My son collects my change–the random coins that come from little daily transactions, the pennies, nickels and dimes that build up in my pockets. Every few months, when his piggy bank is full, we take it to a real bank, run it through the coin sorter, change the total into bills. Sometimes he puts the money into his school savings account; more often he spends it on foolish pleasures like Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.
This has been a ritual since he could count–at least until last Wednesday: When I showed up at the bank with a quart freezer-bag of coins, the clerk refused to change it into bills. She said I was not a client of the bank, which was true: My own bank is a very small local branch and doesn’t have a coin sorter. “I’ve been changing coins here for years,” I protested. “I’ve usually just paid a fee for use of the machine…”
“Homeland security,” was the response. “It’s a new policy to prevent money laundering.”
“You think I’m laundering $36.89?”
“If you’d like to open an account…”
In fact, I don’t think the Homeland Security Act demands anything of the sort. (Indeed, I changed the coins at a bank down the street that had no such policy.) But before I let it go, I quizzed half the clerks in the bank as well as the manager. Weren’t they obligated to accept the coin of the realm? Didn’t their policy violate the very notion of currency? Since when has cash exchange been dependent upon the identity of the bearer? What about the duty to honor negotiable instruments? What happens to the homeless, the rubbish gleaners, the can collectors with no fixed address? Is their currency inherently “discounted”?
The bank’s policy seemed to have been one based on fear of drug money and transactions with “transients.” But the shape of their fear was somewhat idiosyncratic. For example, if I had presented them with a hundred-dollar bill, the manager said, they would have given me change, no questions asked. It was interesting, this: Their suspicion trickled down but not up. A small-coin transaction lumped me with petty thieves who steal from parking meters, Coke machines and children’s piggy banks–the shifty, if patient, evildoer who travels from bank to bank laundering her ill-gotten millions, $36.89 at a time. But a hundred-dollar-bill transaction would have distinguished me as less transient, more substantial. Just making change to tip the valet, they’d think. And how does race play into this? I don’t look like my stereotype of a transient. But I suppose I could have looked like the bank clerk’s: suspiciously well-dressed brown person floats through with a sack of coins, no identification and lots of questions about just what sort of cash the bank would take. I know: fear, drugs, terror. And “small change” has always been a metaphor for the uncharted migratory miscreant with no credentials. But the implementation of fear-driven policies could hardly be less rational.