Penny Thoughts

By Dave Bossert

     I was robbed. My childhood was stolen from me as an adult when my home in Los Angeles was burglarized in 2014. I think about the criminals that stole from me. The ones that were trusted once to enter my home as caregivers for my mother-in-law, Ellie, but then turned into thieves. We had hired an aide to help with basics like doctor’s appointments, bathing, and general daily companionship and help for Ellie, who has a progressive form of muscular-dystrophy. Instead, the aide allowed her boyfriend to enter our home while she was alone with Ellie, creeping through the rooms, taking valuables while leaving things undisturbed. There was no mess, no ransacking of the house, just items removed with surgical precision leaving the least amount of suspicion that anything was amiss. They clearly had done this before and the owner of the agency we hired her through was complicit.


     The police did nothing. It was just another burglary, another unsolved crime. The thieves got away with it and there was nothing that could be done. The system favors and protects these scumbags at the expense of us, the hardworking, law abiding individuals.


     The experience eradicated part of what makes me who I am as a human being. It changed me in a way that made me more cynical of the whole system. Those perpetrators stole items that I had had since my elementary school days, my childhood growing up on the south shore of Long Island, New York. Objects that had intrinsic value to them but were more meaningful to me as part of my soul—my very being. The lifting of these articles, in this case coins, that have so much meaning and nostalgia were a slice of my childhood which can never be replaced, that is the most despicable crime. They were a record of my own humanity—my history on this planet; they held stories from my early years.


     The instances of joy each time I seized them in the palm of my hand and pondered those recollections— some of them brief and others profound. A simple flash of laughter or learning something new about history. The smile that they brought to my face as I remembered the pop of Kodachrome moments, the snapshots, those items showed me as if they happened yesterday. The objects are prompts for the mind, a quick reference that leads down a rabbit hole to a memory burrow filled with images and visceral feelings of days gone by.


     Some of the items stolen from my home were a series of 1788 pennies from Barbados; large round reddish-brown copper slugs that were curiously thicker than most coins. On the obverse of some the pennies was a pineapple, a symbol of Barbados and a major crop during that time, on others there was a depiction of Neptune, God of the Seas. The reverse of the coins had a handsome relief of an African man in profile wearing a feather plumed crown. I had collected a group of these pennies over the years because they held fond memories of my childhood and I wanted to get them in much better condition, which I could afford as an adult.


     The first Barbados penny I ever saw was when I was at a coin show with my father when I was six or seven years old. Dad was in his early thirties then and wore suits to work, which made him look like an FBI agent. He had glasses and a dark head of hair that eventually went salt and pepper gray, then completely white by the time he died. He had a great sense of humor, which he never lost, even in his later years when he told the same joke multiple times forgetting that he had just told you it. And sometimes, all it took was a certain look, a face, or a crazy smile to get me laughing.


     We went to a few local coin shows a year and I always seemed to find some interesting coins in what was considered at the time, junk boxes. These were coin collecting events usually held in at the local Knights of Columbus or VFW halls where coin dealers set up tables and laid out their shiny discs of metal in glass display cases, except of course for those junk boxes which were easily accessible. They were usually a small cardboard box that was filled with all kinds of worn, silver and copper coins. There was always a thrill of discovery—of finding something special in those boxes and learning about that find.


     The true worth of those objects was in the memories they encapsulated for me. The times that I went to coin shows with my father. I could envision some of those moments when I found some cool looking coin and grabbed my father’s attention to show him.


“Dad, dad…. look at what I found.”


“What is it?” he asked.


 “It’s a copper penny from someplace called Bar-ba-dos; can I get it, please. It’s only fifty cents.”


“Mmmm, a penny for fifty cents; not sure that’s a bargain;” he said with a grin and then gave me a dollar to pay for it.


     That first Barbados penny I found mixed in with other world coins was well worn but magical to me, it transported me to a far-off island in my imagination; a place I never visited. It was my first conscious notion that there was a whole world beyond our little town on Long Island. As a child, the plumed crown of a king on that penny was the King of Barbados, if there ever was one. I believed there was.


