Thursday, January 5, 2012

Free Money

Millet's Gleaners pick up stray grains after the harvest

How old were you when you decided you would no longer stoop for a coin if you saw one lying in the street?  When you realised you felt too self-conscious of seeming greedy to those around you, or that you had gotten too busy to waste even the time it would take to bend down and pick it up?  Maybe you had become so confident in your own financial security that you could proudly and consciously refuse this dose of monetary serendipity.  Maybe you were suspicious of the coin, having been told repeatedly by your mother that "there is no such thing as a free lunch."  Or maybe you had seen an iteration of that prank whereby someone glues coins to the floor and watches amusedly as people try to pry them up.

A woman stoops for a coin (image found here)
Of course some of you have not outgrown this habit at all.  Some of you will unabashedly announce that you always stop to pick up coins, be they pennies or pounds (or silver dollars), because hey, free money, right?  The economy is bad, and you believe in karma, and this is probably your just reward for not having honked your horn at that idiot the other day.  Some people have a more philosophical approach, such as those who believe that coins found lying heads-up are good luck.  Others consider the acquisition of funds in this manner to be merely the logical response to a presented opportunity.  While taking a walk with my parents once, we came upon a patch of grass upon which were scattered what looked like over 100 quarters.  There was a plastic bag nearby with a big hole in it, but some coins left inside.  We looked around for the source of this mess, and saw no one.  We decided to collect the coins and put them on top of the bag.  This took a long time, as they really were scattered about.  All the while, we kept expecting someone to come up and claim the money, or even to approach us in anger, thinking we were stealing it.  But no one came.  When we had finished, we looked at each other questioningly until my father made the executive decision that, because we had done the work of collecting them, we should take the coins with us.  We had earned them, hadn't we?

The other day I saw a twenty pence piece lying on the ground as I was walking (briskly) to the bus.  I saw it about three steps before I reached it, and had enough time in those three steps to consider the question of stooping to pick it up.  There were a lot of factors involved in the decision.  I was (nearly) late for the bus, so I oughtn’t stop because I might miss it—though in actuality I could see the stop from where the coin was.  I was wearing a skirt, so bending to pick up the coin would require balance and poise to remain decent, neither of which I have naturally.  I was also carrying a backpack, which would make stooping even more awkward.  Still, 20p is a significant enough amount to make one pause.  I don’t make much in my current job, and though I live very frugally, I also take opportunities whenever they come to enjoy free meals, free drinks, and free clothing and other items.  Why shouldn't I pocket this coin, when it might come in very handy later--if only as a means of appeasing my conscience when a homeless person asks me if I have any spare change?  Indeed, I was once accosted by no fewer than four people begging for change on my way home from the bus stop, and I silently thanked God when I found at least one coin to give to each of them.

As I continued on to the bus without picking up the coin, I considered the fact that that 20p could be found and used by someone who needed it more than I did.  A homeless person, to be sure: Oxford has plenty.  A broke teenager.  A struggling single mum.  A starving artist.  Some college kid could be 20p closer to doing a load of laundry.  A runaway could be 20p closer to a bus ticket home.  Charlie Bucket might have used that money to buy his golden-ticket-bearing Wonka bar.  Yes, I was helping someone by not taking that coin.  There was a bit of smug self-satisfaction in the idea, and I held onto it as long as I could by doggedly ignoring the very strong likelihood of that money being found by someone just like me, with a slightly less inflated ego.

All thanks to that 20p!

I once lost $50 in a night club in Rome.  I had pinned it inside my trousers as a sort of emergency fund in case I found myself lost in the middle of the night and in need of a cab.  It wasn't a well-thought-out plan, really, because most Italian cab drivers would not have accepted American dollars, and where would I have exchanged them in the middle of the night?  I have no idea when in the evening the pin came loose (except that it was some time after I had used the loo and made sure it was still there), but the next day I checked the trousers and the money was gone.  What is worse, is that it had been folded into a tiny square and sewn inside a piece of fabric, so if someone did find it, they might not have recognised what it was.  It might have been thrown away.  It might have been swept into a dustpan.  It could to this day be lying in the street somewhere, being trampled by pedestrians into the filth of the living city.

Win some, lose some...take it or leave in, one out...easy come, easy go...the wisdom of the ages (and the adages) says that money is just one of those things in life that you have to take as it comes, and let go when it leaves.  I have a vague suspicion that if I keep that philosophy in mind, I will more or less break even in the end. 

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