100 Pennies For Your Thoughts

A few times a year, the sawed off paper cup I use to hold loose change at work turns into a swarm of brown uselessness, the fine silver fished out for the candy machine, leaving a worthless batch of begrimed pennies.

I then take the half-cup of pennies outside, and find someone who actually sees value in a messy, heavy dollar. There’s almost always a willing taker outside the 6 train entrance at 28th.

And so I headed out of work yesterday, the cup of pennies in hand. Alas, no one was manning the milk crates outside the subway, so I forged ahead up Park Avenue South.

That’s a weird thing about the homeless. When you think about them, they seem like they’re everywhere. But when you’re truly looking for one–with a tin of unfinished dinner topped with a tin foil swan that you’ll never eat the next day, or with a cup of hard currency–they seem to vanish.

On I trekked, hoping the favorable panhandling environs of 34 Street–major intersection, tourists gaping at the Empire State, people egressing Duane Reade with annoying change in hand–would yield a taker.

Nothing.

I then embarked on the doorman section of Park Avenue South, where the homeless are surely discouraged from congregating. Was I out of luck? The cup weighed heavily in my right hand.

At 37th, I waited at a light. A man across the street from me, also waiting for the light, caught my eye. He was a big fellow, dressed for business, with a reddish brownish beard flecked with gray. He spoke on a cellphone, but looked away from the phone and mouthed my name from 20 feet away.

He was a high school friend, and a friend I’d not seen since high school. He was two years younger, but the best athlete in his grade, and as a result played varsity when he was a sophomore. There were rumors that his father, obsessed with the boy turning out to be the rare star athlete from Long Island, had offered him some larcenous sum, perhaps $10,000, to avoid all drugs and alcohol and focus on sports. Maybe it was BS.

The light turned and we met on his side. I slowly slid the cup of pennies into my coat pocket, as it’s hard to explain to an old high school friend, especially one now working in venture capital, why you’re walking up Park Avenue South with a sawed off cup of pennies. The struggling journalist thing is cool, but to a point.

We made small talk, exchanged cards, vowed to share a drink during his short stay in New York.

On I trekked, my last hope the homeless guy that Starbucks often lets hang out just outside its doors at 38th.

Nothing.

Grand Central beckoning just a few streets down, I decided I had to punt the pennies. I hit Pershing Square at 42nd, and casually set the cup down on the concrete stanchion holding up the overpass. A pound lighter, I sprung across 42nd en route to my train.

I bolted through Vanderbilt Hall, then the landing that looks down on the ramps heading down to the Oyster Bar and concourse. Leaning against the railing was a man with no teeth and all of his possessions in a bag next to him. I’ll bet he was hungry.

I thought of telling him there was an odd dollar or so sitting in a cup 50 feet to the south, but didn’t have the nerve. I located my platform and tried not to think about the guy.

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