I have a box where I keep things that come in handy every now and then. Matches, a Swiss Army knife, batteries. The other day I opened it and saw something that looked strange, but oddly familiar, and I thought: “Oh, right! I remember you. What were you called again?
“Oh, yeah. Cash.”
It was a folded sheaf of bills held together with my dad’s money clip. Once upon a time, the long-ago madcap days of February, I’d drop the cash in my pocket when I left the house. Then we went inside and hunkered, and if we ventured out into the poisoned world, we knew better than to bring money.
It was, literally, filthy lucre.
Previously, this was the way of things:
“Hello, merchant! Let me proffer this green rectangular piece of paper in exchange for the goods I have set before you!”
“Why, yes, my good man, that is excellent. I will take the bill with my naked hands and give you a selection of metal disks touched by countless strangers.”
Makes you want to jump in a Jacuzzi full of bleach, eh?
Anyway, now it’s different: You hand the clerk a $10 bill.
Clerk: “Sir, we’re not allowed to take money.”
You: “Why? I drew a mask on Alexander Hamilton. I’ve made sure that he socially distances from all the other presidents — I mean, I arranged the bills in my wallet so they’re not facing each other. Besides, do you think I felt a little feverish this morning, then got out my money and coughed on it?”
Clerk: “It’s policy. We take only touchless payments now.”
You, who is obviously me: “OK, there’s nothing I can do about you following your company’s policy because you don’t want to get fired. But let me just note that I object to the way current events have had the unintentional consequence of delegitimizing hard currency, even though this bill has no intrinsic worth and is not backed by precious metal, but sustained by a consensual belief.”
Clerk, who is now obviously fictional because this is exactly what I would want to hear: “I agree, sir, and perhaps this entire episode highlights the inherent flaws in fiat currency, which can be subject to government manipulation and debased through quantitative easing. Paper or plastic?”
To be honest, I’m perfectly content to wave a card, phone or even my watch past a magic electronic box in order to pay for things. When I go to stores that don’t let me use my watch to pay, I feel like I’m being asked to barter a piglet.
But a card just doesn’t have the same comforting appeal as a sheaf of bills. A card has no symbols of the nation. There’s always that moment with a card when you don’t know if it’ll work, for whatever reason. Ever had your card declined, to use that kind yet contemptuous word? You think, “Well, someone cleaned out my bank account, and my house is probably gone.”
Now we’re at the point where cash is declined. Perhaps someday we’ll return to cash when the masks come off, stores take down the sneeze guards and someone puts the change from a 20 in your hand without making you feel as if they just dropped a plague-rat down your trousers.
I wonder if they’ll take coins rolled up in sleeves? I have a lot of those. Hey, it was a quarantine project. You can only bake so much bread.