Friday, March 31, 2006

Beginner’s Luck

The very first time I bought plane tickets on my own, I nearly got myself arrested. It was the summer of 1992, and I had just graduated from college and liquidated the bank account I’d kept in the town where I went to school. Having a degree in Chinese language and culture but no concept of how to be a grown-up, I hit upon the idea of deferring adulthood by traveling in China for as long as a visa would last me.

So I went to a travel agent in New London, NH, near where my parents and I were spending the summer. I fanned out a dozen hundred-dollar bills on the desk and announced that I wanted a ticket to China. I said I wanted to leave as soon as possible, and that I wasn’t sure when I would be back.

Plunking down a lot of cash and making vague demands to evacuate to a communist country is enough to get you arrested in many towns in New Hampshire. Luckily New London isn’t one of them. What did raise eyebrows was one of the hundred-dollar bills I’d been given a few weeks before by my college bank. I hadn’t noticed, but looking at the stack I’d tried to pay with, it was obvious that one was not like the others. Some of the writing was golden colored, and it was improbably dated 1928.

The agent said he thought it looked a little odd, and added, almost apologetically, that he was probably going to have to call the police. I told him I’d be happy to cooperate, and made a silent vow not act any more weird than I already had.

The agent picked up the phone, and I heard him call down to the station and ask to speak to any officer who knew something about paper money. He nodded and smiled as he spoke, never dropping his Our Town just-folks tone. Not until I heard him say, “no, she’s not going anywhere,” did I realize that I might in fact be going to the one place my parents wanted me to go less than China: jail.

The officer who arrived a few minutes later wasn’t old enough to remember the 1920s, but I guess every police force must have at least one expert on paper money to combat counterfeiters. The two men made small talk and finally got down to the business of examining my bill. The officer confirmed that this was something you didn’t see every day. My bill was a gold certificate. Once upon a time it had been redeemable for a $100 lump of gold. There was a time after the country went off the gold standard that ownership of gold certificates had been illegal, but by the early 90s, the bill was once again perfectly legal tender. (I wish I’d held onto it, though, since today they’re worth considerably more than face value.)

The cop left, and the agent apologetically issued my tickets. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a note of my license plate number as I left.

It wasn’t the very last time I went to a conventional travel agent. I tried it a few more times in the next couple of years. But almost nobody was more happy than I to see the advent of impersonal, mom-and-pop-stopping Web sites like Travelocity come along.

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