Monday, March 25, 2013

31 Cents

I was sitting on the M train immediately after a job interview, ruminating over my triumphs (including when I advocated reflexive social sciences research and the interviewers glanced at each other approvingly) and my epic fails (I misheard the name of one of my prospective employers and, throughout the entirety of the interview, of all possible names, I addressed her as “Toker.” Her name was Jan). Amid the usual post-interview uncertainty, I attempted to calculate the chances of my actually being hired, and although disappointment is about as novel to the underemployed as corn-clotted braces are to Justin Bieber concerts, on the whole, I felt sanguine.

Across from me, a stylish man – the kind whose boots match his bag – let a few coins drop from his pocket to the floor. He noticed these fallen coins, but chose to leave them there. Presumably, picking them up would clash with his super stylish image, as complimented – ironically of course – by the free copy of Am New York that so engrossed him. Indeed, a stylish man must never condescend to pick-up petty change from the filthy floor, even if it is his own. He probably prefers his coinage uncirculated. Perhaps he prefers his oxygen un-breathed as well. A mild, proletarian contempt rose within me before the prude alighted at the next Midtown stop.

I looked around. A young, tired-looking woman next to me had spotted the money, but turned her attention away. A few cents weren’t worth the price of contemplation. An older woman then boarded the train. She wore one of those shapeless, synthetic, black bubble coats that characterize winter fashion in deprived neighborhoods. She sat in front of the coins, noticed them, and with dignity and grace, left them alone.

I wanted the coins, but given this weird, new social convention, I wondered what the other passengers would think of me. This could reflect poorly on my Jewish heritage; everyone knows the joke about how Jews created the Grand Canyon after a penny was dropped into a rabbit hole, probably absentmindedly by a stylish man. Then I remembered that, physically, I more strongly resemble an Arab Muslim than I do any Ashkenazi Jewish person (judging by the amount of Muslim men who wish me "as-salam alaykum" as we pass each other by), leading me to wonder if a stereotype of the “cheap Arab” also persisted in the Western imagination. The “funny” thing about Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism is that they frequently cross paths and end up affecting the same people; let us remember that Palestinians, Syrians and others originating from the Arabian Peninsula are Semites too.

The coins were yet another example of waste, and I’ve always found waste offensive; it irks me, for instance, when people don’t eat their pizza crusts, or when they fail to finish their beers, and don’t even get me started on the dainty, lily-livered fusspots who cut their sandwich bread into exact, white squares, binning those savory end bits that, personally, I could survive upon.

Of course, those examples of waste pale in comparison to the amount of waste in our economic system at-large. It infuriates me that the unemployed must be kept unemployed to keep inflation low (if we approached full employment, job-seekers and low-wage employees could demand more money). Furthermore, on the production-side, unsold goods are trashed to keep supply low and thus revenue high, and who’s to say that the general structure of “productive” units actually produce efficiently? Autocratic management structures are in themselves wasteful: why not have workplaces in which producers, all with a stake in a company, delegate tasks democratically? As a global system, capitalism is heavily prone to mismanaging resources.

The train stopped at West 4th Street, where I meant to transfer to the D. The coins were still lying there. Trying only to focus on the task ahead of me, not letting my facial expression give away any thought at all, I knelt down and picked up the coins one-by-one: first the quarter, second the nickel, third the penny.

After leaving the subway car, an obvious thought finally occurred to me. All this cognitive effort resulted in an entirely insignificant act: what the heck can I buy with 31 cents?

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