A penny was a lot in my youth. As a child, I used to count each one, hoping the number would increase.
Something like that happened when I was around 10 and considered myself the Rockefeller of Railroad Avenue. I was one of zillions of Optic sellers. If I sold 10 copies each day, I’d go home expecting some car company to have delivered my brand new Lamborghini.
Around Christmas time that year, after counting and re-counting all my pennies and stacking them in tidy rows of 10, I eyeballed the stacks and discovered I was missing a penny. That made me “pennic,” a word I coined for that occasion.
I took a handful of the coins and flung them all around the room, an act that startled and then amused my Uncle Juan, who shared the room with my brother Severino and me. I reasoned that after gathering all the coins, the 50th one would magically appear. Maybe the AWOL coin would have gotten lonesome and decided to join the others.
Bad assumption. I took the 49 cents to Pena’s grocery across the street to exchange for a fifty-cent piece, but Mr. Pena counted each one and told me the only way I’d collect the large coin would be by giving him another penny.
The wheels in my head turning, I took my pennies to Orlando Marquez’ store a block away. He took my stash, without counting them, gave me a half-dollar coin and thanked me, explaining that pennies were the coins most people carried.
Remember: We’re talking the ‘40s here, when a penny could buy something. I felt one-up on some of the smarty-pants, rich kids at Immaculate Conception School who often spent five, or even 10 cents on treats during recess.
For weeks I thought of that small coin with Lincoln’s image as the gold standard.
Here’s a quick account of life on the streets for me and many other Little Merchants, as our circulation manager, Manuel (Milkey) Maese doled out newspapers six us street boys for three cents and having us earn big bucks — er pennies — by selling them for a nickel. The most profitable day in my pre-adolescence was when a man who’d consumed too much liquor at one of the several bars on East Lincoln (quite close to the Optic building just a block west) imitated the politician we’ve all read about. Wasn’t there a New Yorker who would go out to the street giving quarters to anyone he saw?
Monday through Saturdays, a host of us hungry, ill-clad urchins lined up to buy our papers from Pete Garcia, a long-time employee who collected three cents for each copy we bought to resell. It was Optic policy, not to allow refunds on any unsold copies. My friend, Wilfred Martinez, who sold The New Mexican, was allowed to return unsold copies. Obviously, that forced us to buy our Optics in small quantities.
The war was going on in the 40s and Las Vegas experienced a lot of train traffic — we called them troop trains.
Hundreds of soldiers stepped out of the several trains that passed through this burg, to stretch, smoke, have a soft drink and read a newspaper. Although the porters inside the trains didn’t like it, they generally allowed us ragamuffins to run the span of the troop train to sell papers.
Because the trains in those days were packed, some of us boys would agree on which cars to enter during the whistle-stops; we generally divided each train into three equal parts. And we were fair enough to let each of us take turns peddling papers in the car with a lounge.
One of the Optic sellers faked not having change. As many passengers carried mostly small change that affected one boy’s strategy. When the smallest amount passengers had was a dollar or a half-dollar, the I-don’t-have-change game commenced — and sometimes worked.
One boy received a dollar, and in the guise of going for change, ran out of the car itself. But his shoe got stuck between rails and he needed help to free himself. He severely sprained his ankle — and it served him right.
Due to inflation, the price of the Optic eventually went up. When the management began charging eight cents for copies sold on the streets, it became a boon for us Little Merchants. You see, the newspaper sold us single copies for five cents, the idea being that we’d sell them for eight cents, but most buyers simply gave us a dime and said, “Keep the change.”
Even with our newly acquired wealth, we didn’t see too many Optic sellers tooling around in Lincolns or Caddies.
Except for things like “penny candy,” most price increases are in larger amounts. A 25-cent newspaper published today probably doesn’t lose too many sales when management doubles the price.
People prefer to think and deal in round numbers when it comes to items purchased out of machines. It’s very little trouble to devise a machine that accepts a dollar bill for a soft drink. So why not a machine that takes the dollar coins?
I go through a lot of those coins, buy them by the roll of 25, use them mainly for tips or to buy a cup of coffee for someone who’s broke.
The dollar-coin-in-vending-machine idea has caught on — certainly not in Las Vegas. When I leave a dollar coin or several as a tip, the wait-person invariably gives it a careful look and must be thinking, “That’s a strange looking quarter; the guy’s a real cheapo.”
When I assure them it’s a real dollar, they still examine it to make sure.
It seems technology hasn’t caught up yet. What machine will accept the new dollar coins? Maybe they were minted merely to glorify our presidents — even Trump.