unforeseen consequences of pattern matching fitness
More than a year ago, I embarked upon a Project I call "Making Money". What this entails is, picking up from off the ground every coin that I see in passing.
- Annoys and embarrasses my wife
- Thought experiment:
- How much money lies on the ground of the city at any given point in time?
- If I were chronically homeless, and spent the entirety of my days combing the alleys and streets and parking lots for loose change, how much money could I reasonably expect to make?
- "Something to do", while taking walks; a sort of one-player game (simulator)
I recall back in the 90s during the heyday of personal computing before the big showdown with Microsoft and anti-trust regulators, people would tell you with sort of dumbfounded awe how Bill Gates was so rich that, were he to see a one-hundred-dollar bill lying on the ground, it would not be worth his time to bend down and pick it up, because he made so much money per year, per day, per minute, per second. At least I distinctly remember someone having told this to me, as a child. Wow. Big if true. Is this true? was it?
A number of years ago we were out with friends in the city at a swanky tapas place. There were maybe ten or twelve of us all told, and, of course, as is the way with these sorts of places, we wound up ordering many plates, besides drinks. When the bill came, it was fairly large, but that was okay, because we were all gainfully employed young professionals. However, there arose a minor fracas. Two of of the people at the table got into a casually heated debate about which should be allowed to put the bill on her credit card. This was no disinterested act: fully understood among all of us was that we others would be expected to digitally transfer to the person whose card was used a sum of money exactly equivalent to one tenth or one twelfth or whatever of the total amount of the bill (plus tip). No -- what these two people were after was cash-back "points".
I was so revolted by this whole affair, by mutely watching as two gainfully employed young professionals squabbled over the right to claim some scraps of digital lucre, that I later related the whole scene to a friend of mine, who well understands that it does not cost very much to be generous. He powerfully equated the real situation to a hypothetical one in which you and your friends are walking down the sidewalk, chatting, chewing the fat, when at about the same time several among your group spot, lying on the sidewalk up ahead, a five-dollar bill. Suddenly, two or three of your number dash forward, elbowing one another out of the way, scrambling to scratch up the filthy note lying on the ground, before any of their friends can do the same.
With taking on this Project, I set for myself a clearly definable goal: to scavenge enough money from off the ground while walking the streets of the city to buy for me and wife each the Citywide Special from our favorite local dive bar.
It goes without saying, probably one of the best things about city living is the currency of bipedal locomotion. Listen: if you cannot, or will not, conveniently walk to and from, at a minimum, the grocery market, the liquor store, the bar, the café, the brunch spot, the dinner restaurant, the park, the post office, and the corner store -- it ain't city living.
Anyway, I like to walk, I walk a lot. Not just to and from places, but aimlessly, around. Gradually, then, I began to pick up coins off the ground. Vastly more pennies than anything else, which is not surprising. What are they good for? But interestingly, more dimes than nickels. I suppose because dimes are much smaller than nickels, more likely to slip out of one's possession, go unnoticed. And very few quarters.
Gradually, too, I began to worry that my susceptibility to path dependence -- my predilection for walking the same walks each day, invariably walking the same route to and from the places I most frequently visited -- was effectively robbing me of the opportunity to realize greater returns. But, I am an animal of habit, fixed in my ways. So it goes.
But also, I learned. I actually got better at identifying coins on the ground, in many cases partially obscured by other elements of detritus, and I got better too at anticipating where I was most likely to spot a coin, say in a gutter or a parking lot. I realized that most often I turned up more loose change not when actively scanning the ground, but when unconsciously allowing my gaze to wander freely while thinking about something else -- but after having prompted myself, when I walked out the door, by wishing to find some coins and make some money. I realized I had to a degree trained my mind to spot certain patterns, suggestive tells. Walking in the dark, or past a pile of leaf litter, I would stop for no reason immediately apparent to myself, bend down, and pick up a coin. How about that.
Much more alarmingly, I began to dream -- about finding coins on the ground, and scrambling, with typical dreamlike ineptness, to gather them up, one by one. I have had many such dreams. What does it say about a man, that he can uncritically adopt a Project of "Making Money" in jest, as a piece of private-performative art, and inadvertently recalibrate his subconscious to generate fantasies of scrounging for specie?
