Pay dirt (sort of)
(This appeared in Newsday’s Act2 section)
Eureka! Just by chance, stumbling onto the contents of a souvenir college mug that has long resided on my office bookshelf, I hit a mother lode — a forgotten stash of legal tender. Banknotes. Coins.
In another mug — those knick-knacks make excellent bookends — more moolah. We’re not talking about a little loose change in the couch cushions. There were big piles of money. A gold rush. A win-the-lottery moment. A Fort Knox find. And just as inflation is putting the squeeze on personal finances.
I could hear Zero Mostel singing “If I were a rich man…” I thought of another old song lyric: “I feel like ol’ Pancho Villa … I got the pesos to spend.”
Or maybe not.
First of all, virtually none of the currency was U.S.-issued. And a goodly amount of it, leftovers from bygone business trips abroad, is now thoroughly worthless. A few Greek drachmas, French francs, Dutch guilders, Belgian francs, German marks, Spanish pesetas, Italian lira — all out of fashion since those nations converted to euros 20 years ago.
The small handful of British shillings in there haven’t been redeemable in the United Kingdom — or anywhere else — since 1990, and therefore have precisely the same value as the two New York City subway tokens I also unearthed; about as useful for bartering as pieces of eight. Or plugged nickels. Same for the East German marks, out of circulation since East Germany ceased to exist three decades ago. Any numismatists out there would be more interested in old baseball cards.
But, OK, just out of curiosity, I set about doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations to determine the magnitude of my capital among the still-live morsels of what we used to call dough. Bread. Lettuce. Might as well figure whether I should bother seeking financial advice, make the trip to a foreign exchange office, or just sit on my assets. Because — hey — a 10,000-won bill from South Korea! A total of 10,000 bolivars from Venezuela! And 50 forints from Hungary!
Alas, those moneys amount, in order, to $8.52, 2 1/2 cents and 16 cents. Fool’s gold. (I seem to recall having a five-course meal in Caracas in 1983 at the hardly extravagant cost of a couple of bolivars, so I should have had known.) I also suspect that the 20 koruna from Czechoslovakia, a country that was dissolved 29 years ago, might not be accepted in what is now the Czech Republic. And, anyway, those 20 koruna would equal all of 90 cents.
I came across a Canadian Loonie — the one-dollar coin so called because of the image of a loon on one side — worth 80 cents U.S. But the 10-peso bill from Mexico? Only 50 cents. One Chinese renminbi? Fifteen cents. A Trinidad and Tobago dollar? Fourteen cents. That Hong Kong dollar? Thirteen cents. Ten Romanian lei? $2.35.
Chickenfeed. Chump change. Slim pickings.
Here’s another get-with-the-21st century thought that occurred during this mining process: In this age of credit cards, transactions via cellphone and cryptocurrencies, do people deal with cash anymore? Bits of coin and Bitcoin are not the same thing — although, as a candidate for any sort of “Money for Dummies” publication, I hesitate to make such an assumption.
Bottom line (financial discussions always conclude with one): This stockpile of now-rare holdings could be described as priceless. In the ironic sense. Not something to take to the bank.
But I’ll argue that they are interesting conversation pieces. Souvenirs of memorable adventures and, therefore, valuable trinkets. I’m holding on to them.