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A distributed subliminal urban practical joke.


Get that $5 you were planning to spend on junk-food or a movie, take it to the bank, and ask for it in pennies.

Out on the street, pause to appreciate the heft of the coin-rolls: ten finger-like columns, two hands of pure metallic value. Take a seat somewhere, break a roll open, and look at a penny. Appreciate the reliefs of Lincoln (by V. D. Brenner) and his memorial (by Frank Gasparro). You're holding the smallest unit of the most widely used currency on earth: a single share of the Pax Americana. This 2.5 grams of copper-plated zinc is the seed of every number with "US$" before it, and its tens of millions of cousins have spread more evenly around the earth than any other human artifact. With it you can give someone a penny for their thoughts, put in half of your two cents, or shout "Nothing! Not one red cent!" with a prop. But it's almost exactly free.

Keep your pennies with you, and, next time you're in the urbs or the 'burbs, lose them on purpose. Put them everywhere. You can hold about a dollar's worth in one hand and pop them off with your thumb discreetly in the middle of crosswalks and on the hoods of parked cars. Put them where they'll be found by panhandlers, bankers, and children. Hide them under and behind things. Make mandalas and portraits on the sidewalk. Throw a handful across an empty park at night. Roll them down hills. Drop them, with a little show of care, in plain sight of passersby. Prop them up against shop windows. Balance them on road reflectors. Tape them to phone poles. Toss them into crowds.

A few hiding-spots are especially gratifying. Try tucking one between the heads of double parking meters, where motorists will wonder if someone was trying to be generous by leaving them ten seconds of parking time. Who will expect a cent lying on a supermarket shelf? Public bathrooms have a certain something; people spend most of their time in them trying to forget that the space has been used by hundreds of strangers, so finding an anonymous present on the faucet could be quite stirring.

I figure a properly-placed penny is worth at least a dime. You, the Placer, get joy worth $0.01 from the thrill of deliberately losing money, $0.01 of self-congratulation for being charitible, $0.02 of fun in hiding it, $0.01 out of imagining how it might be found, and $0.02 worth of good memories every time you pass the spot where you hid it, minus $0.01 for the penny — a net gain of six cents. The Finder will get $0.01 of money plus perhaps $0.01 of joy out of having found a penny, $0.02 of wonder at finding it in such an interesting place, and $0.02 of social bonding if they tell a friend where they found it — again, a gain of six cents.

(These figures, of course, are averages, and don't take into account several nebulous factors. For instance, the penny might be found by an extremely busy person who doesn't take the time to ponder the provenance of free money — but, contrariwise, it might make the day of a small child — then again, it could well be scuffed into a storm-drain or buried by falling leaves, never to return to humanity. In the big picture, it may be that learning to wantonly toss money around will lead you to poor spending habits, but, conversely, free money might well lead the Finder to reflect on the nature of earning, spending, and wealth. For myself, the sheer fun of going out and doing something this stupid on purpose outweighs all doubt. It is, perhaps, the ill-advisedness of giving money away that makes it so healthy; there is excellent fun to be had by being this wasteful with a small group of friends.)

Once you're in the groove, you'll find many interesting variations. Many alternative types find satisfaction in most strangers' refusal to take a directly offered penny. Instead of a quarter, give buskers twenty-five pennies counted out with laborious precision. Get fifty wheat-back cents for a dollar from a coin shop, mix them with your pocket change, and see if anyone notices. Try hiding nickels, but be warned: we regard pennies as pure whimsy, but nickels are worth just enough to be taken seriously. The point, after all, is money without greed.

And I thought I was the only one who did this!

My reasoning is slightly different, though. 'Round these parts, there is a saying in which I have personally put little stock, but seems to be known by most:

Find a penny, pick it up,
All day long you'll have good luck.

I know, I know. This has got to be one of the lamest things ever spoken by a primate. I mean, if you're going to have an unreasonable belief in something, why not pick true love? I don't believe in this penny thing at all, and I won't even get into the great aesthetic sins committed by the phrase.

But still, if I can bring a tiny piece of happiness to the soul of some fellow, if very slightly dim, human being, give them the belief that the universe is on their side for a moment, well, I think that's worth one cent. I agree that nickels are missing the point. But I disagree that pennies are worthless. I've been one penny short of exact change too many times to let that statement pass without comment.

After reading this node for the first time in April, 2003, I decided that it would be a fun way to spend a free afternoon. I found seven dollars that I had hidden in my room for a rainy day and went to the bank to get it changed into pennies.

I decided that to make the whole experience seem more innocent, I would walk around to my pennies' destinations instead of driving to and from the places I had planned to drop most of them.

