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The Nickel

Wednesday 7/27/22

A couple days ago I got my change back from the Starbucks where I'd ordered a tall black coffee and a large cup of water to rehydrate after running some stairs, and was sitting down to read Billie Holiday's autobiography again for this book proposal I'm writing about her. I notice most things--small things that many people would never stop to pay any mind to. I wouldn't say I stop to notice them; it's an active, total engagement, a way I am, which I was open to becoming. That's partially what I'm talking about when I've remarked that the world gives you stories. They are all around you. They're in the smallest things we see, which we don't stop to see, and which are not small at that.


I sifted the coins through my palm, and I noticed that one nickel looked like it had been through much. The design of coins has changed much. The size is the same, but a more recent quarter with a reverse tailored to a specific state in the union doesn't have the same veteran presence of the eagle who used to grace the back of every quarter in the land. I received one of each in this particular haul at the Starbucks, with a quarter from 2018 commemorating Georgia, and a classic design from 1997 on a disc of metal that looked like it had spent its fair share of time in washing machines and as a decoration in buckets of sand at the beach.


And then there was the nickel from 1941. This survivor. This traveler. This coin that has been in so many hands, passing from life to life. Belonging to the rich man, the desperate man, the poor man, the man who'd been married earlier that day; the woman at school who'd paid with her own money to buy supplies for her incoming third graders; the nurse on break from the hospital at the coffee joint across the street; the babysitter who bought her first cassette at the record store with that Saturday's earnings, stuffing what might have been this nickel back in her jeans.


It may have belonged for a time--because a coin belongs to us, though it will also be owned by potentially millions of people--to a young man who served his country in the second great war. A man who never made it home. It may have belonged to a man who did. It may have belonged to a third man who loved both of those other men. And they never knew it. That theirs was a fingerprint, proof of their existence, impressed upon this same small piece of metal.


It may have belonged to my mother. She might have received it back on one of her trips into the city as a girl, those happy days she loved so much. It may have belonged to my biological mother, a scared sixteen-year-old who had her child and then gave her child to others. It may have belonged to a man on the last day of his life, who could not go on any longer, and was found among his possessions. It may have lain for years under some rocks on a trolley track in Brookline, kicked up one day by a random worker, pocketed by a school child.


Does the coin know that combined human energy of a million human stories? All of the times that coin has featured in a part of someone's day that was very likely bigger than what they thought it might be. Let us take the nurse and the coffee. She has been dragging of late, with little to look forward to. Her relationship isn't working out. She sees so much death and suffering. She regathers on her break at this favored spot of hers across the street from the hospital. The coffee comforts her. She returns to work. There is a child who may or may not survive the night. The nurse wishes to attend to that child as she's never attended to anyone before, not that she has failed in a single instance to do her job, her duty. But there is still something extra--an extra human touch, for which no classification or job description exists.


The child pulls through. The father who normally never cries does just that--more, he weeps--and thanks the staff, thanks the nurse last and longest. The mother who is more likely to show tears doesn't cry at all, and hovers over her now conscious child as someone who has felt so much that they have moved beyond regular emotion, even extreme emotion, to become an embodiment--the embodiment--of pure gratitude. The nurse has a conversation in the next day or two with the boyfriend. She values him greatly. That has never changed. But there is no disengaging from the rut; the ship's anchor is buried beneath too much muck. They part as good friends. They support each other later on when they each meet the person who is right for them. They're always friends. When one of those spouses dies, the other is there. They're good to the kids who are not their kids. They are the aunt or uncle who is not officially aunt or uncle, but "officially" is one of those terms in this life that can pound sand. What does it mean? This is officially only a nickel, a meager five cents. What does that mean? Do we hold something of all of those lives when we hold this piece of loose change? We do, if we think about those lives and what they may have been. What they still may be.


I imagine a device of the future, that could tell you everyone who had ever touched your nickel such as this one, for it is your nickel right now. The nickel says, "I can stop here. I can be with you. Or, I may continue on. Who knows who else will possess me and what I will mean on different days. Why, you wouldn't believe what I have meant two dozen times over on certain days. But you do as you wish, and I am more than prepared to accept that." I would not want to engage the app. I don't want to text my mother and tell her I have this old nickel from 1941, the year Ted Williams hit .406, and Charlie Christian helped invent bebop at Minton's, a nickel that could have helped with the entrance fee on its first day in circulation to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, or The Wolf Man, or The Maltese Falcon.


