Friday, November 7, 2008

The Life and Times of a Ten-Pound Bag of Pennies

The Ten Pound Bag of Pennies.

This is the history (so far) of an eleven-year running joke.

I went to a college designed to train sailors for the Merchant Marine. So in addition to a very full academic curriculum, every summer after final exams, the whole campus would move onto the training ship Empire State VI and steam around the North Atlantic. The first time I went on one of these cruises was 1996.

I had just finished my freshman year in college and my friend Rich had decided to change majors so that he could avoid the maritime license portion and wouldn’t be obligated to go on these cruises. The night before I got underway I returned to my berthing space (there were 97 of us living in one room) to find a milk crate sitting on my bunk. It was filled with some of the most useless crap you could bring on a ship. This included a power outlet strip, a handful of odds and ends, and, most notably, a ten pound bag of pennies.

As a first year cadet at the maritime college I was entitled to very little real estate in the berthing spaces. In fact, I had my bunk to sleep in and a standing locker right around the corner. So when nobody was willing to admit ownership of the crate in question it took me some creative repacking to integrate this milk crate into my very limited living space.

The next morning, Rich came down to the pier to see me off. We chatted about the summer job he was taking and where I’d be going before he rather offhandedly asks me if I got the crate of stuff he’d left me.

“That was you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I couldn’t find room in storage for that stuff and I thought you might be able to use it.”

“Really?” says I, “There was nothing useful at all in there.”

“It’s all useful stuff,” says he, “there’s even some money in there.”

“What the hell am I going to do with a ten pound bag of pennies?”

“I figured you would need the money in Europe.”

I proceeded to explain to him that there’s no currency exchange in the world that accepts coins, not to mention pennies. In fact, even the ship’s store had posted a sign stating that they would not be taking pennies or giving them in change. Quite frankly there would be no use for ten pounds of pennies unless I was going to attempt suicide by overdosing on copper.*

So I spent the next two months with a ten pound bag of pennies under my pillow. When we returned to our home along the Bronx side of New York’s aromatic East River, Rich was there to meet me.

“Hey,” says I, “How would you like a ten pound bag of pennies.”

“No thanks,” says he, “You never know when you’re going to need the money.”

There were at least four other occasions over the next four or five months when I tried to give him this very same ten pound bag of pennies. Then along comes his birthday. This particular year he got a coin rolling machine for his birthday. So he does the first logical thing anybody would do in his situation. He goes to visit the guy who has been trying for months to give him a ten pound bag of pennies. He explains how easily he’ll be able to return these pennies to circulation and how he’d be willing to split the proceeds if I’d help him roll the coins.

After he told me all about this simple scheme to make a ten pound bag of pennies into actual folding money, I said the only thing I could say:

“Fuck you.”

By my reasoning, I had already tried on several occasions to return this ten pound bag of pennies to him and on each of these several occasions he refused. This means that it was now my ten pound bag of pennies and it was up to me to dispose of them as I saw fit. Furthermore, since it was good enough for him to cause a ten pound bag of pennies to be a minor nuisance to me for a number of months, I could only do well to return the favor.

Fast forward two and a half years.

I had just graduated and was working at the Naval ROTC office on campus for a few weeks before being transferred to Rhode Island with the Navy. Rich had re-evaluated his earlier decisions and found himself stuck going out on the training ship to catch up on his final training cruise. So the night before the ship set sail, I stole aboard and stealthily slipped the self same ten pound bag of pennies into his pillowcase while he was on watch.

The next morning he asked me what he was supposed to do with them.

I quaked with unfeigned mirth.

The ten pound bag of pennies found their way into my life again within about four months. I was a student at the Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS) in Newport, Rhode Island. One day in the mail I received a parcel containing a bright orange US Army athletic shirt, a bright orange pair of US Army swim trunks (size XXL), and the ten pound bag of pennies. Cute.

So after I finished at SWOS and Rich had started, I stopped at the US Coast Guard training center just outside Petaluma to do some shopping. I sent Rich a USCG sweatshirt and coffee mug, a teddy bear in a Coast Guard Uniform, and the very same ten pound bag of pennies. Of course, I made it a point to send it to him at the school so that he’d have to open it with all of his Navy classmates around. Cuter.

Since then the ten pound bag of pennies has changed hands many times. Occasionally by mail, but more often by being planted in each other’s cars or homes or luggage during visits. I suppose in a lot of ways this whole story would be a lot more entertaining if it could be told accurately from the point of view of the ten pound bag of pennies. Some of the exchanges have been pretty entertaining.

Most notably there was an occasion when I had surreptitiously hidden the ten pound bag of pennies in Rich’s laptop case not long before he and his entire family were to board a plane for a cross-country flight. While waiting in line for a security checkpoint, Rich’s wife Barbara found the ten pound bag of pennies. As she pulled it from the laptop case, the ten pound bag of pennies burst, showering the concourse with ten pounds of pennies. Rich was in the bathroom at the time. I can only imagine the scene of apparent poverty he met when he walked out to find his wife and two children scrambling frantically to scrape ten pounds of pennies off the floor in the airport. I don’t know how much a ten pound bag of pennies is worth, but that scene would have been priceless.

The last couple of exchanges had Rich or his wife or one of his kids (he’s got the whole team to help him now) hiding the ten pound bag of pennies very cleverly in my dive bag. Then me not-so-cleverly hiding the ten pound bag of pennies in the center console of their Lincoln Navigator when they left town to put it in storage for their tour overseas. Then them discovering the not-so-cleverly hidden ten pound bag of pennies in the center console and condescendingly depositing it in the mailbox at the end of the driveway where I couldn’t possibly miss it or return it.

The next time I saw Rich was over seven months later when I happenned to visit him and his family in Japan where the Navy had stationed him. I didn't have the pennies with me, but that didn't stop him from tearing his house completely apart searching for them after I'd departed. To this day he doesn't believe me when I tell him I didn't have them with me.

It's been quite a few months now and I'm still stuck having to find a clever way to get the ten pound bag of pennies to somehow pop back up in Rich's life. At this point it's starting to look like I'll either have to fly to Japan without him knowing or I'll have to enlist the help of my network of navular friends. One of us will finally win this game when he clandestinely places the ten pound bag of pennies in the other’s coffin. Fortunately, Rich is just a bit older than me…

Stay tuned.

*This won’t work by the way. Modern pennies are made mostly from zinc. If you want to find out whether or not you can overdose on copper, you’ll have to get it somewhere else.


  1. It has been 4 years. Can we get an update?

  2. I've made at least two mentions of these God forsaken coins since I wrote this article. If you click on the "pennies" tag at the bottom of the post, it will take you to those and any future articles I mention them in.

    1. The pennies have indeed change hands since this article. Unfortunately, as of right now, I have them again.

  3. For anyone wondering, that 10-pound bag of pennies should contain (slightly more than) approximately 18 dollars in pennies.

    The penny has changed composition and weight a lot over the years, but I'm going to assume that all the pennies are the post-1982 copper-plated-zinc models at 2.5 grams a piece. Which comes out to 1814 and a tiny bit of overage, but wear/weathering would have reduced that, and I'm betting that it wasn't PRECISELY 10 pounds. So 1800 is a good round number in my eyes.