by Harry Parmenter
There’s nothing like the thrill of finding money, the kind that used to belong to somebody but doesn’t anymore, the kind you can keep.
It began for me back in second grade, Mrs. Frasher’s class on the second floor of the west wing at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Northport, New York. Those were the days of wooden desks with the lift-up top, cubbyhole for your No. 2 pencils in the top right corner. The kind of desk you carved your initials into if you wanted to get in trouble, a vestibule later memorialized by the album cover packaging of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which neatly replicated the top, bottom and inside of the real thing.
Everyone was assigned their own desk each September, back when school started after Labor Day and ended soon after Memorial Day, when kids had a whole summer to grow up and explore the great outdoors, prior to the unfortunate advent of year-round education, pupil-free days and locked schoolyards.
Five rows across, five back, teacher’s station and blackboard up front, huge globe in the corner, the clock on the wall we just knew was slow. Books and supplies in the hollow basin underneath the desktop, your personal safe space for nine and a half months.
Just back from Christmas break, we settled into our places, the hard wooden seatback connected to the desk itself by a metal bar that ran between your feet. A compact, movable student command post.
I flipped open my desk to find unexpected treasure: a silver dollar with President Kennedy’s face on it and, wonder of strange wonders, a two dollar bill! I had never seen such a thing. And it was significantly larger than any other money I’d ever seen, let alone held. Mind you, this was back when the two dollar bill had not only been discontinued, but was more novel than color television.
I remember sitting there, holding the top up, staring at the stuff, afraid to even pick it up. Everyone was pulling their books out to get started as I sat, practically trembling with excitement, not to mention a vague fear I’d done something wrong.
“Harry, are you with us?”
“Umm, yes, Mrs. Frasher. It’s just that…I found something in my desk that’s not mine.”
All eyes turned towards me as our petite French leader buzzed towards me.
Scott Hutchins popped up out of his seat behind me, straining for a look. “Is it a switchblade?”
“Sit down, Mr. Hutchins,” she said as she stood beside me. If you acted up, she addressed you as “Mister.”
I pointed, dumbstruck.
“Oh, my!” she said brightly, her warm eyes widening. “Now that’s interesting!” She picked up the coin and paper, turning them over in her delicate hands. She held the oversized bill up to the morning light streaming through the giant bank of windowpanes at the far side of the room. The class inhaled.
“This is not yours, Harry?” she said, fixing me with a look usually reserved for Mr. Hutchins.
“No, Mrs. Frasher. I just opened my desk and there it was.”
“Well then perhaps this is your lucky day,” she said, smiling. “We shall see.” With that she turned and walked away, Kennedy and Jefferson in tow.
Too young for avarice (that would come later), I somehow felt guilty.
Robby Latino was all over me at recess. “How did it get there?” he said, jabbing his finger into my shoulder.
“How should I know?” I said, returning the favor.
“She took it away! It’s yours! Finders, keepers!”
I hoped he was right. The episode had thrown me for a loop.
My father took a dim view of the situation that night at dinner on the back patio, my older sister and brother glad to be out of the school spotlight for a change.
“Young man, are you telling me the truth? You didn’t get that from someone?”
My favorite macaroni and cheese smelled different, like cafeteria food. Prison cafeteria. I pushed my breadcrumb cheddar pasta elbows into a corner of my plate.
“No, Dad, it was just there!” I welled up, prone to that sort of thing back then.
“Let’s not turn on the water works.”
I felt like a criminal, even though I hadn’t genuinely done anything really bad since Timmy Smith and I nailed some guy’s car roof with a couple of iceballs in February, and he stopped in the middle of the street and chased us up into the woods behind my house.
“I found the money in my desk! I don’t know where it came from!”
My brother smirked, seeing an opening. “Can I have some more, Mom? The crusty part?” He knew that was the last of it.
I cursed him with a silent “shik” under my breath, an oath I’d just heard on the playground. It was months before I learned the correct four-letter word wasn’t a razor brand.
“Well, this is a matter of some concern,” my father said. “Will you pass the Wishbone please, Mother?”
It wasn’t like he didn’t have bigger fish to fry, literally, given that he was managing a Howard Johnson’s in Commack. But somehow, it felt worse than the year before when I’d really pushed the button.
“So how was your day at school, son?” he’d said, as we broke bread under the same patio umbrella.
“Great, Dad! I made a new friend! He told me how his Mom got mad at him for messing up his room all the time and said, ‘Goddamnit, Glenn Conlon! I’m sick and tired of cleaning up after you!”
The Earth Stood Still. Needless to say, Glenn never came over for a play date.
A few days after finding the booty, Mrs. Frasher held me back at the lunch bell. “Harry, I think you’re going to like this,” she said, as she picked an envelope off her desk and handed it to me. I could feel the weight of the coin and see a faint insignia inside it. “It’s all yours. Finders, keepers, as Mr. Latino would say.” Nothing got past her.
“Thank you, Mrs. Frasher,” I said, beaming.
“You’re most welcome, Harry.” Her eyes twinkled. “And remember, don’t spend it all in one place.”
Ever since then, I thrill to the sight of lost currency, any amount, anywhere, anytime. Once my young son and I were shooting hoops at his deserted middle school court, and as I chased a loose ball, I spied the unmistakable color of money on a bench up against the fence. I dribbled over and Cazart! A twenty! A ten! A fiver! Two singles, three quarters, two pennies and a dime!!! My son was as jubilant as I, a proud paternal moment, the passing of the torch.
Forsaking Mrs. Frasher’s childhood counsel, and having long ago decided—upon something I read—to vicariously spend found money immediately, something fun, we went and bought hot fudge sundaes and a pair of Super Soakers. The perfect ending to another bittersweet weekend divorce visitation.
Last year I was walking in Canyon Country one twilight eve, and there peeking out of a pile of leaves was just the tiniest edge of filthy—and I do mean filthy—lucre.
Ten feet from a fire hydrant on the fringe of an unsuspecting neighbor’s property, there it was: fair game!
I reached down and pulled out the confetti tip and gazed upon a tattered, weatherbeaten $20. Andrew Jackson’s visage barely intact. It was almost too embarrassing to redeem. But not quite! I felt like Jackson at The Battle of New Orleans as I drove to McDonald’s to do the deed. Two burgers later I left Golden Valley, crisp bills settling into my billfold as I dropped the change into the charity box at the cash register. Giving it back.
My latest find was at Quest Diagnostics inside Vons. There for a blood draw, one of my least favorite experiences, I bent over to tie my shoes before being called into the nurse’s house of pain.
Lo and behold as I tied my left sneaker what did I see on the floor against the wall behind me but a quarter! And then, as I bent further into a compromising position to retrieve it there lay another quarter, inches away! All this on top of finding a dime in the parking lot on the way into the store. It was only sixty cents, but the thrill remained the same.
My juvenile glee at discovering unexpected treasure always returns me to Mrs. Frasher’s class, way back then. The mystery of how that money found its way into my desk remains unsolved. My parents held onto it until I came of age, although I’d occasionally take the two dollar bill from inside their desk, just to look at it once in a while. I’d like to say I kept it, but I didn’t. I spent it on something fun: an Alice Cooper record.