Return of the “Tainted Tenner”


By Bob Litton

As I’ve mentioned to a few friends, one of the many causes of my “grouchiness” is the condition of the coins and bills I’ve been receiving of late. At least I believe it has been “of late”; I don’t recall ever noticing such a constant, numerous influx of filthy, torn bills and caked, corroded coins before the last year or so.

Decades ago, I had in mind to write a short story about a bill of whatever denomination having a discussion with other bills in a wallet — a discussion about all the transactions, legal and illegal, for which they had been used. It was to be a satirical piece. I never settled in to write it; and luckily, too, for I recently bought a used paperback of several of O. Henry’s stories; and in that volume was a story titled “The Tale of a Tainted Tenner”. The plot of the story was very similar to my own plan…just not as funny or as biting.

Shortly after reading O. Henry’s story and abandoning the notion of writing my own, I saw a fast-food chain’s TV commercial: a dollar bill, floating in the air, landing, being run over and stamped by a truck’s tire, and then being used in a commercial transaction. The voice-over, I believe, said something like “Your money’s always good with us.”

I nearly always pick up coins — even pennies — in the street; depends on their condition.  For I’ve read that it costs the mint two cents to create one cent.  There’s no doubt about it: the greater number of us Americans hold the penny in contempt. I once discussed this matter with a couple of oilmen in Monahans, Texas, where I used to be editor of the local paper.  One of my friends said, “I usually take a quarter out of my pocket and drop it near the penny or nickel, and then I bend down and pick them both up.” Now that, I thought, shows ingenuity!

Over the past year, I’ve several times demanded that a cashier in a restaurant or convenience store not give me as change a torn or marked-up bill or a corroded penny. A few times, having not paid attention to the change I was receiving, I found myself possessing such trash anyway. Not willing to dump on someone else what had been dumped on me, I would drive up to a local bank’s window and, handing the money over to the teller, say, “Take that filthy thing out of circulation. People shouldn’t be putting this stuff off on others.”

Last November, the Internet edition of NBC’s Today show ran a brief article (URL provided at the end of this post) citing a study in the Journal of Consumer Research about how the condition of money affects our spending habits.  The study reports that we “…tend to infer that worn bills are used and contaminated, whereas crisp bills give (us) a sense of pride in owning bills that can be spent around others.” (That same point was illustrated in O. Henry’s story written more than a century ago.) The study also claims that we spend a lot more when we are encumbered with worn or dirty bills because we want to get rid of them.

Again, just two weeks ago, I was standing behind a family of four in one of our local coffee shops as they ordered their breakfasts at the counter.  The wife and two daughters went off to a table, while the father — a fellow half again as big as I — waited for the waitress to tally his bill. He paid with a credit card — almost $40. There’s one good reason I didn’t get married! I mused to myself. After clearing that, and while I stood anxiously by, switching my weight from one leg to the other, he ordered an additional pastry, holding a rolled up bill in his hand. When he gave the bill to the waitress, I could see it was a ten. After I had told the waitress what I wanted, I paid her with a twenty. She returned me some coins, two ones and the ten she had just received from the big fellow. That was when I noticed that the bill was sliced two-thirds down its middle. I was annoyed, but I didn’t say anything to the waitress because its marring wasn’t her fault. Nor did I say anything to the man, now sitting at a table across the room with his family; as I said, he was bigger than I and to start a row in my favorite café would not augment my welcome there.

Instead, the following Monday I took the bill to my bank’s drive-thru and exchanged it for a better one. “Get rid of that damn thing!” I told the teller.

A couple of days later, I was back in the coffee shop discussing the torn tenner with the waitress who had given it to me.

“I didn’t mean to,” she said.

“I know you didn’t,” I lied. “I’m just relating to you the trouble I went to to get that bill out of circulation.”

A lady standing behind me asked, “What are you two talking about?”

“Torn and dirty money,” the waitress said.

“They won’t accept such bills at El Paso banks,” the stranger said.

Skeptical, I said, “But they have to at Federal Reserve banks.”

“The Federal Reserve won’t accept them either.”

Curious, the next day I called an El Paso bank.

“Depends on the condition of the bill,” said the lady who answered the phone. “A supervisor will have to examine and okay it first.”

“But what about the Federal Reserve? Don’t they have to accept them?”

“Same thing. If they are too badly marked up or damaged, they won’t be accepted. A bank officer will have to inspect them first.”

Finally, I was in that same coffee shop one morning last week, when one of the other coffee-sipping regulars pulled a neatly folded bill (I didn’t note the denomination) from his wallet. He’s a retired chemistry professor, and he was showing one of the other coffee-sippers how he had explained to students the way cocaine residue adheres to a piece of legal tender when the bill is used to snort the stuff. The bill was slightly scorched on one edge, apparently due to the small flame employed when an addict satisfies his habit. I remembered seeing a similar bill months before, one offered to me by a convenience store clerk and which I had refused.

If only Alexander Hamilton could see how he is being used now!

Here is that URL I promised you earlier:


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