As part of a let’s-be-friendly gesture, I once asked my then-next-door neighbor, James, if he’d help me unload some lumber from my pickup.
I’d bought several pieces of wood to shore up our fence, and as I noticed him sipping Sun Tea on his porch, I sweetened the offer:
“And if you help me, I’ll give you a whole dollar.”
“A whole dollar?” James asked. “How about if I give you a whole dollar to leave me alone?” That’s how neighbors in Camp Luna get along. By the way, he did help me unload — a three-minute job — but refused my magnanimous whole dollar offer.
Now that was at least 10 years ago, and admittedly, a dollar bought more in those days than it does now. Which leads to the question of what exactly a whole dollar will buy.
Remember, I’m a product of the era when we kids often would cluster around one parent or the other, one of us making a gesture in which we’d form a circle with our thumb and index finger, a non-verbal plea for “spare change.”
Naturally, many of us Railroad barrio denizens were resentful when some classmates from the Silk Stocking District were able to spend a quarter during recess, buying treats from the little candy stand at Immaculate Conception School.
Our then-homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Mucho Dulce, often asked the money-carrying pupils to share some of the candy with the less-well-heeled. Of course, they assured the nun they already had provided for the rest of us, but the largesse never really materialized.
My luck at home wasn’t good either. Often, Dad simply didn’t have a penny on him. Other times, one of my older siblings would have gotten to him sooner and milked the spare change out of Dad’s pockets, with Dad’s reluctant consent.
As has been the policy since March 1, 2003, when I wrote the first installment of Work of Art, I expect mass denials among my older siblings. They’ll claim I was always first in line. But let’s move forward, anyway.
We didn’t ask for much, considering the times: a nickel would have lasted us all day. The dollar candy bar we now buy at Walgreens would have cost a nickel.
I used to wonder why some mornings Dad had change in his pocket and other days he did not. It’s clear now that if he made a purchase downtown, he’d probably produced a few coins and gotten some in exchange. Those were the realities in an age when a dollar an hour was a fair wage on which people raised families.
Today, that policy is inconceivable. Coins, unless you have a bunch of them, are virtually worthless, and more and more frequently, we see coins larger than pennies in the checkout-counter tray that used to have only pennies.
I don’t carry coins anymore, choosing to put them into a piggy bank and using currency instead. Being coinless has another advantage, that of being truthful when I explain to a panhandler downtown that I have no “spare change” for him. Of course, I’m too much of a softie to take that tack; those who approach me at storefronts usually get a bit of the folding stuff.
The idea of what money’s worth today really struck me during the July Fiestas, when I saw a young mother grease her son’s palm with money. I was taking photos at the time and zoomed in on the area, and I got to watch the scene almost as if in slow motion.
The child wanted some treats at the Plaza Park. First, the young mother pulled out a five-dollar bill, but the kid, jiggling his hand in the way people do when they want to wrest the full amount of peanuts out of a vending machine, waited for her to place yet another bill.
This scene got repeated until the mom pulled the money back into her hands and replaced it with not one but two twenties.
That total is much more than a whole dollar of yesteryear, but the buying power probably isn’t a lot different.
So what can we buy with a whole dollar? A soft drink? About the only place where one is available for under a dollar is Traveler’s Cafe.
Several places charge close to two dollars for a soft drink, iced tea or even coffee. But the fact that tea and coffee often come with refills brings the price down a smidgen. Yet that’s still quite a stretch from the “dime for a cup of coffee” mendicants used to ask for.
Not any kind of economist, I nevertheless wonder by what percentage money has inflated since I was a child. Ten times, perhaps? When the Optic increased its rack price to 50 cents several years ago, that seemed a huge increase. Now, does anyone notice, or complain?
Is it possible to buy a burger with the works for less than five dollars? Can one enjoy a full meal anywhere in town for less than 10 dollars?
Lowe’s Supermarket has an aisle dedicated to treats under a dollar.
Elsewhere, one can probably buy a roll of Life-Savers or a pack of gum and get change from a dollar; a small bag of chips might yield a bit of change; and certain items on the “value menu” of fast-food places cost close to a dollar.
We’ve come a long way since the days when a whole dollar would light up a kid’s eyes. Inflation certainly isn’t going to abate in our future, and a Coke some day may sell for five bucks.
It seems apparent that the next time I have lumber to unload and my burly neighbor sits sipping tea, I’ll need to up the offer to two whole dollars.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.