(Short story written by Liz Kazandzhy, 2011)
Ever since I was little, I wanted to change the world. Not to become rich or famous, though that could very well happen, but just to leave this place better than I found it. My dreams as a child included a space voyage to Mars, being elected President of the United States, and dozens of other aspirations. It wasn’t until college, when I discovered I had a knack for chemistry, that I figured out how I was going to make my mark on the world. I was going to find a cure for cancer.
Four years of late nights in the Berkeley library got me a bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry. I then packed my bags and headed to the other U.S. coast to attend medical school at Johns Hopkins University. I never knew Baltimore would have such an impact on my life.
One evening, during my second year in med school, I went to the local Safeway to do my grocery shopping. As I waited in line, I pulled out my iPhone and started organizing that night’s to-do list. As I was fitting homework around finances and fixing my incompetent laptop, something caught my eye and took my attention off the screen—an old man in front of me, bending down to pick something up off the scuffed linoleum floor.
He was very frail, and his body trembled as he reached toward the ground. His movements were painfully slow. My mind began to imagine what things would be worth exerting such intense effort, and when he brought his hand back up to eye level, I could see that it was merely a penny. And not even a shiny penny—a dark, beat-up one that looked like it had spent its petty little life being run over by cars and bathing in grease. He gleamed at the one cent like it was a cherished discovery, then tucked it safely into his pocket.
I was intrigued, and I asked as politely as I could, “You stop to pick up pennies?”
He turned around, a crooked smile gracing his wrinkled face. “Of course I do! You don’t?”
“No,” I replied with a chuckle. “Not worth my time.”
I turned my attention back to my phone, thinking the conversation would end there, but he spoke again. “What amount of money WOULD be worth your time to stop and pick up?”
“I don’t know,” I replied after thinking for a moment. “Maybe a buck.”
“Well, son,” he responded. “I bet I’d find a hundred pennies before you ever found a dollar.” And in an instant, he was swept away to the nearest available checkout register.
The comment left me speechless, and my eyes dropped to the ground, half motivated by pensiveness and half searching for Mr. Washington on the ground to prove the old man wrong. But I knew he was right—I’m sure I had passed over far more than a hundred pennies in my lifetime. Yet no dollar bills.
I drove back to my apartment that night and put my to-do list to work, but I couldn’t get the old man’s words out of my head. And that image—his bright blue eyes, far too alert for how old he must have been, piercing mine. “I bet I’d find a hundred pennies before you ever found a dollar.”
I don’t know if it was out of humility or pride, but that night I decided I would test that simple statement. It was such a frivolous thing compared to everything else I was pursuing, and I laughed at how awkward the task “Look for pennies” seemed sandwiched between “Study for the USMLE” and “File this year’s taxes.” But I had to do it. It was the only way that the fragile voice echoing inside my mind would be stilled.
And so, I looked. In my classrooms and labs, on the bus, in parking lots, on sidewalks—everywhere I went. I’d pick it up and put it in my pocket, just like the blue-eyed man, then deposit it in a jar when I’d get home. I was going to invest in a piggy bank, but it occurred to me that that would cost far more than the amount I was making in my penny business. The jar was good enough for me.
About a month after I began this little ritual, I was shopping in Home Depot, and I noticed a rusty little Abe Lincoln peering up at me. As I leaned over to pick it up (it was penny number 50!), I noticed something sticking out from under the shelf—a wallet. I picked up both, deposited Abe in his usual resting place, and opened the wallet. It belonged to Charles Demes, according to the driver’s license, and this man was most definitely not poor. I thumbed past the Andrew Jacksons and Benjamin Franklins, as well as a few of his many credit cards, until I finally found what I was hoping for—a little sheet of paper with a phone number on it.
I pulled out my phone and dialed. A man answered.
“Hi, is this Charles Demes?” I asked the other line.
“Yes, it is,” he replied. “May I ask who’s calling?”
“My name is Steve Collins. I’m in the Baltimore Home Depot, and I believe I just found your wallet.”
There was a sigh of relief. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear that,” he replied. “I’ve been worrying about that all day.”
I smiled, relieved at his relief. “Well, I’m going to be here for probably another twenty minutes or so if you wanted to stop by.”
“Thank you so much,” he said sincerely. “I’ll call you when I’m there.”
I picked up what I needed and got the call while waiting in line. He met me there, and after I jokingly quizzed him about his date of birth and whether he was an organ donor, I handed him back the unscathed wallet.
“Thank you so much,” he told me again. He was a sober-looking man in his forties, and though his face looked stern, his eyes were humble and slightly moist with emotion. “This is probably more than you care to know, but my life has been really difficult lately, and I was beginning to doubt that there were good, honest people in the world. You proved me wrong today.”
He shook my hand and we said our goodbyes, and then I paid for my items at the nearest checkout register.
When I got home, I went directly to my penny jar as I always did. But before I dropped the fiftieth penny in, I paused. I took a seat in my kitchen chair and held that copper coin up, looking Abe straight in the eye.
There was something different about this one. Maybe it was the fact that it marked the halfway point to the coveted dollar, or perhaps because it led me to help Charles Demes. But whatever the case, it made me contemplate. Why was I picking up these pennies? Becoming rich was never a goal of mine (not that pennies would help that cause much anyway). Maybe it was simply to heed my conscience’s advice to remember that experience with the old man. But even so, why did that conversation have such an impact on me?
Deep in thought, I began to turn the penny around in my fingers, and I noticed something I’d never noticed before. Above the Lincoln Memorial were the words E PLURIBUS UNUM. I pulled out my phone and looked up the phrase on the internet. It was Latin for “out of many, one,” originally referring to the thirteen colonies joining into one nation.
Out of many, one. I looked at my jar—my one jar full of pennies. I imagined it filling up, one penny at a time, until I had far surpassed my intended dollar mark. And how much more satisfying it will be to have 100 pennies rather than one dollar bill! And somewhere, someone else is passing up pennies left and right, waiting for something more.
And what about Charles Demes? Would I have passed him up, being so determined to follow my to-do list brick road to finding the cure for cancer? If it wasn’t for a penny, I most certainly would have. Like in the store, my eyes fell once again to the ground, and I understood why the old man was right. During my lifetime, I’m sure I had passed over far more than a hundred opportunities to have an impact on the world, yet none that were distinguished enough to be “worth my time.”
E PLURIBUS UNUM. One world changed. But not by one person. And not by one act.
Ever since I was little, I wanted to change the world. I have not become rich or famous, though that could still very well happen, but so far I have left this place better than I found it. My dreams as a child included holding elite positions and making visible and valuable contributions to society. It wasn’t until college, when I met a wise old man, that I figured out how I was going to make my mark on the world:
One penny at a time.