PENNIES BEGIN IN THE POCKET. By evening, they rise above the dresser in copper ziggurats, spilling across unpaid and unpayable bills. From there, pennies graduate to glass jars, and finally to a coffee can, where they breed in the dark of a drawer. I will never get them to the bank, I know that now. The slat under the bureau drawer is splintered. The house is sinking beneath them. In Denver, in Philadelphia, in West Point, 24 hours a day, three shifts a day, the U.S. Treasury makes more pennies. Pennies enough to flood the world. Fifty-six million a day. Fourteen billion a year. Since 1793: hundreds of billions of pennies. Edge to edge, enough to reach the moon times nine.
And still there are never enough, says the man at the mint. He speaks of the penny shortage as if it were The Great Mystery. It is no mystery. They are here on my desk, in my drawers, hiding in the cushions of my chairs, rattling in the dryer.
Since 1959 the mints have made 200 billion pennies, but only one in five is in circulation, sighs the man at the mint who seems to have been waiting for my call for 30 years.
Now, if all of us raided our piggy banks, emptied our sagging pockets and our drawers and our cans of pennies in the attic and put them all together in a single savings account at 5 percent, the interest alone would be $70 million a year. The average American household is holding 2,000 pennies hostage. So says the man at the mint.
"Pennies are needed in the world of business," says a government brochure. "If all the forgotten pennies were brought out of hiding (are they kidding?) and used, it would save the mint a lot of time and money making more and more pennies every year."
The government would have us follow the example of Donna Pope, Director of the U.S. Mint. She says she doesn't have a penny bank and has never hoarded pennies. She carries them in her purse, doing her part. She believes in the penny and what it stands for. Short of dispatching troops door to door, guns drawn -- my sug- doesn't know how to separate the public from its pennies. She thinks the penny problem may be easing, but she hasn't seen my bureau.
At one time or another her predecessors have tried about every chuckle-headed scheme they could think of to get us to cough up pennies. In the penny drought of 1974, Treasury came up with the idea of awarding certificates to people who shlepped 2,500 or more pennies to the bank. The certificate declared: "A special citation for patriotically responding to the U.S. Mint's appeal to American citizens to return the U.S. penny to circulation."
Some 120,000 certificates went out, about 160 million pennies came in -- a zero in the scheme of things. People did seem to like the certificates, so much so that they deposited pennies in one bank and withdrew them from another, just to get more certificates. Worse yet, the Treasury concluded that for every person patriotically moved to bring in pennies, another figured pennies must be getting valuable, and began to hoard them.
In 1975 the head of the U.S. Mint came up with the idea of holding a contest. Guess how many pennies there are in a mile (if you guessed 84,480, you're right!) and win your weight in pennies. That's my idea of a nightmare: 29,865 more pennies. The idea went out in thousands of letters to school principals. No one at Treasury can remember just how that was supposed to help get more pennies into circulation.
A year later a research firm working for the Treasury suggested the government get out of the penny business altogether. Start with nickels. Treasury decided instead to get rid of the report.
Too bad. Pennies are puny excuses for money, best left for skipping across rivers, pitching for wishes, and offering for idle thoughts. A penny is the Rodney Dangerfield of coins.
A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, the penny went from mostly copper to mostly zinc in a penny-pinching move that saved about $30 million. That didn't sit well with everyone, particularly those at the American Copper Council.
At a 1982 hearing, members of Congress were treated to a discussion of how so many zinc pennies sloshing around in the pocket during an electric storm might act as a battery and shock the carrier. "Nobody's been shocked yet, but if you put that in your article, we'll probably get some lawsuits on it," says a man at the Treasury.
This year a Republican congressman named Eldon Rudd introduced a bill to return copper to the penny and forget about this zinc stuff. Rudd's from Arizona; so is more than half of the nation's copper. Not content with a plea to help the copper industry out of a jam, Rudd threw in thention of a puppy that swallowed two of these newfangled pennies and died of zinc poisoning. Maybe kids next.
(The man at the Treasury says they once thought of making pennies of aluminum, but nixed the idea in part because aluminum wouldn't show up well on X-rays of kids who had swallowed them.)
