Enthusiasts of The West Wing may recall ‘War Games’ (Series 3, Episode 6), in which Sam Seborn, played by Rob Lowe, wonders whether to do away with the American penny. The previous year (roughly, 2000), he points out to a West Wing colleague, the U.S. Mint cut 14 billion pennies, but they are worthless: the penny’s buying power has shrunk to nothing, while the buying power of the dollar is that of the quarter forty years ago. Warming to his theme, he explains how the majority of pennies don’t even circulate. “They go in jars and sock drawers. Two-thirds of the pennies produced in the last thirty years have dropped out of circulation. It’s also bad for the environment. Production requires the mining of millions of tons of copper and zinc each year.” A few scenes later he asks Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, this riddle: what is the most ubiquitous man-made object in America that does not interact with any mechanism or machine? The penny, of course! As a clinching argument, Sam points out that you can’t even throw a penny into a tollbooth – except in Illinois. Why so? Because it is the home state of Abraham Lincoln, whose head adorns the coin.
Well, to the derision and slight embarrassment of my children, I have been doing my bit for the American penny. I collect them from the streets of New York and put them into a special bank account titled “The Penny Fund.” It’s in my name and that of my younger son, Guy. When I die, he can decide which charity the money goes to. Currently, in just under four years of collecting, the fund has just under $500 in it. Pennies, dimes, quarters – they are all fair game. Strangely, although I’ve spied the odd coin on the streets of other cities, New Yorkers seem profligate with their small change. I love looking at the architecture of the city, sometimes ugly, often beautiful, nearly always interesting; but when I cast my head down, it’s pennies I see.