Monday, September 10, 2007
Pennies, passports and difficult Euros
I have come to realize that not only am I an obsessive collector, but I’m an enabler to other people who are obsessive collectors.
And apparently the collector trait was passed to my daughter, who sent me off to an education writer’s conference in Washington, D.C. with a list of places that have penny squishing machines.
My job was to collect shiny new pennies and squish them at the assorted sites during my down time. Who knew this would lead to some adventures?
And I had my own items to chase. Years ago I bought one of those national parks passports that you are to carry along when you visit a historic site and find the postmark-like ink stamp in the gift shop that records the date of your visit in colorful glory.
I used to keep mine in the car glove compartment, and it indeed has traveled to places with many historic sites like New York and Philadelphia – only to have it never leave the cozy confines of the glove box because I always forget about it until driving back home.
In fact, I forgot about it altogether in recent years, reminded only after reading Neil Peart’s Roadshow, where he recounts obsessively getting his stamped along the East Coast while with Rush on the Vapor Trails tour.
So with pennies and passport I touched down in DC on Friday with three hours to fill before the first session. My daughter’s list showed there was a machine in a store in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Ave. The clerk told me there is a surprising number of people stopping in throughout the day to turn the crank.
This was a good machine, too, because it had some general Washington designs like the White House and Washington Monument, as opposed to the museum-specific machines in two Smithsonian sites.
I cranked out three of the four designs and lined them up carefully atop the machine, then accidentally forgot to set the device properly and printed a design twice. I took two steps over to the patient clerk to get more change, and turned to discover two tourists from Europe picking up my squished pennies.
I certainly didn’t want to be an ugly American, but these people need to know that just because we’re the Land of the Free does not mean they get free squished pennies. Apparently the horrified look on my face required no translation.
Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 0
Walking back, I discovered that Ford’s Theater was around the block from the hotel, but was closed for renovations. But the Peterson House, where President Lincoln died, was open. You know all those paintings of Lincoln on his deathbed surrounded by seemingly half of Congress? Let’s just say some artistic liberties were taken, because that room barely had space for the bed and a dresser.
I got up early the next morning, figuring that time resting is time wasted, especially when there are missions to accomplish. The White House was about three blocks away and was beautiful bathed in morning light. And I was geeked to find that the White House Visitors Center opened at 7:30 a.m., which is about the time I was walking past.
I knew there would be a passport stamp inside, and this would be the first time I remembered to bring it somewhere since July 5, 1999 when I hit both the Lincoln Home Historic Site in Springfield, Ill. and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on my way to a Cardinals game.
Not only were the ladies inside excited to do some stamping, but they gave me a list of all the other places around the National Mall that had them, far more than were indicated in my 1999-era passport.
Then they let me in on a secret: The little Parks Department bookstore near the Washington Monument has one of almost every stamp on the Mall – a one-stop passport-stamping paradise!
Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 1
So I went back to the conference plotting my trip to the book shop after the last session of the day. But I also wondered about Ford’s Theater. It was closed for renovations, but there were a lot of workers running around and maybe they had the stamper available.
During a 20-minute break, I sprinted around the corner but didn’t see any workers. I stepped into the Peterson House and asked the park ranger if there was someone in the theater who might stamp.
“Nope,” he said, then pulled a small box out from under his desk. “I’ve got them here.” Yes! Not only did he have the theater and the house, but one for the African-American Civil War Memorial, which I didn’t know existed. He also said there were two stamps back at the old Post Office Pavilion, which I had already visited for the pennies, and a whole bunch at Arlington Cemetery.
An older woman overheard this and said, “Oh good!” and pulled out her own passport and, I swear, pushed me aside to get to the box. And not only that, she had to test them all on scrap paper to see how well they stamped.
I’m thinking, “Ma’am, I’m on what is supposed to be a bathroom break at a conference and I need to get back quickly.” But she was not getting my subtle hints and I suspected that if I took the stamps before she was done, she might have made sure a second person would have passed away in the house.
I made it back — a little sweaty since I had to jog, but no one seemed to mind.
Stats: Pennies 4, Stamps 3
I embarked on the stamping mission after the last session of the day, changing into cargo shorts with pockets designated for the passport, camera, bag of pennies and quarters and cell phone. I love walking around cities, and Washington seems to have something interesting on every block.
The first stop was back at the Old Post Office Pavilion, where the guard was friendly and nice despite me knocking over his box of stamps and scrap paper, sending them sprawled on the floor. There was one for the pavilion and one for Pennsylvania Avenue as a whole, which seems strange.
Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 5
From there it was short walk to the Washington Monument, which I’ve only seen from a distance. And, as promised, there was a small Parks Department book store near the base.
Before I could finish my sentence, the clerk pointed to a wooden tray with an array of stamps, ink pads and test paper.
I was a stamping fool! Some of these were for memorials I didn’t know about and in one case a person I had never heard of. I quickly filled the pages for the Capitol Region: Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, National Capitol Region, District of Columbia World War memorial, The National Mall and Memorial Parks, The John Paul Jones Memorial, the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the John Ericsson Memorial and the Constitution Garden.
Stats: Pennies 4, stamps 21
With the mission accomplished rather efficiently, there was plenty of time to take in the splendors of the National Mall, starting with touching the Washington Monument then walking across the street to the World War II Memorial, which was much better in person than from what I’ve seen in photos.
Still, you walk through it and are impressed. But you walk away from the brilliant Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials with a lump in your throat.
And that’s OK, because not every Rush album can be “Moving Pictures.”
Walking down to those other memorials along the Mall I stumbled upon some other things, like the JFK Hockey Field. I must do some research on this, because I am unaware of any connection between Kennedy and hockey.
