Sunday, June 1, 2014

An Unplugged Nickel

There are times when you are minding your own business, only to be set upon by a wave of nostalgia, in its way as persistent as a parking lot panhandler.  Either one, the nostalgia or the panhandler, leaves a bittersweet aftertaste.  The nostalgia seems to want to glorify the past by evoking memories of persons, places, and things that still remain dear to you.  The panhandler reminds you of your own ups and downs, how it seemed you'd never get back to the ups because here you were, trapped in the downs.

In some ways, nostalgia and panhandlers are your polestars, reminding you of what was good, when it was good, and when it wasn't.  You seek them both with some deliberation and experience the two quite by the accident of whim.

Nostalgia and panhandlers become important indexes of how you're doing at any given moment, much in the manner of being able to check the weather conditions at whim on your cell phone.  Your present visit with nostalgia came as a result of your encounter of a five-cent piece, a nickel, on your desk.  The coin reminded you of the times when a single nickel was a treasure, something you could exchange for a candy bar, a small box of raisins, a small bag of pine nuts, a donut, even a balsa wood glider that would provide hours of mindless pleasure and adventure.

Two nickels for a comic book, three for a Big-Little Book, four for a satisfying lunch at The Farmer's Market on Third in Fairfax, five made a quarter, an entire quarter of a dollar, which invariably took you to a different level of speculation, thinking about the things of even greater consequence you could begin to save for.

Having a quarter was a serious enough matter that you did not carry it with you, a defense against splurging all of it on a pack of Hostess Twinkies, a Royal Crown Cola, and a comic book, which you would then take to one of the less populous areas of the La Brea Tar Pits to sip, snack, and read away the afternoon.

The intervening years have changed the cost of things but not the sense of the boy with more than one nickle in his pockets, intent on some adventure.  You can switch the nostalgia of the preteen boy, out in search of adventure for more modern times, when you'd use adventure as an excuse to stray from work, find a book store, secure your treasure, then take it to a coffee shop.

The lesson carried forth from this casual discovery of a nickle on your desk relates to treasure.  There were times in your past when the discovery of a twenty-five-cent piece, either in your pocket or the cushions of a sofa meant the ability to buy a pack of Camels, which was then a treasure.

Tastes change, attitudes change, treasures change.  Some of them are worth revisiting in nostalgia.  The one homeless person you regularly give money to is not in fact a panhandler.  You asked him if you could buy him a cup of coffee.  

You did so because the first few times you saw him, he was reading a book, cozied up in the doorway of a building just off State Street, reminding you of the times you'd be cozied up in the shrubby outliers of the La Brea Tar Pits.  You admired his reading tastes and when you stopped to discuss some of his readings, his exact words to you were, "I get my treasures at the thrift store."

Nothing is lost completely.  Lost things come back to you in dreams and nostalgia.  Sometimes a detail appears in the draft of a story or a dream or a revisit to another time.

The nickle on your desk has a bust of Thomas Jefferson, which reminds you of another nickel you had for some years and may still have.  It is a so-called buffalo nickel from your earlier five-cent days.  The Indian and buffalo busts made each nickel seem more precious.  One day, your father told you about the change from buffalo to Jefferson.  You wished to keep a buffalo because it was precious to you then, a treasure in ways you could not begin to describe.

Now, at this time in your life, you believe you can begin to describe the  regard you felt at the time.  It began with equal helpings of adventure and something you felt a kinship with.  At the time, you'd not seen an Indian or a buffalo in real life, only in films.  But even then, you knew you would.

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