Monday, February 16, 2015

Halfpence None the Richer

Recently, I found myself standing at the sink, washing dishes, and humming to myself. This isn’t unusual; I’m prone to tunes.

What was unusual was the particular tune I was humming. For a while I was doing it sub-consciously, but eventually I became aware that although daffodils are popping up in my neighborhood, I was mumbling the words to a Christmas ditty that I think I learned from the Muppets.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,

If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you.

Why was I humming this song? With me, there’s often a reason. Once, for instance, when I was in college, I had an internship in New York City. Every time I went out for a period of about a week, I got an Indigo Girls song stuck in my head. I do love the Indigo Girls, but the predictability began to bug me eventually. It was always the same song (I don’t Wanna Know), and in fact, it was always the chorus. And not the whole chorus; just the first line of the chorus, over and over again.

I’m not scared and I’m not lonely….

When I finally gave it some conscious thought, I realized that this was nothing more than a classic case of lying to myself. I was 20 years old and had thought that Manhattan would be an exciting adventure. But that winter, the city overwhelmed me. Everywhere I went, men leered and groped, and panhandlers tugged at my sleeve. It seemed like no matter what direction I was headed, I was always walking directly into a bitter wind. I never got the hang of slaloming through the crush of humanity on every sidewalk, and I remember thinking that if a manhole opened up and swallowed me, nobody would notice or even know the difference.

Scared and lonely? I’d never felt both emotions so acutely in my life. Any musical statement on my part to the contrary was wishful thinking, a jangly self-comforting ritual in the key of G. (Luckily this flash of self-awareness was enough to short-circuit the repeat button, and freed me to go back to my usual ear-worm repertoire of bubble-gum pop and advertising jingles.)

O.K., that was a dark example. Usually, there’s a more benign explanation for why I’m compulsively playing something over and over again in my mind. As for the Christmas carol in February, it’s not out of the question that I was having a little bit of a hard time letting the holidays go. I think the key word in the song, though, is “ha’penny.”

A ha’penny is an extinct coin; a half of an English penny. I was thinking about them because I’ve been thinking about old foreign coins a lot lately. The reason for this is that at the end of last year, I took possession of a significant portion of my paternal grandfather’s coin collection. He is still with us, but at 94, his mind isn’t what it once was and he has literally lost the ability to make heads or tails of his collection. So my grandmother gave the coins to the grandchildren, and to my delight, I ended up with a lot of the foreign ones.

In the days before my brain latched onto the ha’penny song, I’d been cataloging some older coins from South Africa that used the British pre-decimal system of coinage. I’d decided that it was time that I learned what that was all about, as I’d never really understood what a shilling was, or how an English penny is different from a cent.

Having learned about pennies, and half-pennies, and how they relate to shillings and pounds (12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound), I was, that evening, reviewing what I’d learned in my head. That’s what sent me down the path of singing about old English coinage. As with the Indigo Girls song in New York, realizing what was going on turned off the soundtrack, and I was able to stop hearing Miss Piggy’s voice in my head.

I found, however, that when the music stopped I was still hung up on the subject of half-pennies. They are a very small unit of currency. In the pre-decimal days, there were 240 pennies to the pound, meaning that a half-penny was one 480th of a pound. Even in the Victorian era, that can’t have been much money. (By 1983, the year before half-pennies were demonetized, an MP in favor of ditching the coin remarked that “Most people don’t even bother to pick them up when they drop them.”)

I started thinking what paltry offering a penny was, and thinking how truly wretched someone must be if they didn’t even have the “ha’penny” mentioned in the song. From that condescending place, I moved to a position of…I want to say gratitude, but it was really something closer to smugness, a feeling of grandiosity that came from knowing that when I give to charity, I’m able to do it in amounts greater than a penny.

But then, that toxic little bubble burst into an oily puddle around me when I realized that technically, I didn’t have a half-penny, either. Pennies, sure. Half-dollars, half-francs, and even an American half-dime from the days before nickels…those I had. But a ha’penny? Nope. By the song’s metric, I was poorer than the most pitiable Dickensian indigent.

Except that, as it turns out, I wasn’t.

The next evening I went through the last batch of coins, a small baggie filled with British currency. I had purposely saved it for last because a lot of the coins looked old and weird, and I thought this group might be the most interesting of all.

I was right, and the haul turned out to include a lot of great coins, like a sixpence with a portrait of crazy King George III, a lot of big old clunky copper pennies the size of poker chips, and, yes, a half-penny, dated 1885.

These coins delight me to no end really just because I’m a big nerd about these things. The coins aren’t valuable to collectors—old as they are, they were nevertheless minted in large quantities and aren’t very rare. They aren’t worth a thing in the real world, as the last pre-decimal coins were withdrawn in the early 1990s and are no longer legal tender. No contemporary beggar would be a bit jolly to see any of these coins in his hat—least of all that ha’penny.

But I choose to look at it this way: Having the half-penny lifts me above the Victorian-era poverty line, which has got to be some sort of accomplishment. (Take that, Great Recession.) The coin is also a token showing that I’ve been entrusted with a minor family treasure. As I’ve said, this collection is not valuable in a quantifiable way, but my grandfather loved it, and I love it, too, which makes me feel rich in a way that only coin geeks will understand. (The rest of you will just have to trust me.)

Also, I don’t live in New York anymore, so I’ve got that going for me, too.