Weekly Discourse Column

Finding Change in Unsurprising Places

I miss the prevalence of coin return slots. As a kid, I couldn’t pass a payphone or vending machine without pushing the coin return button and thrusting my fingers into the slot to see if there was any change inside. Newspaper machines were my favorite and promised the biggest payout when they hit. A reward for persistence and for curiosity. Discovered treasure in a modern world.

I rarely ever put my fingers into strange places anymore, which is odd because nothing bad has ever happened except for the one time I accidentally short-circuited part of the school cafeteria and fried an electric outlet while learning that, in Middle School, it’s always smarter to choose “truth” over “dare.”

My aversion to sticking my fingers in strange places started around that time, but not because everything smelled like toast for a week.

It started with an urban legend that AIDS-infected needles were being put into coin return slots to infect as many people as possible.

Finding change in a payphone - humor column

It wasn’t an immediate deterrent. I still checked every coin return I passed, but much more cautiously, and with a new sense of potential endangerment. My enthusiasm contained by caution, irrational fears began outweighing insubstantial rewards.

I’m not sure when I entirely turned from the kid who reached into every coin return he passed into the man who appreciates complimentary Purrell at a checkout aisle, but something was definitely lost along the way.

The difference between reaching out with the hope of finding change and pulling back in a literal attempt to cleanse myself from the awful parts of the outside world.

Surprises now make me uncomfortable. I’ve purged from my world anyone who thinks sudden pop-ins are acceptable and made my wife swear on our marriage that she’ll never throw me a surprise party. It hasn’t always been this way.

I used to think there was nothing more exciting than a doorbell ring. Now, I hate it.

Surprises, by necessity, need to be unexpected and I have become increasingly resistant to unexpected things.

Most of my expenses are recurring. I practice preventative maintenance with my automobile and appliances. My home heating oil is delivered automatically and all of my vacation time is planned out months in advance.

I ask visitors to call before arriving and to text before they call, to avoid catching me unaware.

I think that’s why I liked reaching into coin return slots so much. While yes, it was a surprise to find some change, it was a place that change should be expected – that was the purpose of the slot. It was designed to distribute change.

I’m still surprised by finding change in unsurprising places, just a somewhat different type of change.

I’m surprised when seeing long-lost friends how much they’ve aged. They may have larger bellies, less hair or wear an air of heaviness around them. And then, after a few minutes together, it surprises me again how quickly the friend I remember miraculously reappears with the same expressions and inflections carried through the years.

Memories like wind-blown snowdriftsI’m surprised by time. It doesn’t work the way it used to. Not all intervals are equal. The years blend together. Memories spanning decades often feel like yesterday and yesterday’s future doesn’t feel anything like today.

My memories surprise me. They’re never where I left them last and somehow always different. Sometimes alarmingly so, but often, imperceptibly, like wind-blown snow drifts on a calm but frigid day.

Temperature swings surprise me. In fact, they’re the only surprises I find impossible to keep from mentioning. Coworkers, cashiers, strangers on the street – nobody is spared from my incessant prattling when, since yesterday, there’s been a shift of over twelve degrees or enough that it doesn’t seem quite right. And strangely enough, they’re all just as surprised by it as me. Their comments come as naturally as a peek into a coin return slot.

I don’t think that the impulse to reach into those coin return slots ever had anything to do with money. It was about appreciating the stroke of luck upon finding something entirely unexpected in the very place you would expect to find it.

Whatever form it takes, I hope I always continue finding change in unsurprising places.

NEXT WEEK: Holy Night

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