August 23, 2013

Summer Musings: Money for nothing

Financial innocence at the Sydney International Terminal.

The boy is about five. In his hand is a two-dollar coin from his father. It couldn't even buy him a candy bar, but by the expression on his face it's starting to look like a triple rainbow. There’s a vending machine 20 feet from him against the wall of the terminal. He looks up at it and marches over purposefully, as if he does this all the time. He reaches up and slides the coin into the pay slot. Without so much as a glance toward the plethora of goodies inside the machine, he moves his hand directly to the change button. Two one-dollar coins roll through the machine and clink to a halt as they hit the little flap covering the money-back indent. The boy grabs them, one in each hand, and runs back to his father, proclaiming “Look, daddy! I had one and I made it two!” He is ecstatic, undyingly pleased by the magic that he and the machine have collaborated to create.

He holds the coins above his head like trophies, seemingly unaware that all he has done is reconstruct the physical form of the money, not the value. His excitement draws looks and smiles, momentarily liberating strangers around him from the acute monotony that comes with an extended wait for a plane. The lady sitting next to me chuckles. Next to the vending machine, a man wearing both a beanie and a fedora[1] looks on with mild bewilderment.

He and his parents are leaving my corner of the airport now, the boy still waving his two coins around like he's a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. To this boy, a coin’s physical existence is worth far more than its monetary value. He is still young, unjaded, inclined to value what can be held over that which cannot. He sees things for their tangible, physical, real value, and not for any abstract one, monetary or otherwise. And for a moment I shared in his worldview. I saw the coin in his hand as just a round metal disc with some dead lady’s face printed on it. Nobody earned it, nobody channeled all their life into obtaining it and others like it. It is but a disc, the product of a fun trick we did with the bigger disc daddy gave us. But as the boy walks toward the other end of the terminal my consciousness is unceremoniously ripped from the cocoon it shared with his, and I am left with my own thoughts, old and dispirited. I realize that as life beats on, the necessity of money will become increasingly apparent, and at some point I might have to deal with this in bulk.

For the fortunate among us, youth comes with a form of oblivion. Indeed, there almost exists a direct correlation between our helplessness and our own ignorance of that very helplessness. The sheer magnitude of work and money that we as people require—the care, laundry, feeding, teaching—is lost on us. As supporting our existence, financially and otherwise, becomes our own responsibility, we come to understand what that support entails—now and when we were young.

So as the boy dances off to the rest of his life, I sit in the Sydney International Terminal, on a threshold between continents and a threshold between ignorant dependence and inevitable self-reliance. Someone had to work to pay for my vacation in this country (wasn’t me); someone works to pay for my college tuition (also not me). But I am fast approaching the day when I'll have to pay for more than just laundry detergent and meals at the Med. One day very soon I'll have to pay for the entirety of my expenses, the entirety of my being. My last shred of financial ignorance will die with that day, and I'll be left holding a creed of responsibility and an electric bill. Then, one day not too long after that, maybe I'll be responsible for more than just myself. Hopefully I'll be responsible for the entirety of someone else's being.

The weight of my financial burden will undoubtedly increase as I leave my youth behind.

But maybe I'll also be able to hand my child a coin, a metal disc, and watch her treat it as she would any other shiny object. She'll parade around with more happiness than a coin could ever reasonably be expected to produce. Ignorant delight will spread across her face, and perhaps, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to steal just a little of it.

Liam Leddy is a second-year in the College majoring in economics and psychology. Summer Musings is a new Viewpoints blog that publishes every Tuesday and Friday through September 27.

[1] I temporarily remove myself from the saga of the young boy to wonder who the fuck this guy thinks he is that he can wear a beanie and a fedora at the same damn time. Then I realize that he is also wearing stars and stripes­–pattern converse and is holding a backpack that has what appears to be hamburgers printed on it. “Oh,” I say to myself.