I found an ugly quarter in my pocket the other day.
Scarred, tarnished, encrusted with something (Rust? A glacial fizz of patina? Non-specific oxidized crud?) that I couldn't bring myself to scrape at with one exploratory fingernail, it had somehow slipped into my pocket with its prettier siblings. I couldn't even tell what year the coin was minted, but the half-dissolved surface made it look old Roman coins I'd seen once in a French museum, with Julius Caesar's stamped profile just barely edging over the threshold of visibility.
My first instinct was to find another quarter. I was heading out to grab a cup of coffee and there was no way I was going to hand that thing over to someone and expect goods in return. But if I scrounged up a clean quarter what would I do with the dirty one?
For a moment I considered buying a smaller cup of coffee, but that would leave me with the ugly quarter still in my pocket, and I couldn't stand the thought of that crusty thing rubbing around in my jeans all day long. What if weird granules from the rim of the coin ended up in my pocket? Then everything else would get granules on it, and who knows what granules might do? Suddenly my laundry money and keys and fortune cookie fortunes are covered in fine brown granules and it'll never end, no matter how many washes my jeans go through.
We should never suffer an item contaminated with granules. Especially tiny flat granules that seem to coat surfaces and grip on with molecular little hooks and claws.
Anyway, I couldn't keep the quarter. On the other hand I couldn't throw it away, because money is still money, still a ghost of value clinging to a physical object. I had no choice but to spend it, which meant handing it and its granules over to some barista, whom I hoped wouldn't look too closely at what I was handing over. In my imagination the barista would be attractive woman, and the debased coin would be horribly symbolic of all my sexual anxieties, and then the imaginary attractive woman would go home and write a Facebook post about the loser who gave her an ugly quarter as if it were no big deal, just, la-di-da, I'll have an Americano, even though my money is gross and full of sexual failure granules.
There would be a photo of me too, possibly from a security camera. How would she get ahold of security footage of me to post on her Facebook wall? What a resourceful barista.
So I decided to go to the Subway, because the coffee may be iffy but there was a good chance I'd be served by the guy with the lazy eye or guy with the disquietingly visible front tooth (why are his other teeth less visible? I still can't figure it out), and I could at least say Hey check out the ugly quarter and the guy would shrug and throw it in the till without a second thought.
As it turned out, Lazy Eye and Visible Tooth weren't around. I ended up ordering from a young woman. I handed over the pile of change, waiting for the moment when her eyes would fall on the ugly coin or her fingers would brush against it and register its off-putting texture. But as I watched, it was clear that was she too preoccupied with the other details of the order to notice the money. In other words, she had better things to do than worry about the texture of one coin of the hundreds she handled every day. Her life was probably full of granules and she was just fine.
Or was she just very polite and simply ignoring the ugliness of that one coin? Somehow this was even worse.
Sorry, I muttered.
She offered me a bright, phatic smile. She hadn't quite heard me, but she was aware that I was trying to communicate something.
Yeah, sorry, I said again. Ugly. I twitched my chin and shoulder in the direction of the money, now in the till. It looked like a mild seizure.
She smiled again, probably taking pity on the nice man with severe Tourettes trying his best to order a cup of coffee. Here is your coffee, sir. Have a nice day.