ career culminated on a Staten Island bluff overlooking New York Harbor when he and 32 other chiefs were tasked with giving out newly minted Buffalo Nickels at the groundbreaking of The National American Indian Memorial. Part of the festivities included the chiefs signing a “declaration of allegiance” to the United States. 

Some say that after William Howard Taft –  whom the press had dubbed, “The Great White Father” – turned the earth with his silver-tipped shovel, Two Moons could be heard quietly addressing each dignitary as he wove his way through the crowd, prophesying as he pressed the nickels into the palms of the honored guests, “This monument ain’t gonna happen.”

Mr. Fraser reported that his model for the reverse side was a buffalo named Black Diamond. Mr. Fraser went on to say that Black Diamond was an uncooperative model, “the contrariest animal in the Bronx Zoo.” Black Diamond looked straight at Mr. Fraser, refusing to show him a profile view, even when Mr. Fraser said, “Mr. Diamond, quarter turn, PLEASE!” (Being on the nickel, Black Diamond refused to give him more than 5%.)

For his efforts Black Diamond was slaughtered in 1915. His head was mounted and taken on a tour of coin shows, a deceased celebrity appearance, as it were. 

One can only imagine the difficulty engraver Donna Weaver encountered when she was trying to wrangle two American bison for the 2006 North Dakota Commemorative Quarter. Needless to say, with such uncooperative beasts, the project went beyond its allotted budget and past deadline.  Therefore, in 2007 common sense and austerity ruled the day which is why the Montana commemorative quarter only displays a bison skull.

Yes, in these uncertain times I know frugal people who collect change to add to their coffers. 

But my coins are for travel snackage. And now with the pandemic, it is my civic duty to keep the coins in circulation. 

But with all due respect to Federal Reserve Chairman Powell... (uh-oh, nobody ever gets a compliment with an opening of “with all due respect”)... I have evidence that the pandemic just might not be the entire problem. 

On March 15, I was driving home from Silver Spring, Maryland, to do my quarantine-part. I stopped at the welcome center of South Carolina. I made my way to the encaged candy machine. (This keeps the machines from wandering onto the freeway.) I was happily bopping along with my fist full of change. Then, I spied it. An evil message. Beside the plugged slot it read, “NO COINS OR CASH. CREDIT OR DEBIT CARDS ONLY.”

This is not a good sign for change. 

Covington native Andy Offutt Irwin is a storyteller, songwriter and professional whistler. His email is