So from the bank, I walked around to the grocery store. Inside, I left a few sporadically on the floor, but found my way to the bathroom, my main goal. I locked the door (keep in mind, this is not a one stall bathroom, but it did have a lock on the main door). In front of the sink, I left a message written in pennies, careful to leave all the pennies heads-up:

TAKE
ONE


After I was done, I flushed the toilet, to give some credibility to myself, should anyone be waiting outside the door to get in, washed my hands and then left. No one was outside, which was a bummer because I wanted to be there to witness someone walk in and see it. I didn't have much time to spend around the store, so I bought a Coca-Cola and left.

Walking out into the sunlight again, I made my way down the main street in town, dropping pennies as I went. I came to Blockbuster, and went inside. On the shelves, by all of my favorite movies, I placed a penny. I then casually walked out, as if I just simply couldn't find anything I wanted to watch.

After this, I went to the park. Now the park was the spot I really wanted to drop my money bombs on. Three on the slide (one on the ladder, one at the top and one at the bottom), one on every swing. I placed a few inconspiculously on the merry-go-round.

After I had run around the park to all the playground equiptment, placing pennies on almost everything, I realized I still had two full rolls (worth 50 cents) plus about 25 more pennies left. I went over to the slide and buried the rest of my pennies in the sand.

Walking back to the bank across town, where my car was parked, I felt proud. Seriously, I felt like I had shared a little bit of myself that day.

I wondered about who would find all my pennies. Perhaps someone walked into the grocery store bathroom right after I left and ended up taking all the pennies. Maybe they just didn't touch them, thinking it was some sort of ploy by the store to catch a thief or something. Perhaps they did as the message said and took one. Maybe no one else went to the bathroom that day and thus, the teenager having to close the store that night found them while cleaning the bathroom.

Someone checking out Flight of the Navigator, Pump up the Volume, Heathers, or One Hour Photo picked up the penny I had placed by them or one of the other movies. Maybe they left it, hoping the next child to come in the store would find it.

And at the park, my pennies were probably found by a big brother pushing his sister around on the merry-go-round, or an excited little boy ready to go down the slide for the first time. Perhaps the ones by the see-saw were found by a parent who picked it up and told their child about the "See a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck" rhyme. Maybe the pennies I buried are still there, maybe they were washed up by a rain storm. I buried them pretty deep, but maybe a third-grader had made a time capsule of his own and wanted to burry it in the same spot my pennies were, therefore discovering a dollar and a quarter in small change. Maybe in a month or two I will take a friend with me to go see if we can find them. If they're still there, perhaps we can try and create a new penny dropping day to remember.

Whatever happened to these pennies, whomever found them, I hope they got as much delight from finding them as I did leaving them lying around.

This seemed like a fabulous idea, so I thought I'd give it a go myself. However, there seemed to be a risk of people not getting it and just thinking they had been dropped by accident.

I wanted to make it obvious that there was something going on behind it all and to let the people finding the pennies know that. After some thought I decided to type up a small note to add to the pennies.

’Find a penny, pick it up. All day
long you’ll have good luck.’
Have a nice day!
If you could drop in a msg to say
Where you found this that would be
Great!
http://coin-finder.cjb.net/
This address is now invalid

I placed one of those free on-line guest books on the web address so that people could write in if they found a penny. After that came the preparation. I cello-taped (scotch taped for Americans) the notes, folded up small with 'open me' written on the outside, onto the pennies and whacked them in a small bag that I could stash in my pocket.

I then walked around town for an hour placing them in places where people would feel the need to pick them up. I was hoping the thought pattern would go something like this.

’Hmm a penny’
‘What a weird place to put it’
‘Why’s it stuck to this car-parking meter
(Picks it up) ‘What’s this attached to the back?’
(Opens up the note & reads it) ‘Weird, maybe I’ll go have a look at this’
(Smiles & has monotony of normal day broken up!)

So I stashed all the pennies around town in places that would hopefully make people pick them up e.g.

  • On top of taps
  • Stuck to ATMs
  • Stuck to benches
  • In shop keyholes
  • Next to library computers
  • Balanced against shop windows
  • Balanced against products in shops

A couple of hours later I checked the guest book and three people had already signed it. By the next morning there were 5 and I’d only stashed 38 coins. I’m going to get some more pennies and repeat the experiment to see how many people I can get to sign this thing just through curiosity.

Why don’t you do it too in your town? Just copy the message into word on about 9pt Arial and get hiding those coins. We could see how many countries and places there are replies from!

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