     But Stan Jawalski, an old man we knew at the local coin club, doused that vision with the truth that the portrait on that penny was of a slave and pointed to the legend “I serve” below the bust, which galvanized his assertion, so he said. Stan was a retiree, a tall white-haired gentleman with a kind demeanor. A WWII veteran, fit and trim, in his eighties when I was still in elementary school and I liked him, even after his dream-crushing assessment of my penny. I still wanted to believe, and did for many years, that the crowned head was pure royalty. The King of Barbados was what I envisioned, had total faith in, until reading a thorough history of that island nation—Stan was right, he always was. I was fine with it because it had made me read, learn more about Barbados and the world around me.


     Holding that coin made me think about Stan, my father, and learning about history through those disks of metal that I held in my hand.  I could relive those moments of chatting with Stan at the coin club, which met one a month in the upstairs of the local Bowery Bank branch, and learning something from him each time I did. I would laugh at remembering my father’s descriptions of the coin club’s president, Joe—a diminutive man who had a “Napoleonic complex” as dad often pointed out.  Joe was a very short man who made sure you knew he was in charge. When Joe was talking, and he liked to talk using a microphone even though it wasn’t necessary, my father would look over at me and make a funny face or roll his eyes, which made me smile, laugh. Special moments evoked each time just by holding those coins in my hand.


     Part of my history was erased when those were stolen; my soul was tarnished worse than those copper pennies were. That is what happens when items of sentimental value are pilfered, lost, or even destroyed. I recently watched a nightly news report on the destruction of archeological sites, ancient buildings, and antiquities in the Middle East. The obliteration of these historic sites in Syria and Iraq by ISIS has been an ongoing affront to the human race. As I watched, as the world watches, terrorist insurgents used bulldozers, jackhammers, and explosives to destroy archaeological sites like the ancient Roman trading outpost Palmyra and the Mosul Museum and Libraries that have been ransacked and looted. These are sites and antiquities that have survived for more than a millennium and are now gone in an instant with the detonation of explosives or the thump of a sledgehammer. The ancient ruins that can be walked through in distant lands have enough details to imagine what the place was like when it was bustling centuries before, but no longer. There are no Sanskrit parchments to decipher what life was like for some of these early communities because many have been destroyed. I can relate. That tactile experience of holding or looking at an item conjures those lucid mirages of what was. It gives a mental image that can transfer us in the moment to a bygone time and place. That is what those ancient sites do for humanity and what my coins did for me.


     Memories locked in those items and structures start to fade with time because there is no longer an image or item to transport you to another period; no memory prompts. Stan is dead; my father is dead; and those coins brought back apparitions of them—they lived again, made me laugh again, made me remember their images as they were and words of wisdom as I held them tightly. Holding the coins allowed me to hold them, to see and hear them; to remember them.


     When items are stolen, or destroyed, it is essentially the erasing of our history—the blotting out of the human record; the deletion of our civilization. It conjures the expression; if we have no past, then we have no future. It is no different than the book burnings that took place in Nazi, Germany, or across the U.S. at various times when certain tomes were banned—it is censorship. Another example of the xenophobia that has gripped the world, which is no more evident than in the ISIS controlled territories of Iraq and Syria.


     It all makes me think about the criminals that stole from me. The ones that were trusted once to enter my home but turned into thieves. The fact that they got away with it. It hurt me to the core. Those lowlifes that crawl around the underbelly of our society stealing and taking at will—pawing through our archived memories encased in things, Objet d’art, kitschy knickknacks, items of perceived intrinsic value or not. It strikes at the most precious thing of all, our memories.


     All I can do at this point is try to replace those lost coins to hold onto those memories. Although, that is all it will ever be, a replacement not the original penny I found so many years ago in that junk box at the coin show with my dad. The experience has also showed me that I must be more vigilant in protecting those important items, which hold recollections big and small, that are still intact from theft or destruction. The burglary gave me pause, made me think about risk, security, and the importance of those things that have so much meaning; so many old memories, as well as some new ones now.