Having made the loop of the Mall and with darkness approaching, I made it back to the hotel excited to discover a Qdoba two blocks away.
The conference ended around 2 p.m. the next day, and my flight didn’t leave until 6:45, so there was some time to squish some more pennies if I hustled.
The National Air and Space Museum was first, and http://www.pennycollector.com/noted there were two machines. Alas, the one of the machines had a big “Out of order” sign. The second was in a lower-level gift shop, where two guys in their 20s were already squishing.
Pretty sweet designs, too: The space shuttle, the Wright flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis and the moon landing.
Stats: Pennies 8, stamps 21
Next I crossed the Mall to the Museum of Natural History, navigating the maze of the lower level and the old-fashioned stuffed birds exhibits to find the gift stores, where two machines awaited.
One was all dedicated to dinosaurs and the other with a spider, elephant, moth and another dinosaur.
I cranked out the first four and noticed a guy in his mid-20s watching me closely. Then I moved across the hall to the other machine and the guy followed. In a thick accent he asked how the machines worked, and showed him how to put in the coins and turn the crank.
He walked over to the first machine, then came back over to me and said his wife would like one, and if there were any that had Washington designs and not museum-specific designs.
I told him about the Post Office Pavilion and that it was only across the street and over one block.
He said didn’t understand, and I told him again, pointing to the back door and telling how you cross the street, turn up 12th Street and there it is.
He said he STILL didn’t get it and I pulled out my map, showed him where we were and where he needed to go and assured him that he could be there in three minutes, four if he stopped to admire the statue of Ben Franklin in front.
He still didn’t get it, then told me how much he liked Washington and that and his wife were traveling around the country. Then he broke out with, “Can’t I just buy your pennies from you?”
“Dude, where are you from?” I asked.
No pennies for him.
But I told him I was glad he was enjoying the country and said the World War II Memorial down the mall was really neat. Then I finished squishing my pennies and set off to the next destination.
Stats: Pennies 16, stamps 21, confused Euros 2.
Over a couple blocks away from the Post Office Pavilion is the Commerce Department, which for reasons unknown to me is the home of the National Aquarium. Since this is a federal department, the security was even tighter than in the museums and my laptop and its case got thoroughly checked out.
I figure checking tourist bags all day is a pretty sucky job, so I thanked the somewhat grumpy guard for keeping me and the fish safe, and she rewarded me with a nice smile and directions to the machine, located outside the gift shop.
But, horrors, the pennies in this location were twice as expensive as anywhere else I’ve ever seen, draining my quarter supply. Luckily the shop clerk was kind and made change. My wife pointed out later that of course the Commerce Department was more expensive.
I cranked out the first three, then goofed by putting in the money before adjusting the crank to select a different design, producing a double of the sea horse.
Then I set the handle for the design I wanted and was about to push in the money when I kid ran up and started cranking the handle.
Now I suppose the proper PC thing would have been to say “Hello, tyke, do you want to turn the handle for me?” But I was not in the mood.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Don’t do that!”
Then mom and dad walked over, and these were the kind of mom and dad who like speaking to their kids in really loud voices so everyone around them can hear them being wonderful parents.
“Oh, Ian,” the mom said. “I guess we shouldn’t be touching that.”
And she was shooting me a look like I was being unreasonable. I reality, I should have scooped up Ian, paid the $5 admission and heaved him into the shark tank. Because you just don’t mess with people on a squishin’ mission and these people didn’t deserve slack like the previously encountered foreign visitors.
Stats: Pennies 20, stamps 21, kid saved from being shark bait 1
I had just enough time to head back to the hotel, get my luggage back and hop on the Metro to Reagan Airport. I slipped my fare card into the machine and it pumped out my $3 in change -- all in quarters.
“Great,” I thought. “Now I get quarters.” This is known as foreshadowing.
Arlington Cemetery is one of the stops before the airport. And I was really tempted to jump out, run up the hill and get more stamps then catch the next Metro — even stood up and took a step toward the door.
But the image of walking up the hill to snap a photo of the Kennedy graves with my luggage clacking on the cobblestones behind me was probably not the dignified scene the cemetery deserves.
I later arrived in Detroit, bummed that there was a two-and-a-half hour layover for a 30-minute flight. We arrived at gate 77 and would depart from 19, way across the long terminal.
I passed on the tram, thinking there was plenty of time and you just never know what you might come across.
Midway through the trek, I saw a Motown-themed music store and thought it might be worth a look.
Except I never made it inside. Because there in front was a previously unknown penny squishing machine. There was one airport design and three for Motown. And here I was with a bag full of quarters and pennies.
The clerk, who said she was standing near the entrance because the music was too loud inside, noticed my glee.
I told her of my assignment, and how we didn’t know there was a machine in the airport.
“Heck, there are more,” she said, pointing over my shoulder where the Henry Ford Museum also had a store — with two machines! Plus, there was a Michigan-themed store down the end of the terminal near my gate.
I was never so happy to have a couple hours to spend at the Detroit airport. I cranked out two from the Motown machine and six of the eight from the Ford Museum — including the Oscar Mayer Weiner Mobile, the Rosa Parks Bus and the Kennedy presidential limo — and all four from the Michigan store, an amazing haul -- and without the demanding Euros and annoying tots.
Stats: Pennies 32, stamps 21, tired travelers 1.
I got home after midnight, and carefully laid out all the pennies for my daughter to find when she got up the next morning. Also set out were the t-shirts from the Hard Rock Cafe and International Spy Museum for my son, who was spared the collecting gene but has his mother’s appreciation for cool attire.