Change For A Two – Fiction

Change For A Two

by Michael W. McCue
illustrations by Jef Taylor

I looked up from the bar as if I had seen the Epiphany. It was unclear where the idea which struck me had come from, whether it was divine revelation, or inspiration from deep within my psyche. Perhaps it was the liquor. Whatever its origin, I realized that I had received a calling to spread peace and understanding throughout the Greater Boston area utilizing a most unique tool; the Jefferson two dollar bill.

The seeds must have been planted during a recent excursion to the Canadian Maritimes. The overwhelming number of congenial people I had the pleasure of meeting made a lasting impression. For me it validated the world-wide perception of Canada as a peaceful and amicable nation. At first I thought it might be because their beer was stronger than ours. That theory was debunked when I discovered Canadian brews are measured by volume, not by weight as in the States. That makes them almost equal. So much for peace through copious inebriation.

Then it dawned on me. One of the most conspicuous differences I noticed in the Great White North was the absence of one dollar bills. While Canada’s decision to replace their one dollar paper bill with a coin was based on economics (a coin, though more costly to produce, outlasts a paper bill by decades) I came to the assumption that this action had unforeseen ramifications. I believed there was a direct link between the use of the two dollar bill and the atmosphere of good will I experienced up north.

The last period of serious U.S. circulation of the two dollar bill was in the 1950s, the time generally remembered a golden era in American history. The last printing of the two dollar bills was in 1963, the year President Kennedy was assassinated. Historians look back on this tragic event as the beginning of the end of American innocence. Perhaps there was more than one reason! Maybe the Carter administration’s attempt in 1976 to bring the two dollar bill back was to shake America out of its so called “malaise.” Someone in that administration might have reached the same conclusion as I years before, but lacked either the heart or the support to see the program through. Now I had stumbled upon the secret. My course was set.

The acquisition of the bills was simple. The first large bank I happened upon was sure to have a stash hoarded up in some dark corner. Doing the best I could to suppress the crazed look adorning my face I approached a teller. I couldn’t help but beam maniacally as I requested she convert my crumpled five’s and tens into twenty-five instruments of goodwill. Along with the girl’s puzzled gaze, I received a handful of crisp, sequentially numbered 1976 Jefferson two dollar bills. I felt an endorphin rush as she pressed them to my palm. Turning to leave I thought that in her one last glance I saw a glimmer of understanding as to the importance of the transaction we had just completed. Then I realized she was simply looking beyond me for the next troglodyte in line. “Fool,” I thought, “you will be left behind.”

I left the homogenized lending institution walking on air. I was anxious to begin my proselytizing at once, but it occurred to me that it might be blasphemous to spend these bills just for the sake of spending them. Their distribution must come about during the natural course of purchases, I reasoned, to preserve the sanctity of the act. The bills languished neatly tucked, but of course unfolded, in a brown paper envelope in my jacket pocket… waiting.

It was Thursday, and Thursday meant a haphazard tour of the public houses of Boston when the clock struck 5:00. It was a fortuitous coincidence that this would also be the first night of my vocation. As the evening’s participants gathered at our disembarkation point, the lounge at the hotel down the street, my companions could detect an air of purpose about me. I parried their inquisitions. My decision was to let my actions speak for themselves. When the bartender came for payment of our first round I signaled that I would handle it. Sans flourish, but with cool determination, I presented the barkeep with four pristine two dollar bills. I studied his face for reaction.

“What the hell are these?” he exclaimed, wrinkling up his nose. He stared at me with a set of vacant eyes.

“Why, my good man, these are two dollar bills,” I replied, ravenously waiting for their effect to take hold.

His response was a grunt as he turned and waddled back to his till, eyeing the bills with disdain usually reserved for traffic tickets. It was not a good start. I quickly rationalized that he was too dim to grasp the greater picture that these pieces of currency represented. I left him as a reclamation project for those who would follow me.

One of my number was taken with the presentation of the bills. The other two hadn’t noticed as they were busy ogling two women sitting across from us. Perhaps I needed a confederate, I mused. So, as the others engaged in their mental voyeurism, I brought my friend Gerry in on my cause.

“It’s there for all to see!” I contended. “You can’t judge this whole grand endeavor on the reactions of one carbon blob!” I gestured toward the bartender, now gazing zombie-like at the flashing lights emanating from a television broadcast of Wheel of Fortune. Certain that my friend had the appropriate portions of gray matter to grasp my concepts over the course of the evening, I entreated him to see my mission through.

“Whatever,” was his response, “Let’s getting going.”

