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Work of Art: A two-bit effort

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By Art Trujillo

One can almost see and hear them now: Louella, Patsy, Angela, Louise, Dolores and Julie leading a cheer. These cheerleaders for Immaculate Conception School went through the motions as they shouted:

“Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. All for the Colts, stand up and holler.” They chanted that way back in the ‘50s.

Much is implied in that shout. First, you may have surmised that if eight bits equal a dollar, a “bit” is 12-1/2 cents and that the Colts are either a basketball or a football team. And you may already know the school no longer exists.

I was drawn to the argument someone made a few years back about how inadequate coins and currency are. If we’d all been born with only eight fingers, we wouldn’t have the dime or the half-dollar, or, for that matter, any other current currency or coins.

During Colonial times, a Spanish milled dollar, a commonly used coin, often got divided into eight parts, pizza style, with each segment becoming a bit. Put them all together and what do you get? A dollar. The literal slicing up of the coin served as a convenient way of making change. Now aside from the derogatory meaning that often goes with two bits, as in a two-bit politician, the coin ought to be re-issued. It’s just the right quantity and value for many smaller transactions.

But it won’t be, as long as people continue to be born with 10 fingers and the same number of toes. Like people who suffered learning the British pound, pence and halfpenny, Americans would have trouble fishing out three bits for a 30-cent transaction.

But back to cheerleaders. A rival basketball team, the Santa Fe Demons, hosted the Colts during a tournament and must’ve liked our cheerleaders’ “two bits, four bits, etc.” cheer and decided to do us one better. After halftime, the Capital City crew shouted out a bi-lingual version: “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a peso. All for the Demons, stand us and seh-so.”

“Seh-so?” With a short “a”? Sez who? Well, some cheers work, some don’t. Fortunately, our cheerleaders didn’t attempt a tri-lingual quid pro quo.

Even back then, I wondered why people used terms about which they had little knowledge. “What’s a ‘bit’?” To many, “bit” is a paltry amount or the first letters of an insult, or what the dog did.

So when do we hear the term “two bits”? That’s the amount barbers in the olden days charged for a shave and a haircut. But aside from that, the meaning of two bits usually connotes something cheap, gaudy or tawdry.

I searched for the Spanish equivalent of two bits and got rescued by Merryl Kravitz, an education professor at Highlands, who said that in Spanish, the term is “dos reales.” There’s even a video on the subject and a band with that name. Although the bit or real has been out of production for centuries, there remain traces of its utility.

For example, Kravitz said, some people today, clinging to terminology of their ancestors, continue to use terms that long ago faded into oblivion.

Once, when I was 11, selling Optics in the most productive places — Las Vegas taverns — a fellow Optic seller, Joe Guerin, emerged from a saloon called the Casino. Excited, he told me an intoxicated man had bought all his papers, “Y me dio cuatro reales.”

Well, wanting to take part in this bonanza, I entered the bar. But first, let me explain that a “real” meant nothing to me. “Cuatro” did, and I would settle for four of anything, as long as they were coins or currency. And in a way, I did even better than Joe. The drunk man handed me a quarter, with the pronouncement that he’d given me “mis ultimos reales.”

The real perk for me was that he’d given me his last two bits but allowed me to keep the newspapers, which I sold elsewhere and came close to planning my retirement cottage.

Nevertheless, I paid for my flirtation with riches. Thinking about the man in the bar upset me, causing me to lose sleep. What if that act of philanthropy cost him his marriage? What if his kids starved while people like Joe and me luxuriated?

Oh yes, a million thoughts raced. I even thought about the man who had embezzled $100 from his boss but was overcome with guilt. So after the customary tossing in his sleep, he decided to mail back — anonymously — $50 of the pilfered amount. He attached a note explaining how bad he felt and added, “If my conscience continues to bother me, I’ll mail you the rest of it.”

I actually returned to the Casino with the idea of settling with the man, but he wasn’t there. I never saw him again. I was convinced, at least for that afternoon, that I would have done the right thing by returning his reales. But the next day ...

Let’s abandon hopes of seeing a bit or a real again. But could their return come anywhere near to costs to manufacture coins today? According to USA Today, it costs 1.25 cents to make a penny, 1.23 cents for a nickel, 2.99 cents for a dime and 7.33 cents for a quarter.

And if a penny saved is a penny earned, one might actually be losing .50 or 1/2 cent in the bargain? Go figure!

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.