Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pennies in the Fountain

It was the summer of 1979. I was 22 going on 23. I was a graduate student in math at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was spending the summer doing as little as possible.

I'd made enough as a teaching assistant during the school year that I could afford to coast through the summer. I did have a small summer job, grading papers for a few math classes. But this took me at most an hour or two a day. The rest of the time I hung out on State Street, drifted around Madison, hit the various campus libraries, or sat in my apartment reading books and drinking Point Special beer with the air conditioner running.

I was young. And I had deliberately planned things so as to have the summer free. A three-month vacation! I thought, why wait till I'm old and grey to enjoy retirement? Take retirement on the instalment plan early!

Apartment. On Langdon Street, up above the KK, right across the street from Memorial Library. Just a block off State Street. Sometimes on a summer afternoon or a sunny evening, I would drift down to hear a street preacher rhythmically chanting, or watch a juggler juggling flaming torches on the State Street Mall. Someone would ride by on a unicycle. Hey, this was Madison, the Berkeley of the Midwest, in the late 70s. And you know that the late 70s was the most mellow of times.

Less than a block from my apartment was a large fountain, on the vast open stretch between Memorial Library and the Wisconsin State Historical Society. A big fountain, I'd say 15 or 20 feet across. And if you looked down into the water of the fountain, you'd see pennies here and there. Pennies which passersby had thrown into the fountain.

So. One hot summer afternoon, sitting by the fountain, I got a bright idea. You know, 22 going on 23, let the normals gawk if they will, I thought. What I did was, I took off my shoes and my socks. And in shorts and T-shirt, I stepped over the edge right into the nearly knee deep waters of the fountain.

Wading around now out in the fountain. Bending over, reaching down into the water. Picking up pennies out of the fountain. A penny here, a penny there. As Ben Franklin might have put it, a penny liberated from the fountain is a penny earned.

People were indeed gawking as they walked by, at the sight of a young fellow wading around out in the fountain. Fortunately no campus police happened by. One bluenose, no older than myself, sniffed, "I hope you're finding enough money to make it worth the embarrassment!"

Ah, I thought to myself, a blinkered slave to the ossified conventions of society! Let him rot in the darkness of his own enslavement to blind social conformity! Like I say, I was 22 going on 23, and rather contemptuous of those who meekly submitted to good citizensheep.

Had I come along a generation later, I'm sure I would've had tattoos and/or body piercings. As it was in those now long ago days, I expressed my dissent from the trammels of bourgeois society in nothing more radical than hair that hung down to the bottom of my shoulder blades. That, and fishing for pennies in the fountain.

If I remember, I made a grand haul of 23¢. Which in those days would've put me better than halfway toward the price of a hamburger at McDonald's.



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