We pried our other two fellows from the bar just as they were girding themselves for an advance on the vixens who had captured their attention. While they protested, the powers of my arguments, steeled by my convictions, carried the day. We were off; their goal – the excessive intake of mind numbing intoxicants. Mine, though the former was indeed noble, the spread of peace through the dissemination of the remaining ambassadors of benevolence in my pocket.

At a point in the campaign the proper course of action is to fight off the onset of premature drunkenness with the consumption of filling foodstuffs. The typical food of choice is pizza, and my soul cried out for it. Our procession reached an outlet of a nationally franchised company, famous for their overpriced yet palatable single slices of pizza. Reaching the register I presented one of the Jefferson-headed greenbacks to an unassuming Asian girl manning the counter. After a transient flash of puzzlement crossed her visage a look of contentment settled upon her. Could it be? My first success? I was enveloped in sublimity as she turned the bill over once or twice with a smile, obviously taken with its subtle beauty.
Then, disaster.

The cashier’s hand dipped into the money drawer and proceeded to count out the change for a twenty dollar bill. At first, I was gripped with a feeling of rapacity as I momentarily salivated at the prospect of an eighteen dollar profit. Fighting off the darker angels of my being, I explained the monetary value of the piece of currency, leaving aside for the moment its greater intangibles. As I handed back the incorrect change, the girl’s expression changed to one of abject horror. She stuttered out a barely audible apology, cast her gaze downward, and returned the misappropriated bills to their respective places in the drawer. My triumph turned to an opprobrium. The cashier’s previous look of contentment was a cover to hide her ignorance of what she held in her hand. I had exposed this ignorance, and in doing so, had cast shame upon her, the antithesis of what I strove for. Disconsolate, I shuffled to a table clutching the slice of pepperoni and onion.

A sudden pressure pulsed at the back of my head. Though I assumed it was an aneurysm bursting in my brain as punishment for my transgressions, I found it was one of my comrades administering an open hand slap.

“What are you, a dope? That money was good for two extra rounds at O’Casey’s!”
Overwhelmed by my second failure in as many attempts, I was in no shape to defend myself from this sardonic query. I shrugged my shoulders and turned my attention back to the cooling pizza, now a symbol of my affliction. I choked it down, anxious to leave.
Moments later, our band was to be found riding the subway system. The trip afforded me time to reflect on the suppositions on which I based my course action. The machinery cog which passes for an average American citizen bases their understanding of commercial transactions upon a system divisible by five… fives, tens, twenties, fifties. A system encompassing a bill which doesn’t fit perfectly into this system, is incomprehensible to the masses.

“Hey, are you coming or what!?” Gerry blurted at me. His words shook me from my daze. The train had halted at the station where our next destination lay and we ambled off to an Irish pub near the Boston waterfront. As we approached, we happened upon a street vendor running a sausage cart. The previous provisions hadn’t fully sated my need for alcohol absorbents. The others lumbered through the door of the public house while I asked for extra peppers and onions on my purchase. With some reluctance, I withdrew four dollars in two dollar bills and handed them over.

“Wow, two dollar bills! I didn’t know they still made these,” the purveyor of fatty-pork by-products said. He carefully slipped the bills into his coat pocket, taking care not to expose them to the world of grease in which he bathed. “I’ll save these for my kids. I don’t think they’ve ever seen one.”

Vindication! I gleefully explained to him the continuing availability of the bills and how he might go about acquiring some on his own. We parted with smiles on our faces and I euphorically bounded off to meet my friends.

“You won’t believe the reaction I just got from the fellow peddling sausages,” I told Gerry. To further my assertion I pointed at the sausage and the bun in my hand (just before the doorman caught up to me and made me throw it out.)

“Swell,” was the response as another friend thrust a pint of stout into my now-empty hand. I drained the glass with little thought or effort. To my companion’s credit I quickly found another in my grasp. Before long it was again my turn to pay for a round and, bursting with confidence, I passed the required amount to the waitress. My heart warmed as a smile fixed on her face.

“Nobody has these anymore. Are you sure you want to spend them?” she asked.

“Yes, yes. Do you want them?” I magnanimously replied. She examined the four bills as she disappeared into the crowd.

“Why are you smiling like a lunatic?” questioned one of my comrades.

Gerry chimed in before I could answer. “Don’t you know? He’s saving the world with two dollar bills!”

The other two looked at each other and then back at me.

“Is this like the time you decided pigeons were at the root of all evil and went around trying to kill them with a baseball bat?” the yet unnamed Rick asked.

“Yes and no. Yes, I’m still sure pigeons possess some sort of demonic powers, and no, this undertaking is different. I’m being proactive as opposed to reactive.”

