bile of us money
An Island Point of View Nantucket Essays

Cash Is King

essay by Robert P. Barsanti

I was holding up the line. And the beach wraps and the baseball hats were annoyed. I wasn’t quite worth the anger or the stare, but, I was slowing down the process that would bring them back to Chip, Becky, and the folks on Daddy’s deck.

I didn’t hold them up for long. Eventually, I found a few singles, left them in the jar, and went on my merry way with a Key Lime Pie and a bag of mussels. With the gray-haired obstacle out of the way, my betters were able to return to their cottage with the guacamole, or the lobsters, or the Peruvian salt chips.

In the great transformation, we somehow did away with cold hard cash—replacing coins and paper bills with dismissive gestures. Customers approach the register and tap their cards, swipe their watches, or flash the screen. The exchange of product for promise takes place in the time it takes to look up from Instagram, smile, and turn away.

The modern world has brought us many bright items of genius. And, while standing in line in an older store with cash registers and card machines, the pleasure of chatting and exchanging the news of the day grows increasingly frustrating after two or three iterations. I would like to pour my coffee, grab a muffin, make a dismissive tap on the glass, then head on my way without the languid line. The pleasures of conversation fades the further back in line you stand.

However, the convenience of the “treasurer’s tap” carries some challenges in my life. First, my success with the technology of the twenty first century has been spotty at best. Even with the the simplest “wealth swipe,” I am likely either to bollocks up the machine or cause a bank run in San Mateo. More importantly, I don’t want anyone, or any AI algorithm, to track my purchases. I don’t want to have a conversation with any delicate and dear loved one about the cinnamon twist I bought right after I bought a donut. Nor do I want my phone to suggest I get the twist the next time I buy a donut. If my waistline and wallet can keep a secret, the rest of us can as well. Finally, I like to think that my main goal as a consumer is to keep my money out of the plutocrats’ hands as much as possible. The banks like to get their beaks wet on every single transaction. The fish store pays for the privilege of having the “wealth swipe” by sending a small percentage of every transaction to the computer company, and to the Governor, and to whatever bank issues the cards; a lot of beaks need to be kept wet. Wherever there is a wet beak, there is a banker, and wherever there is a banker, there is a plutocrat.

On the other hand, cash has the subversive independence from all of the digital trails, signatures, and handshakes. It crosses everybody’s palms, without a peck or a beak. The five dollars I spend on coffee becomes the five dollars someone spends on lunch becomes the five dollars for a tequila shot, and then the five dollars in the offertory basket on Sunday morning. It travels, untouched, untracked, and undiminished, from one hand to another.

Therefore, those grimy, sweaty, and common bills circulate like honey bees through the town, pollinating the flowers and ripening the fruit. Where the digital cards go from hand to screen, the actual sums travel from one off-island account to three or four other off-island accounts. That digital tip will eventually make it into a paycheck, but only after stopping off to at least one digital firm, two banks, and the governor’s office. My friendly coffee pourer is more likely to spend his augmented check on phone bill, cable bill, rent, or toilet paper from Stop and Shop. Not on something fun.

Whereas cash, at some point, will probably end up here on Dave Street. I would much rather sponsor a spilled beer on the dance floor than an accruing column on an Excel spreadsheet at Goldman-Sachs. When I leave a tip for a server—be it for coffee, donuts, or Lobster Thermidore—I feel I am trying to sponsor a good time. Service work on Nantucket, in particular during the crazy weeks, can be long and painful. In my experience on the other side of the counter, the hours spend searching for the Splenda packets for Chad and Becky can be easily exchanged for some high spirited night time hijinks with the Beat Drops. Or they should be.

I suppose some of us tip because we are expected to—the screen comes up with its choices, and the great black bird of guilt squawks when you think of just initialing and walking away. I would like to believe that most of people in line behind me at the fish market are acknowledging the luck and good fortune that brought them to a place where they can buy eight live lobsters for dinner that night. Like tossing coins into the fountain, they acknowledge that the world has blessed them with enough money that they can toss some to others. That’s what I would like to believe.

For me, I see myself standing behind the register. I have spent a lot of time waiting for paychecks, amassing stacks of loose quarters from the piggy bank, and writing checks that will be good when the calendar turns. In the frozen-pea-andtomato- sauce-days, when I the extra cash, I didn’t save it: I bought a cup of coffee, or a glazed donut, or a draft beer. When I see myself standing at a register next to a plastic pickle jar, I remember how much I watched that jar fill up and what pleasures those folded bills might pay for.

If I could buy my younger self a drink, I would. So I do.

And the line can wait a little big longer while I search for the right bills so my server can, too.

Articles by Date from 2012