Brandon Benevento, 7/27/2015
Current Occupation: Teacher, Student, Property Manager
Former Occupation: Carpenter.
Contact Information: Brandon Benevento teaches and studies English at UConn, cares for an aging strip mall, and lives in Branford, CT, in a house he has been remodeling for over a decade, with his wife Amy.
1943 1 C Fake
In 1943 the US Treasury released an oddity, or, rather, six hundred eighty-four million oddities, to the American public: the steel penny. With copper rationed for other small round objects, destined for circulation into other populations, Lincoln and his wheat-back reverse got new digs for the year. Bluish-gray if not rusty, steel pennies are fairly rare today and worth about a dollar.
But somewhere out there exist a handful of 1943 copper pennies struck accidentally when some leftover ‘42 slugs slipped into the ‘43 mix. The holy grail of wheat-backs, a copper ’43 sold in 2010 for 1.7 million. At 6:15 yesterday morning, in my basement, I found one. Picking through the pennies my grandfather left me, there it was. A copper cent with the numbers—confirmed through the loupe held up to the hanging hundred-watt light bulb—“1943” risen from the field to the right of Lincoln’s breast.
I admit to some surprise at finding myself reading coin dates, in early the morning, in my basement. Having a coin collection at all, let alone a safe-full of pennies in paper rolls and plastic tubes and canvas bags (and coffee cans and Chianti bottles and cigar boxes and loose drawers from safes past…) is unexpected. Sifting through them for hours at a time, even more. I can’t stay away. Since rediscovering my grandfather’s pennies—triggered by my father cleaning out his own basement—I’m often downstairs, standing at an old table dragged out from a webby recess, looking at these little disks of metal. And not just his pennies, but all coins now compel a look, all seem to offer potential, and pull me in. In a complete reversal of perspective on mundane experience, I now love it when something comes to a $1.03 and I get a mitt-full of change.
The impulse to look at coin reminds me of gambling. The flare of excitement at the possibility that the coin might be valuable is like picking up a hand of cards. The potential that it’s the exceptional example, the rare combination, is alluring. And almost mechanical. I pick up the coin. Excitement flares up with it. I look closely, and since it’s almost always not special, the excitement turns to disappointment, then flares again with the draw of the next coin. Then the next, the next, the next. I can detail my compulsions, but not explain their origins.
I think of my grandfather, Poppy Joe to me, amassing these same copper disks, looking at them in the same way. Behind the counter of his store—“California Fruit and Vegetables”—he touched each one. I think of Poppy Joe, five-foot-two, a true miserabe, at least when I knew him, turning Golden State produce into an income and turning that income into a hobby. “I remember he had a bucket,” my father tells me one day as we drive through New Haven, passing what used to be his house, “At work, he’d toss in all the wheat-backs that came in, then bring it home and sit on the couch like—” He pantomimes holding a coin up to his eye, scrunched in crazed myopia. “Course, he couldn’t see anything. Lamps all around his head, big magnifying glasses. Took over the whole living room. Tortured my mother.” I stop listening as my father transitions into the familiar territory of the less-than-adequate youth his own father delivered.
In the one picture I have of him at work, Poppy Joe stands in a room of heaped produce. In grainy black and white, the piles blend into the swaths of broadside ads pasted to the wall. I don’t see a bucket, but a scale hangs from the ceiling. It’s the one I found in his garage before we torn it down. My wife uses it as a planter.
Looking at the picture, I think about these fruits and vegetables, long ago digested and gone, sitting in this frozen photographic moment. I picture itinerant laborers picking them in a sunny orange grove while my grandfather slings wheat-back pennies into a bucket at the other end of the supply chain. I wonder about the life of this heaped produce, taken into the bodies of people, made into their descendants; I wonder about the pits and seeds, scraped into the trash. Did any ever grow? How many lives and places did these peaches and grapes and cucumbers touch?
More empiric than dialectic, my grandfather judged produce on its observable material condition. Among the few pleasant things I remember him saying were exclamations of vegetal merit, such as “Melon big as your head!” and “Kiwi like an emerald!” With a tiny paring knife he would cut fruit in his palm, offering a piece at a time, watching his progeny eat.