“You mean to tell me,” began Chris, the last friend not yet identified, “you went to the bank and changed all your money to two dollar bills? All you have are those stupid things? Man, you’re soft.” He pointed at his head.

“At least the wildlife people won’t come after him for this stunt.”

I ignored their jeers. I was on a roll and they would either have to accept what I was saying or become outcasts as the phenomena I started spread like wildfire.

A musical combo for whom none of us cared struck up in the corner as we finished off our fifth round of drinks. We decided to make for a new spot, this one a well-known gathering place for the city’s young suit-and-tie crowd. The typical frequenter was a male BS in economics making an entry-level salary but boasting of a pay range near 40k or a female liberal arts major looking for a BS in economics truthfully making 40k. The bouncers were generally surly undergraduate football players from the city’s several large colleges. The wait staff was attentive only to those they knew or to passing pseudo-celebrities like pine-riding Bruins who had been called up from Providence the week before. What better place to really assay my notions than this hive of superficiality.

There was a wait of a few moments before we were able to approach the beefy fellow at the door for scrutiny of our identification. I think my deranged grin may have unnerved him as he looked several times at my ID and then at me. After being asked twice how much I had already drank that night, I joined the others in a crammed room which reeked of cigarettes and stale beer. It took a great deal of jostling and maneuvering to reach the rail of the bar to hunker down for the ten minute wait required to catch the bartender’s attention. When I did, I ordered four Budweisers, bucking the trend of the rest of the patrons who were ordering whatever was that week’s fashionable micro brew. I haughtily passed the bartender the requisite amount in twos. He stared down at the fistful of bills and looked up at me angrily.
“I ain’t takin’ these,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Maybe you’ve never seen them before,” I began, “those are 1976 Jefferson two dollar bills. They’re…”

“I don’t care what they are. Gimme something else, like fives or tens.”

“Well… I don’t have anything else. Besides, those are legal tender and you are obligated to take them,” I said, citing the script on the bill.

“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want,” he replied as he made a grab for the four bottles in front of me. They were closer to my grasp and I snapped them off the bar. A vein snaking through the bartender’s forehead began to swell and his face turned flush. Our exchange had attracted one of the wandering bouncers, a short fireplug of a fellow, whe hastened to the aid of the man behind the bar.

“What’s up, Tony?” he bellowed over the din.

“This jerk didn’t pay for those beers!” I saw the twos were crumpled up and thrown on the bar.

“I beg to differ. There is more than enough in that mangled lump to cover the tab.”

“I told you I ain’t taking that!” the bartender shouted.

The bouncer turned to me. “Listen pal, this guy’s in charge. If you don’t have the cash he’ll take, cough up the beers.”

I was incensed. Abandoning my original objective and its principals, I prepared to make a stand. My three friends were close to me on my left, oblivious to my troubles, so I handed them their respective bottles. This would make it more difficult for either the bartender or the bouncer to recollect them. As if on cue, the three of them melted back into the crowd.

“This is legal payment, backed by the Treasury of the United States government, and I demand that you take it.”

After a momentary futile pursuit of my friends, the bouncer grabbed me by the arm, causing me to spill the remainder of my bottle, of which I had already inhaled three-quarters, down the front of his tacky polyester uniform. Given my state due to the number of libations I had thus far imbibed, I couldn’t help but laugh directly in the enforcer’s face.

“That’s it, buddy, you’re gone!” he shouted as he manhandled me toward the door. Not being one to engage in fisticuffs with anyone larger than myself, I offered only verbal resistance. I glanced back to see the bartender scoop up the wad of bills I had left and slip them back into his pocket.

“Charlatan!!!” I accused as the door approached. I found myself outside, alone, and with no hope of sending word back to my cohorts as to my fate. I resigned myself to the fact that I had spent the evening on a fool’s errand, made an ass out of myself in front of my friends, and almost gotten a punch in the nose for my efforts.

There wasn’t much left but to make the journey back to the car and get home to the suburbs. As I shuffled under the elevated Central Artery, dodging the speeding missiles which pass as cars, I neared a beggar. Disheveled and soiled, he stared down at the pavement, carefully avoiding eye contact with me. Generally I didn’t like to contribute to what I considered a layabout lifestyle, but I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt this particular evening. A quick search of my person found my last remaining two dollar bill. Here, I thought, was someone who would definitely appreciate the bill even if only for its monetary value. I dropped my bill into his empty plastic cup. I continued on my way a few steps and then glanced back. The panhandler had retrieved the bill and was closely examining it. He turned towards me and I gave him a weak smile. Shaking his head he crumpled the bill and threw it limply towards a drainage grate. A small gutter rivulet caught it and carried it into the sewers. The beggar returned to his study of the pavement.