882: The Pathology of Currency

882: The Pathology of Currency

882: The Pathology of Currency


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

In the summer between 6th and 7th grades, my algebra teacher employed a handful of students to turn vacant lots into community gardens — my first job. With kids from school, I swung a double-edged weed cutter and chopped down overgrown stalks. I bagged dust-encrusted trash. When we were done, the razed lot between row houses left standing looked like a missing tooth. I stared up at the ghost of a staircase on an adjacent wall and imagined the family that once lived there. But then, we planted decorative trees, potted raised beds with rich soil and flowers, and constructed a wooden walkway. Where once stood a blighted marker of social neglect, a treasured, communal park emerged.

On a Friday, I was formally handed my first paycheck. The cellophane window of an envelope showed my name. I experienced the gratification of helping to transform my own neighborhood and of having earned my own money — the outcome of my body physically working, and sweating in the sun. Over dinner, I boasted how I was going to buy a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. My mother frowned.

On Monday, she took me to the bank where I learned about interest, which felt foreign and magical. What, you mean to tell me, my money works like I do, but just by sitting in your bank? I walked out with a blue savings book. In that moment, I inched closer to becoming an adult, watching the ebb and flow of my labor in dollar signs. And yet, in adulthood, it’s not always so simple.

Today’s poem humorously parodies the secret nature of money and the endless, if not stressful, cycle of working and spending.

The Pathology of Currency
by Matthew Lippman

You build a bank. You put money in it.
No one knows how much money is in it.

Not even you know how much money is in it.
You deposit 1000 dollars and it’s a mystery.

You take out 1000 dollars and it’s a conundrum.
When you look at the statement the statement says 5 dollars.

How did that get there? Was it a bird with a five-dollar bill?
No. It was five birds with five one-dollar bills.

But there’s still 25 cents left after you spend the 5 bucks on an acre of land in Vermont.
When you were a kid, you could buy a slice of pizza from Village Pizza for a quarter.

You wish you could get a slice for a quarter, now. No.
You wish you were a kid running across the street,

dodging cabs and buses and bullets
to play stoop ball with your pals. That’s funny.

You never used the word “pals” when you were a kid.
Never used that word when you were an adult.

Now that you are an adult you use the word “boys” or the word “brothers.”
Funny how you only got that far.

You got far enough to build a bank with a vault and some safe deposit boxes. 
But there’s nothing in there, only clouds of money

that evaporate onto steel and granite and leave you befuddled.
It boggles your mind, and all your panic attacks are dollar kamikaze bombers.

You go across the street for a slice. You smack 5 dollars down on the counter
and there is a thousand dollars out there, floating around between memory and desire,

denial and survival.
The cheese is so hot it burns your tongue.

The sauce drips down your arm
in dollar signs.

"The Pathology of Currency" by Matthew Lippman. Used by permission of the poet.