In the last years that I knew him, these moments occurred when I was called to fix something in his hulking four-family house—an edifice of so many dilapidated layers. Entering that house in my early-twenties, as a young carpenter and an adult-ish grandson, meant facing a physically repulsive amount of work. Plaster sagged and stairways rotted. Plumbing leaked and tiles cracked. The whole place felt like a pile of things to be fixed, and under it all lurked the question, why bother?
I’d come, ready to help and be cynical. Poppy Joe would tramp up the stairs to where I’d be drywalling the second floor ceiling or dismantling a dripping faucet and make me stop working to eat. If it wasn’t an apple or a kiwi, it was a bowl of sausage and peppers, a hunk of chicela bread, a scungilli salad. He’d watch me, complaining about tenants, neighbors, family members, ethnic groups, mortgages, commodity prices or local politics while I ate what I could, wanting to just keep working, to get it done and go home. Once he stopped me to eat a one-clawed lobster—the low cost of which factored heavily in his discussion of it—in the middle of a hot day, with no butter or forks, and one shared cracker. For this, we retreated from the workspace to his dark living room, and sat on the musty sofa. With the mid-day TV at full volume to keep pace with his hearing-aids, I picked at my lobster while he ripped into his, biting it open, sucking out every last bit.
Typically, I wanted to replace what he wanted to repair. About the leaky faucet on the second floor, I’d say, “Come on, Poppy, they’re like 15 bucks at Home Depot.” He never bought it, pun intended, but instead led me down to his apartment, occupying the back half of the first floor, and opened the kitchen cabinet where he kept six big coffee cans full of copper stem-valves from inside faucets past. He probably had two hundred of them—each slightly different in length or thread-type, or in ten other variables. With the one from upstairs in hand, I’d start comparing—picking up each to see if it matched. Of course it rarely did, and even if I found a match, the parts would be too far gone to use—which is why he had them to begin with, why they piled up. Eventually I would just go buy a new faucet, adding the old one’s stem-valves to his collection.
I don’t remember what I did with the cans of copper faucet parts after he died, but it’s a safe bet I scrapped them. I spent weeks cleaning the apartment he lived in for thirty years, following my grandmother’s death, before I was born. I stain-killed walls, scraped grease from kitchen surfaces, picked through clothes. The State quarter series had started a few years before, and he had a cardboard display with flags and eagles and a slot for each installment on the bureau by his bed. Less than half were filled. I debated whether to bring it home or not, but ended up tossing it, quarters and all. I felt bad about the waste, but couldn’t bear pulling the money from the cardboard, let alone keeping the whole sad thing. Were I to repeat the experience, I wouldn’t hesitate; as I age I’m less inclined to keep things with sentimental value; they just pile up. But I would keep the copper stem-valves. Not for sentiment. Nor for use. The newest faucets don’t even have replaceable valves. I just know that now I would carry those cans down my basement stairs, pile them in a corner, and leave them there. Something about metal compels the keeping. It may be the material’s lastingness. Or it may be that it bears the marks of its life so clearly, an indelible fingerprint on a penny, a green drip mark on the stem of a faucet valve. It may just be my grandfather’s blood in my veins. Whatever it is, it's growing, like most of my compulsions. Sometimes I pass one of those yards full of rotted metal amid uncut grass and think “nice” without irony.
I may have lost the stem valves, but I have Poppy Joe’s pennies, piled up in the basement. It’s 6:15 am and I’ve just found the rarest of rare coins: a 1943 copper one cent. I check it again and again, trying to keep calm. I run upstairs and open the computer, mistyping in haste to get “Value 1943 copper penny” into the search box. Six figure numbers appear. I force myself to slow down and read the words on the Cointrackers.com page I open: “watch out for fake 1943 copper pennies that are actually just copper plated 1943 steel pennies….Use a magnet to verify the coin’s content, if it sticks to the magnet it is a copper plated steel and fake.” I feel the extraordinary flare of excitement waver as I head to the kitchen where a magnetized beer opener waits on the surface of the fridge. I hold the penny out, push it toward the other metal. Even as I hope it will slide away and drop, I know that it will hold, that it will stick to the magnet on the fridge as sure and quick as a gold ring drops through water to the bottom of a bathtub tub, that it will stay there. Which it does. Later, I write “1943 1 C Fake” on a tiny envelope, and add it to the collection I’m slowly organizing.