See A Penny, Pick It Up
"...And all the day, you'll have good luck!" That was the jingle we kids growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s and 40s would recite. Those now rare Indian and ubiquitous Lincoln pennies were the most important coins and monies we could imagine. The Great Depression was still very much around as I held my mother's hand during her daily and weekly shopping tours throughout the many individual neighborhood stores on 170th Street just off the Grand Concourse and nearby Mt.Eden Avenue.
Supermarkets had not become a part of our society as yet and almost each food group was carefully shopped for in individual and favorite stores with every penny becoming an important value in the transactions. It was not uncommon for my mother to walk city blocks away to save a penny or two on a household staple touted by neighbors as a "bargain not to be skipped".
Our family's daily expenses were centered around these pennies as I often would be sent down the four flights of stairs from our apartment to the corner newsstand to buy my dad The Daily News, then costing two cents. Loose cigarettes were sold at the corner candy store for a penny apiece and "Don't forget to ask for kitchen matches," he would shout after me. Penny candy was sold during my lunch hour next door to P.S.64's schoolyard on Townsend Avenue, and how about the hot sweet potatoes sold from a cart? We street kids just could not turn down these and other penny treats.
As tight as money was in those days, I also remember my mother wrapping two or three cents in a piece of newspaper and letting me toss it out our kitchen window to the alley below, where an old man played a violin or sung a Yiddish song to coax a small living from the tenants. These few cents obviously made a big difference in his life as well.
1936 was still a hard year for most of us Bronx residents, but we found ourselves humming a new tune, Pennies from Heaven, words and music by Arthur Johnson and John Burke. Many popular singers recorded this song, but who would argue that the famous crooner of the day, Bing Crosby, wasn't the best? What a sight, I thought then, as a little kid, listening to the lyrics, if pennies could actually drop down from the heavens to buy us lots of goodies.
Today, when I leave my local restaurants and shops, a supply of pennies usually sit in a dish alongside the cash register, now free for the asking! I am constantly reminded of those coming-of-age days during my Bronx childhood and how important those cents were in our lives. I might not want to return to those hard times but definitely know that The Bronx was truly a wonderful place to grow and learn what real value was all about.