When I arrived a minute late for my 1 p.m. tour of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (301 14th St. SW), the guard was not interested in my Metro SafeTrack tale of woe.
“You’re supposed to be here 15 minutes early,” he said.
I should have known that an organization that prints money, and therefore keeps track of every single piece of paper that enters and exits its printing facility, would be on the anal-retentive side.
When I returned at 2 p.m. for the 2:15 tour, a guard let me and 29 other people into a long hall that may have contained fascinating historic information about printing money. I’m not sure, because we were hustled past the displays and only allowed to stop when we reached a set of benches arrayed around a video screen.
“Hi, I’m Katie,” said our guide, a young woman with a chipper voice. “Please enjoy this short video.”
The video began with hypnotic images of printing presses, while a soothing female narrator recited a litany of facts, including the number of acres the bureau’s buildings occupy, the date they were built and the number of workers therein. When the lights came up I felt drowsy, and my fellow tourists all looked a bit glassy-eyed too. “Do you think the government just implanted thoughts into our brains?” I asked the man next to me. “Ha ha,” he said, edging away.
Katie led us into a long room with a view of a factory floor. A few workers waved up at us from among the massive machines processing reams and reams of fast-flying paper.
“Cool!” exclaimed a boy in an Atlanta Braves hat and shirt. “It’s moving so fast!”
The machines were impressive, but even better were the funny homemade signs on the walls: “Free samples, tomorrow only” and “Imagine how I feel, I printed my lifetime salary in a few hours.”
Meanwhile, Katie told us things that were so boring, my brain rejected them immediately. Here’s all I managed to write down: “25 percent linen, 75 percent cotton. $300 million in building. Atlanta Braves kid keeps stepping on my heels.”
Then she said something that caught my attention. “In 2003, we switched to designs that included a subtle background color while still retaining that American look and feel.”
I had to disagree — I liked it when our money was green. “What’s with all the colors? It looks like Monopoly money these days,” I complained. “It’s to decrease counterfeiting,” Katie explained, as if color printers were difficult to come by.
She led us into another room that seemed pretty much identical to the first: giant machines, endless stacks of paper, a few workers, a faint chemical smell. Then, something exciting happened: A buzzer went off, a red light flashed and one of the printers cranked out a very wrinkled piece of paper. “Paper jam,” Katie explained.
“I hate those,” one woman said, her voice dripping with venom for coworkers who break the printer and then sneak off without saying anything.
Changing the subject, our guide pointed out a woman on a stool who was flipping through a stack of bills. When she finds a misprint, she pulls the bill from the stack and has a replacement bill printed, Katie explained. “You can tell it was a replacement if it has a star at the end of its serial number,” she said.
I looked through my wallet to see if I had any special bills. “It’s not worth anything extra,” Katie added before I could ask.
“Now,” she said, “we’re going to the gift shop, where you can spend money on money.”
This is the part I had been looking forward to. I wanted to buy a bunch of $2 bills, but when I got to the counter, I discovered that $2 bills cost $7.95.
“Shouldn’t they be $2?” I said to the saleswoman.
“They are uncirculated. And they come with this,” she said, showing me the fancy envelope that justifies their nearly 300 percent markup.
As I watched people line up to buy overpriced money, I remembered the hypnotically boring video and wondered if there might be a link.
Possible brainwashing aside, the tour wasn’t a terrible way to spend 40 minutes. It was certainly worth the price of admission (free). And now I know that greenbacks are 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen — a fact that will come in handy if I ever get involved with money laundering.
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