Friday afternoon, late in the recession, there is a line at the pawnshop. The woman at the counter is selling her childhood earrings, the wedding coins sprinkled, so many years ago, over her and her new husband’s bowed heads. He is dead now, as is the child she used to be. The broker gives her one hundred and seventy-five dollars. She thanks him although it won’t get her through the week. Next, the broker calls, and the man in line empties the entire content of his pockets on the glass. The quarters scatter as if a tumble of jewels. American quarters, copper and nickel, and he has twenty of them. The broker smiles, kind considering the line. These are quarters sir, he says. The man nods; he is at a coin shop. OK, the broker says, for this one, the 1985 issue, I’ll give you twenty-five cents.
At the bottom of your purse is a one ounce gold coin your grandmother gave you. It is not an heirloom. It is a South African Kruger Rand from 1979, a year alight with bombs that, despite the laws, could not distinguish race and often killed whites and blacks alike. The Kruger Rand sells for thirteen hundred dollars. Seven times what it was purchased for. It is an easy exchange, a brilliant gold coin, heavy with oppression and the violence of extraction, and a check, thin paper striped blue and gray through which money is made formal, benign. You are not catholic, not even religious, but walking out of the shop you make the sign of the cross, ask god to forgive you. Two doors down, there is a bar crowded with happy hour revelers. With so many unemployed, the end of the work week merits a celebration of both its existence and its culmination. On the sidewalk out front are four or five people smoking next to a sign that tells them not to. There is a code to live by, you know, and yet you no longer are able to make out the words.