Until about August 2014, I’d spent most of my time in New York City looking up. I’d carry my camera along for miles on urban hikes, snapping photos of old signs and layers of peeling paint and architectural details. But that summer, following a breakup and questioning everything that had once seemed alluring on those long walks, I left the camera behind and started looking down. I didn’t have the energy to see what I’d once seen, but mostly, I didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew and have to make small talk.
That month, I noticed something strange. There had been several moments while I was walking through the city when I literally kicked a piece of spare change. “Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” is one of those childhood phrases etched into so many of our beings, but as an adult in NYC, it never held any superstitious weight. If anything, it was something you’d avoid. God knows why that penny is there — at worst, a drunk just vomited it up after accidentally swallowing the change from his nips, instead of putting it in his pocket; at best, someone bleeding from the face used it to plug up their nose briefly before the ambulance arrived.
Still, it was hard to ignore the coincidence, and I was definitely in need of some luck. I decided to accept the risk, and I started picking them up.
I began finding them everywhere I went, like they were laid out right in my path just for me. Like any weird belief, especially one that might involve the plague, I quickly assembled a set of rules:
1. The found money must clearly not belong to anybody standing around, or must obviously have just been abandoned (like the many times people will lose a piece of change, see it there on the sidewalk, and just keep on walking).
2. It doesn’t count in someone’s house, unless you’re helping them move and you find it under a piece of furniture (though the original owner reserves the right to first refusal).
3. Don’t unnecessarily impede the flow of pedestrian traffic (meaning countless pennies passed over while going through turnstiles at busy subway stations) or endanger yourself (countless pennies passed over in crosswalks while trying to beat a light).
4. Avoid the obviously gross ones (which are surprisingly few, but includes a penny next to a Muni Meter that was literally surrounded by dog turds).
5. If you find one close to someone who is asking for spare change, give it to them.
I tend to pick up the ones I find with my left hand (saving the right for emergency snacking), and store them in my left front pocket until I get home (which sometimes means change tumbles to the floor of friends’ apartments at 4am). Then I store them in jars that are minded by small plastic guard dogs/ducks/cats.
By the last day of that year, I’d found 87 individual coins ($2.43 total), which I took, in the jar, to a local shop on New Year’s Eve, counted them out with the owner (who was graciously patient and a little touched by the project), and put the money toward the tiny gold ring I wear all the time now (maybe it covered the tax…maybe).
I walked out of the store, crossed the street, and found another penny.
The following year, 2015, was much the same, but a bit more intense (not as intense as it is for some), as anyone who walks alongside me knows well. I definitely scan sidewalks more, my eyes tuned to the distinct shape of a coin, my ears to the sound of one that’s been dropped. But I still find them right in front of me, wherever I happen to be going. I know it’s just a coincidence, but it often feels like a reinforcement, like, “Yep, that’s the corner you were supposed to turn,” or, “Uh-huh, this is the seat and this is the room where you are supposed to be right now.”
And it wasn’t just change leading the way. Over the year, I stumbled across things that are far luckier than any penny (though the two crushed pennies I found are pretty awesome, too).
One cold night in March after eating pierogies in Greenpoint, the same day I’d sprained my ankle terribly but didn’t tell my in-from-out-of-town friends as we walked through a museum and then all over Brooklyn, we stepped out of the restaurant and there was a ring, perfectly sized to the finger next to the Lucky Penny Ring finger, and embedded with an amethyst, which is my birthstone. That’s if it’s real — the purple stone popped out the next day while I wrote an unanswered Craigslist post about having found it, and turns out it’s hard to distinguish between gems and plastic. I superglued it back in place and have worn it every day since.
The same month, while walking with friends in Carroll Gardens one morning, the streets were covered in change — by the end of the day, I’d picked up nine pennies, two dimes, and a nickel. But I also found something I never thought I would, though I’d hoped. My two friends — not to mention all the Sunday-brunch pedestrians on Court Street — passed right by the neon orange bit that was placed near a light post, but I saw it and knew immediately how lucky I was. Local artist Beriah Wall has distributed “hundreds of thousands” of these coins over the years, but they’re still hard to find. I wonder if I just missed him passing by that corner. Best thing I found all year.
Still, there was an incredible accumulation of regular U.S. change, much more than the previous year. The biggest score came the night before Halloween, when I was visiting friends in Boston. We were walking to a chili cook-off, sipping spiked hot apple cider from travel mugs, when we began the uphill climb of an overpass. First one, then more — a couple dozen pennies, dimes, and nickles covered the sidewalk, as though a stolen piggy bank had been dropped and abandoned.
The last coins I found were on the way to turning in the year’s batch on New Year’s Eve. Walking to the exchange machine at the supermarket, I found a penny on the sidewalk, then a dime inside the store. Two families with kids also used the machine for their own New Year’s rituals, trading in the change they’d squirreled away over the year. The machine would not accept eight of my pennies (too eroded and destroyed to count as money anymore? I’ll keep them in a separate jar, for future years’ rejects).
After leaving the supermarket, I found the first penny on the next block.
Total number of coins I found in 2015 (counting U.S. currency only but not crushed pennies, plus three dollar bills — two found together on 5th Avenue in Sunset Park and one picked from the floor at a Nobunny show): 863, for a total of $26.03. Here’s how it breaks down:
$1 x 3 = $3
$0.25 x 27 = $6.75
$0.10 x 76 = $7.60
$0.05 x 27 = $1.35
$0.01 x 733 = $7.33
I feel pretty lucky these days, so instead of using it to buy a representational token for myself at the end of the year, I donated it to CHiPS, the soup kitchen and homeless shelter located on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. I don’t know exactly how many lucky pennies I found in the surrounding neighborhoods of Park Slope and Gowanus, but I know it was a large portion of them, and maybe those who rely on CHiPS could have been the ones to have found them, instead. Hopefully that accumulated luck makes a small dent in all the good they’re doing over there.
If you’re feeling lucky now, too — the kind of luck that allows you to be in a safe, warm home, surrounded by loving friends and family, delicious food, a comfy bed — maybe you’d like to share some of that luck, as well. If you want to make a small (or large!) donation that has a big impact — CHiPS says $25 provides 15 meals to its clients — consider matching my $26.03, or whatever you can spare. You can make a donation to CHiPS online here. Or choose a charity you love, and give them that small token of luck now (why wait until the end of the year?).
Then if you need some replenishment, just join me for a walk this year.
Follow my 2016 change progress on Lucky Penny.