The first time I encountered “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” was many years ago when I was vacationing in New Hampshire, away from the concrete and crime of New York City. I had never heard of or seen this penny exchange, and money sitting out in the open on a store counter astounded me. Free money, just sitting there for the taking or leaving. Want to pay the exact amount for your purchase, but you’re missing three cents? Take it from the bowl on the counter. Have pennies in your pocket or purse that you’d like to get rid of? Leave them in the bowl on the counter. Money was out in the open, with the bowl of cash not being stolen. It was unheard of in my world 250 miles to the south, especially when a family member’s car in Brooklyn was broken into simply for open change, totaling less than one dollar, that was sitting in the front seat console. To this day, even though I no longer live in New York City, I never leave visible items in my car in the fear that someone will break a window to steal my umbrella. (I had a car stolen from its parking spot on Riverside Drive in New York City, but that’s an entirely different and escalated trauma.)
It’s time to honor the honor system. With the world seemingly spinning out of control with war, gun violence, murder, and crime, let’s focus on the positive encounters we have, however infinitesimal they may be, while we’re sharing each other’s space and time.
A recent late-spring day trip to The Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover, Massachusetts brought me to a table of plants that seemed to be for sale. Since there was no staff on duty that day, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to make a purchase, but ambled over to admire the plants and noticed the sign. The plants were for sale, with instructions to please slip the money into a box on the grounds, in the absence of staff. Take what you want. Even though there’s nobody to police you, we trust that you’ll pay for it.
The mill that I live in now is a daily example of the honor system. The delivery carriers have key access to the lobby, and packages are left inside for the tenants to retrieve. The tenants don’t steal each other’s packages. Mind-boggling, considering while I was growing up in Staten Island our family mail was routinely stolen out of our mailbox, until we arrived at the point where we could no longer have packages delivered to our own home. Last week, a mill tenant had two packages delivered from Barnes & Noble, and they sat in the lobby for five days. Advertising “Nook HD,” the boxes sat untouched. Perhaps they didn’t contain Nooks and simply contained books or sundries. Regardless, two boxes advertising “Nook HD” remained in plain view for almost one week.
Inside New York City, you still can’t drive through some tolls without waiting for a mechanical gate to release upward and free you to continue your journey–once you’ve paid. Outside New York City, there are no mechanical gates–you pay, but you’re free the entire time and there’s nothing physically stopping you. You simply keep driving. They trust that you’ve paid the toll. Granted, using New York City for this example might be unfair given the millions of vehicles that pass through the city. There understandably has to be a check system to collect those non-gated tolls. One would think, or hope, or dream, that with the money they do manage to collect, they wouldn’t have to charge a $15.00 toll to cross one bridge–the Verrazano-Narrows.
The issue is obviously urban vs. rural. I’ve spent time in Chicago and Los Angeles and don’t recall seeing “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” in either metropolis. But imagine a world overrun with “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny”–or a bigger-life-picture equivalent–in cities large and small. Honesty, authenticity, transparency, simplicity: The honor system is all of that rolled into one. Let’s honor and practice it when we can, for maximum impact in a world that needs positivity.