In a time of change, pennies aren't being counted

Newsday columnist Fred Bruning spent $2.99 on a Newsday columnist Fred Bruning spent $2.99 on a slice of pizza, but the young cashier could hardly be bothered to give him back his change of 1 cent. Where's the respect ? for the penny? Photo Credit: iStock

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Late for dinner one night, I stopped for a piece of pizza.

"Two ninety-nine," said the young woman behind the counter.

Now, at moments like this I often drift back in sweet, if futile, reverie to 69th Street in Brooklyn and the little mom-and-pop pizzeria down the block. It was the enterprise of a young and hardworking Italian couple -- kids running around the place -- who treated customers like kings and queens. A slice was 15 cents. Coke was a dime.

I know, I know. That was then, this is now and, of course, time marches on. And how.

My father, the earnest bread deliveryman, never made more than maybe $125 a week, and when Mom returned to the secretarial pool on Wall Street, she was happy for the Friday check that said "Sixty-Five and 00/100 Dollars" on the front. And I know, too, that most of us in our "later years" -- ach! such a term -- are doing better than our parents. As for our own kids, who knows? They may not fare so well. The modern economy is a mystery to me.

But that's not the point.

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I handed the young person at the pizza shop $3 and stood there expectantly.

In response, the counter person turned away to check her iPhone. If you are maybe 18 or 19, you would not want to let much time elapse without reviewing updates. Who knows, something of utmost importance may have occurred in the last two or three minutes. Keeping pace demands concentration and commitment, eternal vigilance. Such are the pressures of life in the Information Age.

"Two ninety-nine, right?" I said, polite as could be. Still, the message was clear: "Hey, where's my penny?"

Pivoting without a word, the kid opened the cash register, secured a penny and, unsmiling, dropped it into my hand from a safe distance, as though the hand was something that had just washed up on shore, oozy and bloated like a balloon.

"Thank you," I said, pocketing my change.

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Let me break off here for just a moment to say that the penny may be on its way to extinction. Anti-penny bills actually have been introduced in Congress. None passed but, holy cow, what is the world coming to? OK, it costs more to mint the penny than the penny's value, but so what? In some cases, it costs more to pay the salaries of elected officials than their ideas are worth, but is anybody suggesting we disband Congress?

So, anyway, the slice, having warmed in the oven, was delivered on the usual paper plate via the same wordless young woman. Traditionally at this point in a transaction, the customer -- even one who has spent only $2.99 on a purchase and insisted on his one-penny change -- might have expected something along the lines of "Thank you, sir. Have a nice evening, and do come see us again." That's what the lovely Italian couple back in Bay Ridge said every time I dropped by and laid out the magnificent sum of 25 cents for a slice and soda. And, boy, I'm telling you, that was some slice.

But in this case: Nope.

I am inclined to obsess on such encounters, and I began to wonder: Why -- in the world! -- would a business expect the customer to absorb even a penny's worth of loss? What is the concept here? Is someone in the back saying, "Hey, if we nail 25 suckers a day for a cent each, we will have $1.75 extra at the end of the week and $91 in ill-gained profits by the end of the year"?

Probably not. Probably it is just a bother to haul that penny all the way from the cash drawer to the counter and then, calling on ancient biorhythms and cognitive synapses, to lift the arm to requisite height and, finally, let go of the Lincoln head coin.

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I shouldn't make so much of things like this. Life is too short, as they say, though, really I wish "they" would stop saying it. Still, it is in such small matters that the older person might wonder if cultural shifts -- undetected by all but the most neurotic among us -- are beginning to reveal themselves.

For instance, remember how when we were learning to drive, our fathers -- mothers rarely drew this sort of dangerous duty, as I recall -- demanded that we go to the middle of an intersection when anticipating a left turn? If you are driving the lead car, you do not wait at the crosswalk. You move cautiously into the intersection and when traffic allows, make your move.

No more. Now we have people stopping too soon and then racing through the red light in an Evel Knievel attempt to beat traffic heading their way at right angles. How did this start? Whose idea was it? Was some signal sent from Mars countermanding Dad's directive?

Another odd road-related practice relates to walking across highways as though, say, the Southern State Parkway was just another Adirondack trail. Suddenly, the driver must be wary of not only souped-up Camaros and SUVs the size of Montana, but also pedestrians out for an afternoon stroll. What gives?

We will not even get into the matter of 21st century speech innovations -- "no problem" instead of "you're welcome," or "share," which used to mean "tell," or "reach out," formerly known as "ask."

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After my pizza place encounter, I'm afraid another favorite old term is at high risk. Penny for your thoughts?

NOT WORTH A CENT?

Do pennies mean anything to you? Do you save them in a jar, a bank or a 5-gallon water bottle and then redeem them a night out? Or do you throw them on the ground after leaving a store because you don't want to carry them around? Are they a help or a bother when you're looking for "exact change"? Email your penny story for possible publication to act2@newsday.com. Or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, N.Y. 11743. Include your name, address and phone numbers for verification.

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