Friends of ours came to visit us. One morning, walking from the boathouse café to the brunch spot, a track I not often traveled, passing by a recently constructed "luxury" apartment building next to the freeway, my dream came true. Bonanza! There on the sidewalk before us, and in the mulch along either side, a congeries of pennies. It seemed some soul must have willfully dashed upon the ground a handful of the things. I wasted no time, but got right to work. I believe I made thirty-seven cents that morning. The coins weighed heavy in the pocket of my short pants the rest of the day, a windfall reminder.
After every walk on which I made money, when I returned home, I would deposit my earnings in a small ceramic bowl my wife had thrown. It filled up. Eventually I found it necessary to transfer my safe deposit from the small ceramic bowl to a slightly larger ceramic bowl she had thrown. I was making money. I counted it, and found I had in my possession a little more than three dollars.
One day I walked to the brunch spot, and afterwards meandered over to the vegan bakery for a doppio and glazed donut. I stood outside gobbling my donut, in a kind of a daze. And then: I saw on the ground, evidently having been blown up against a neighboring fence, a ten-dollar bill. Seek and you will find.
I had now made enough money to buy me and my wife each a Citywide Special from our favorite local dive bar, and to tip the bartender. It was a strange feeling: to realize some measure of financial security. But still, I never stopped searching. I never stopped dreaming. Is this not the grindset?
I have made money, picked up coins from off the ground, in full view of those whom I hold most dear, friends and family, and before more strangers than I can count. Is that not based? or what?
I have at times acted against my better judgment, in the interest of my Project. You might say, It has come to have a mind of Its own.
By the gas station, next to the freeway, a man has erected a hovel, fashioned out of all manner of trash. One day as I passed by I spotted half a dozen pennies scattered on the street in front of this ramshackle abode. A miniature bonanza. I picked them up, and went on my way.
This shameful behavior essentially reminded me of the scene from the Wayans family's classic hip hop gangster genre parody film, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, in which a panhandler couched on the sidewalk sheds his disgusting rags to reveal a neat fashionable business dress suit underneath, picks up his Big Gulp cup of change, takes from his trousers pocket an electronic key fob, and unlocks the Mercedes parked on the street beside where he had been asking for alms. The lunch hour is over.
(Perhaps the most powerful line from the film: 'We were arrested for being Black on a Friday night.')
One day in the grocery market I discovered a few coins someone else had left in the change return receptacle of the self-checkout station. I took them. Some days later, while walking to the grocery store, I saw, across the street, a disheveled man walk past a parking meter and surreptitiously push open the flap of its change return receptacle with one of his fingers, poking around for spare change. It had already occurred to me that one is more likely to find coins in the vicinity of parking meters -- but I had never gone so far as to pry into one.
But what I had been a witness to made me realize: I had been LARPing as a certain type of person. Meanwhile other people were by no means playing in a simulator. Vonnegut reminds us to be careful about pretending to be something else. Also, Gwern on 'Why Do Hipsters Steal Stuff?'
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? In the third grade, I wanted to be homeless when I grew up. In class, I would sketch out in my notebook blueprints for the alley in which I would live. I told my parents and their friends that I wanted to be a hobo when I grew up. At an even earlier age, my mother once asked me, exasperated, 'What am I going to do with you?' and I replied, 'Throw me in the dumpster.' I cannot fully explain this bent of mind. So it goes.
More germanely, it early on occurred to me that, since covid and especially with the accelerated adoption of cashless commerce, there is likely far less money lying on the grounds of our cities than in the past. Not only that, but any given person who passes by you on the sidewalk is less likely to be carrying cash, of any amount, let alone coins. It has become for many an annoyance, a nuisance. Witness others empty their pockets of pennies onto the ground. Who can bother.
I read recently that beggars in some asian countries have taken to wearing around their necks laminated placards printed with QR codes, which charitably minded passersby may scan with their smart phone in order to transfer to those poor souls some discrete quantity of digital currency. Of course, for many of us souls, the instinctive response has become, 'Sorry, I don't have any cash on me.'