I bet it would happen often, that this current version of the person I am, and this former version of my mother, would have held the same coinage. The app would tell you the day of possession, and to my mother I'd say, "Do you remember what you were doing on October 7, 1961? Because I have a coin you owned on that day, and I'm reading Billie Holiday at the Starbucks." I may as well ask her, "Do you remember the person you were then? How long it would be before you changed again? What caused you to change? What entered your heart, big or small, and informed 1962?" She might not remember. She probably wouldn't. We'd have to be make a point of not conflating this lack of recall with a lack of importance. Because our nurse would never remember, in all probability, this nickel with which she'd bought a cup of coffee, strong and black, like she liked it--as she needed it--on the day we're talking about, a day that you cannot say didn't happen. It's impossible to say that, which is how my nickel tells me it may well have been true. She wouldn't have pondered its role in the events to follow that night. That she gave the mother a squeeze of her hand when everything could go either way, that said, "Be strong," which is not something she ordinarily did. You see so much, you are conditioned to so much, you hear the cries of those who have learned what they must be told as soon as possible, because the news of death, of loss, must not be kept in abeyance for a minute more than it has to, despite the reality that death has all the time in this world. But some nights are still different, are they not?


And so, too, is my nickel conditioned to so much, for my nickel is the stuff of life, the mystery of life. This scuffed, pocked coin that will buy so little in these times. This relic, when people use the debit card often exclusively. It is that which comes from behind the veil, where the answers to our questions reside, and it is tactile proof that those answers exist. Perhaps this is how we understand those answers, by knowing what this nickel is, currency beyond currency. Perhaps this is the direct line of communication--the direct oval, which feels both paradoxical and fitting--with the life that teems on the reverse of that door, and which animates our existence out here on the weather-beaten obverse.


How many children bought packs of baseball cards with this nickel? How many of them came to love a game that they later shared with their children? Sometimes that is all you have in terms of connection, and yet there is not a world that exists for which you'd trade it. How many times was a wish made upon my nickel, before it was tossed into a fountain at a mall that no longer exists? That change is taken home. They don't leave it there. A guy says to a custodian, "Well, we have to do something with all of those coins. Tell you what, go through the hassle of cleaning it up and you can take it home." The man thanks his boss. He can use the money. And who knows how much cash there is in one of those mall pools? Is it $78? $780? There is mystery in a pile of coins. There is also hope. Small hope? Sure, okay, call it small hope. But you look me in the eye, and you honestly tell me that there has been a single day of your life when even a small amount of hope didn't make a difference.


A girl saved her pennies at Christmas, which we recognize also means her dimes, nickels, and quarters. Her godmother gave her a half dollar one year, and she keeps that not as money to spend, but a possession. A gift. Her mother lost a baby and she's not been the same since. The girl and her father have a special shopping trip planned. They will go into the city together and buy the girl's mother a Hummel figurine she has always wanted. She'll be surprised when she sees it Christmas morning, because she doesn't think anyone knows that she's always wanted it. She hasn't always wanted it like she always wanted that other child she will now never know, though she will always feel like she knows him intimately, as much as it is possible to know someone. It is a feeling, but the feeling speaks of a knowledge which she cannot articulate or explain.


My nickel is not my nickel yet, and will not be my nickel for many decades. Or two. Or one. I don't know. It's that little girl's nickel. The nickel may stay with her, and as we've seen, the nickel will accept this. It will not protest. And it won't be wrong, either, for the nickel to go no further. That will just be a reality of the nickel's journey. The decision is the girl's. This nickel has spent the past year in the belly of a porcelain pig, another gift from the godmother, the mother's sister, whose own heart broke, though with less lines of fracture, when she learned that the baby had not lived more than an hour. Still, the hour feels like something, because she knows her sister, and she knows that her sister held that baby for all of its time on this earth, though it is not anything they ever spoke about, or ever will.


The little girl has been eyeing her father's hammer out in the garage for some time, and now she goes to get it. In a couple minutes, the pig who had stood guard on her nightstand, warding off nightmares and bogeys, is no more, the noble beast. Her friend has done what he was tasked with doing. For his sacrifice, the girl is grateful, but it must be done. She scoops the change she's been saving into an old coffee tin that used to hold the seeds of some kind of flower in that garage where the hammer was procured. She waits until her father is alone, on that cold November morning, the day of their big trip into the city, just the two of them.


"I have the money," she whispers, even though no one else is in the room. Her dad looks inside of the can, swirls the change around. A shiny new nickel--my nickel before it was my nickel--pokes through to the surface. She watches as her father mouths numbers and figures, doing his pretend computations, which to this little girl is the most sacrosanct, vital math anyone will ever undertake.


"Well," he says. "Now we have just enough. It's a good thing you did all of that saving. We wouldn't be able to do this without you. Go and get your coat, and then we'll say goodbye to your mom."


You tell me: Is a nickel ever really a nickel? Only if we discredit the nickel, and not afford it the respect that its wonder deserves. Because my nickel is wondrous. I hold it now, alone, in the palm of my hand. I wish to say something to it, but I realize that in holding a nickel in the palm of your hand, in looking at it, in beholding it, in thinking about it, in trying to feel where it has gone, how it came to you, and who else has touched it, and been touched by it, is everything you can do that is right and true for a nickel, and all that can be said to it. And so I will hold my nickel a little bit longer before setting it forward again into this world, where it will be someone else's nickel, and maybe they will feel a part of what I have felt during this time when it came into my life, which might not even be the first time, and maybe not the last.