The weather has turned a bit too summary for my liking. Heat is pounding into the house and the sticky, unrelenting weather is reminding me of my childhood. Largely that has to do with my still not owning an air conditioner, just like in the good old ‘80s, when my parents didn’t own one either. And just like when I was a kid, I’m constantly looking for a way to beat the heat. I can’t say much for my adult pursuits (mainly a variety of cold drinks and strategically placed fans), but as a kid I had plenty of options.
Whether we chased down the ice cream truck, played some arcade games, rented movies, or bought some snacks at the corner store, we needed money. Moolah. Coinage. Loose change. Anything to fund Project Cool Down.
I never got an allowance as a young kid. Instead, my parents would occasionally supply me with a small injection of cash. Never much more than a couple bucks and more regularly only fifty cents to a dollar. Just enough that we could grab a snack or a couple games on the arcade. Pocket change was important as we navigated the urban landscape. Sure, there were the free activities like going to the park, riding bikes, or playing other street games, but money sure did help. Being enterprising little punks, my brother, friends, and I had a number of different ways to put a bit more change in our pockets.
Surfing for Couch Coins
A time honored tradition among kids grubbing for money, surfing for couch coins in my house was a daily task like showering or brushing your hair. Early on, my dad actually argued we were stealing money from him (a shocking revelation for a kid with a firm grasp of the “finders keepers” rule of law). As an adult I realized he was joking and used that moment to form an accord. Henceforth, he had said, the couch and chair cushions were neutral territory. In these international waters, young apartment pirates such as myself were allowed to keep whatever booty we discovered deep in the ocean of Couchlantis. I long suspected my parents would plant quarters between the cushions for us to find, because the bounty was always plentiful.
Probing Coin Returns
An unwritten law of adolescence was that you never pass a pay phone, quarter machine, or arcade cabinet without checking the coin slot. Most often we’d also push the coin return button or knob as well, just to be safe. This practice bore less fruit than surfing for couch coins, but you still hit pay dirt pretty often. If you were with a number of friends, you took "chance a piece" unless you wanted someone to contest your find.
Eyes on the Ground
Even less likely than finding money in a coin return was finding money on the ground, but it did happen so it was always best to stay alert and keep those eyes on the ground. Though I had found a fiver once and plenty of coins here and there, my most memorable find was when I was at a local park playing King of the Hill on a dirt pile. At the end of the game, I went down the back of the hill and saw something sparkle in the dust and grime. I bent over and picked up a quarter, then another, and another. I soon realized someone must had tumbled down the hill with a pocketful of coinage, because I ended up uncovering a few bucks worth of quarters. I waited, but when no one came looking, I claimed the money as my own.
I was never opposed to working for my pocket change, and one of the best ways for a kid in Brooklyn to make some easy cash was to collect soda cans. These things were everywhere! I couldn’t understand why people would throw money away like that. At five cents a pop, all you needed was five cans and you had a free play on an arcade cabinet. Ten cans and you had a free candy bar!
Our local Key Food supermarket had these machines outside that you could push the can into and it would crush it right there on the spot. Once you were done, it would give you a receipt that you gave to a cashier inside, who then paid you the accumulated sum. Not only was it rewarding, but it was also kind of fun to push the can in and hear that satisfying crunch.
One time we found two giant plastic bags filled with cans just sitting outside the supermarket. It was akin to discovering an abandoned treasure chest. We were scared that taking the bags could be considered stealing, so we hung around for a while to see if anyone would come along and claim them. When no one did, we ended up with nearly ten dollars, the most we’d ever made recycling.
As we got a little older, my friends and I started looking for odd jobs around the neighborhood. We were far too young for real work on the clock, but in Brooklyn there was always someone looking to exploit a little child labor.
One of the most fun jobs we ever found was dispersing fliers for a local deli. We walked all around the area leaving fliers in apartment building lobbies, on cars, and in mailboxes. When we returned, the owner claimed we’d gotten back way too fast and accused us of throwing away the fliers. He refused to pay, so in true Brooklyn-kid fashion we raised a stink, screaming at him in his store and calling him a cheat until he paid us what he owed.
It’s funny to look back at these memories and think about all the trouble we went through for a few quarters. It’s even funnier to think how much we could do with such a small amount of money.
I remember when I was a kid, my parents would tell me how when they were young, they could buy candy for a penny or a hamburger for ten cents. I’d roll my eyes and think it was the saddest thing in the world. Now, as I stand in line to purchase an $8 hamburger, I sympathize with my parents and wonder if pocket change means the same to kids today as it did to me back in the ‘80s.