As Rudd would be happy to point out, pennies aren't really from heaven. They start in the earth, in the zinc mines of Canada, Mexico and Tennessee. Most of the zinc ends up in Greeneville, Tenn., in the foothills of the Appalachians at a company called Ball Zinc Products, related to the Ball Canning Co. (You don't suppose they make all those pennies just to fill their own jars?)
There the zinc is rolled out and a giant cookie cutter punches blanks, or planchets, out of the metal, some 10 to 12 billion a year. Twenty-four hours a day, 1,000 strokes a minute, 22 embryonic pennies a stroke. Sixty-three million slugs -- whoops, they hate that word -- planchets a day. The planchets are packed in yellow pine crates, nothing else will do, and placed on 18-wheelers bound for penny mints.
Eleanor McKelvey works at the Philadelphia mint. There the planchets get a face, Mr. Lincoln's. Sometimes things go badly, and instead of pennies McKelvey sees "bottlecaps," with a somber Lincoln looking up from inside the well of a copper cap. Last year she saw 6,114,900,000 pennies struck. "You know, it's like working in a chocolate factory. After a while, you just become oblivious to them. You lose your taste for them."
McKelvey has a pair of earrings made of pennies, but she doesn't wear them. They're at the bottom of her jewelry box. Too much hassle having security guards examine and check them off each time she enters and exits the mint.
YOU MAY NOT know that a penny isn't worth a penny anymore (unless it's a special breed, like the 1922 without the "D" valued at as much as $10,000), but the government has known that for a long time. Fact is, not only does Uncle Sam make money, he makes money making money. You see, it costs only .63 cents to make a penny. That's adding up everything: the cost of zinc, the copper jacket, the man- hours, the overhead. "It's only worth a penny because the government says it's worth a penny. That's the concept of government," says a man at Treasury who, having seen one too many movies, insists he is "on background."
The difference between the cost and the face value is called seigniorage. As you might expect, the government pockets the difference. Last year the Treasury pocketed $57 million from aren't the only coins like that. It costs less to make a dime than a nickel. The seigniorage goes into something called the General Fund, which may be a bit like dropping a penny into an empty well.
Still, dropping a penny into a well can show you what it's really worth. Those wishing-well pennies from malls and tourist trps often find their way to the Philadelphia Mint, which redeems them. There, our spent wishes come in looking like reefs, all green and corroded.
For a pound of pennies -- that's 181 pennies to the pound, and that's the minimum they'll take back -- the mint will pay $1.4585, and not a penny more.
Getting rid of even healthy pennies can be a chore. Federal law used to say a soul didn't have to accept more than 25 pennies as legal tender. That was dropped in 1982.
Once, in a fit of ambition, I went to the bank and got a wad of paper rolls that when full promised to hold 50 cents in pennies. I set aside a Saturday and cleared the floor. I never got past $3 worth. The darn things kept getting caught sideways in the paper throat. I just didn't have it in me.
That's why I've got to hand it to someone like Earl Zimbelman. He noticed that pennies were spilling out from the auto crusher at the junkyard on their way to car heaven. He gathered theup, beaten and bent though they were, and took them to the bank to be redeemed, 317 of them, plus a few odd dimes and quarters coming to a total of $5.45. But the bank didn't want any part of the bruised change. Zimbelman tried another bank, and then another. Sorry, they said.
They sent him to the Federal Reserve Bank but the Federal Reserve Bank told Zimbelman it doesn't do business with private citizens. Makes sense. So they sent him to the Denver Mint. Living in Denver, Zimbelman thought relief was at hand. But the mint wouldn't touch his pennies with a stick.
Now, a lot of folks might have let it go at that and given them to a least favorite grandchild. Not Zimbelman. He wrote Washington: Sen. Hart, Sen. Armstrong, Rep. Wirth. And quicker than you can say "A penny saved is a . . . " they or their aides were on the phone or writing to the Denver Mint asking what was going on.
The mint could take a hint. They told Zimbelman they'd be gld to help him out, on second thought. They gathered his wounded coins into a box and sent them off to the Philadelphia Mint by registered mail. The mint quietly picked up the tab for mailing them, about $3.50. Wouldn't you know it, Philadelphia sent Zimbelman a check for $5.45. Breathtaking what Congress can do.