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.
There was some bemusement recently when, in confessing her drug addictions on national television, singer Whitney Houston declared, “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. OK?” But crack is not just cheap, it’s also a cipher for race. Similarly (if ever so differently), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice supposedly got very angry at a jewelry store salesperson who showed her only the costume jewelry. Rice was quoted in a New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann as snapping, “Let’s get one thing straight. You’re behind the counter because you have to work for six dollars an hour. I’m on this side asking to see the good jewelry because I make considerably more.” Lemann’s interpretation was “Rice responds to an insult based on her membership in a group by angrily proclaiming her personal, individual superiority to the deliverer of the insult: she doesn’t offer the counterargument…that the assumption that black people don’t have money is a stereotype; she says that the slur on the race is disproved by her achievements.” I interpret it differently. I think the encounter demonstrated less personal achievement than a complex and unconscious battle between those two great group identities, race and class. It will be interesting to see how racism and class bias reinstate themselves–if sometimes behind the front of “individual superiority”–as we enter a time when “homeland security” is understood to demand that we authenticate ourselves back to a pseudo-feudal time-before-currency. What will happen to us when everything is privatized, when all transactions are conducted within tight social circles in which You Must Be Known–in which one’s status is fixed, not negotiable, not malleable but assigned?
A friend tells me that in Britain, they don’t have big discount stores like Costco, as we have here. Rather, such stores are considered private clubs where you must not only pay a fee to join but provide evidence that you are of the professional class. “You have to be of a certain status in order to be eligible for bargains,” my friend explained. “You have to be up to shop down.”
That’s prerogative for you. I suppose living in the United States has been its own sort of private shopping club; we don’t need a passport to shop for most things. But now that class warfare is upon us, according to our President, I’ve been paying attention to this up-and-down thing. My friend goes “up” to London even if she’s starting out in Scotland, and “down” to the country even if it’s due west. When she’s in the United States, she comes “up” to New York–“it’s where your royalty reside”–even if she’s coming down from Canada. The scientific currency–and equality–of the compass is completely displaced by anxious superstitions about where the king’s head rests.
“What happens if you’re in a kind of middling place?” I asked. “Like Indianapolis? or Buffalo?”
“Have you never heard the nursery rhyme?” she responded. She recited what I now heard as an anthem of the anxious British bourgeoisie, perhaps too for that rapidly vanishing symbol of American mobility, the middle class: “When you’re up you’re up, and when you’re down you’re down, and when you’re only half-way up, you’re neither up nor down.”