A penny lay on the floor by the cash register at Barney Greengrass, the temple to smoked fish on Amsterdam Avenue. "See that penny?" said Gary Greengrass, the latest member of his family to become a loxsmith. "Nobody's bothered to pick it up."
Nobody included Greengrass, who has as much use for a 1-cent coin as he has for a two-holed bagel. "Some people won't even take it as change," he said. "They don't want anything to do with it. Sometimes, I'll take less from customers, too, so I don't have to be bothered with it."His opinion is common in New York, a place where pitching pennies at the stoop was once part of the landscape. Now, the penny commands even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. And that raises a question, though it may seem terribly ungallant coming on the heels of Memorial Day: Might it not be time to do away with those millions of zinc-and-copper likenesses of Abraham Lincoln dotting New York sidewalks uncollected and lining sock drawers untouched?
This is an issue that turns up every once in a while like a bad you-know-what, but goes nowhere. None-the-less, dumping this almost useless coin - and rounding off business transactions to the nearest nickel - is a thought for your pennies that is not likely to go away.
"This coin's days are numbered" is how Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., put it several months ago. Castle, chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with monetary matters, said he had no idea what that number might be. But he predicted a time when "it will no longer make practical or economic sense to continue producing a coin that does not circulate and whose costs outweigh its benefits."
New York, one could argue, is particularly ill-suited for the penny, a hardy survivor that has car-ried Lincoln's image since 1909. There is the obvious fact that you can buy nothing with it, unless you know of a candy store that still sells those tiny Tootsie Rolls for 1 cent. But beyond that, the penny can be a source of stress in a city that hardly needs it.
"It's annoying in these places where you have to have the 3 cents, and you don't have it," said Bob Morton, owner of Coin Dealer on West 47th Street. "So you give them another dollar. Now you're carrying around 97 cents."
Did you ever stand at the checkout line of a supermarket while a customer fumbled for 2 cents? Not exactly models of patience, those waiting their turn.
You may think 1-cent coins are legal tender, but try getting on a bus with them. "No pennies," fare-box signs say bluntly. The subway is slightly more accommodating. Signs at token booths advise to "avoid using pennies," suggesting that you may use them if you wish. But plunk down 150 pennies during rush hour and let us know if you make it out alive.
In a New York restaurant, leaving pennies for a tip is a sure way to insult the waiter. In food stores, owners "see the penny as a pain," said Richard Lip-sky, a lobbyist who represents many of the city's small supermarkets. "It costs them money to process the coins, although there are some benefits," he said. "You can price something at $9.99 instead of $10."
Still, all is not lost for the coin. Gross has proved that. Seven years ago, he founded Common Cents, which collects pennies that schoolchildren have scoured from their apartments and gives the money to community groups. Though still tallying his last annual "harvest" in November, he expects to end up with more than $150,000.
In Washington, an advocacy group with a similar name, Americans for Common Cents, carries the torch for the penny. Mark Weller, the executive director, cites polls showing that Americans see no compelling reason to do away with a coin that is "so embroidered in the social and economic fabric of the country."
OK, don't expect the penny to be banished any time soon. That much is acknowledged even by an abolitionist like Beth Deisher, who is editor of Coin World, a magazine for collectors published in Ohio.
When she last visited New York, Deisher said, "I saw pennies in the gutter for block after block." That's how little valued the coin was.