The Madness of Getting Money Back

I will never understand how people give change. Allow me to tell a little story to illustrate.

Monday evening, I’m at Starbucks. Planning on doing a little journaling amidst the buzz of caffeinated young people who have all, oddly, chosen to wear dense headphones while mashing away at their tiny laptops. Like, what’s the point of the communal atmosphere if you’re wearing blinders? I digress.

I sidle on up to the counter and scour the menu. I know full well that, like always, I’m going to order a large coffee because I’m cheap and dull, but it never hurts to look. Ooh something about Kenya! And now they’re serving iced coffee that’s brewed with cold water! I’ll bet that’s not a rip-off.

The coffee stooge, a greasy teenager in an ill-fitting black polo, asks what I want and I tell him. He punches the order into the register, then withdraws to fetch the coffee. I slide my wallet from my back pocket and crack it open to examine my options.

Credit cards, as always. Two, because I like to keep it simple. These are my go-to option, every time, always. But this Monday evening, I’ve just come from the bank. The ATM to be specific, and so I have a wallet stuffed to the gills with twenties desperate to be cracked.

I draw one out and offer it to the coffee servant. He takes it and gives me my coffee. I set the hot cup down on the counter while he makes change. $16.93, he owes me. I remember because the incident is seared into my skull forever.

The moment arrives. The one I dread. A bulge of phlegmy fear rises in my throat like a loose balloon as I proffer an open palm to receive my change. I know what’s coming, I know exactly what is going to happen, and despite my fear, my panic, my nerves rattling like a lightning storm, I know there is nothing that I can do because this is how change is provided in our society. This is how everyone does it and everyone is goddamn doing it wrong.

Bills first. The coffee slave lays a ten, a five, and a one across my sweaty, trembling palm. Great! Excellent! Strong start! Now that the bills are in my hand, I can slide them right into my wal-

And then the change comes. 93 fucking cents poured down on top of the bills like water on a drowning man. My wrist nearly buckles.

As soon as that change hits the bills, I fall apart. I lose any semblance of a human being who can sort money. Gripping the wallet in my left hand, bills and change in my right, I attempt to simultaneously slide the bills into the wallet while also passing the change into my left hand. It’s hard to describe because it’s impossible to achieve. I am Moses parting the fucking Red Sea here. 90% of the time, the change falls to the floor in a startling cacophony of “hey look at this fuckup” that inevitably raises every headphoned head in the coffee shop. 10% of the time, the change falls into the wallet with the bills and like, that sucks too, but not as much, I guess.

The change hits the floor and counter, all 93 cents. It’s like Scrooge McDuck in his swimming pool except without all the joy and swimming and being idly rich. Fuck that change, it’s dead to me.

And then, suddenly, I’m in the way of the person behind me, who is already paying for her drink! Somehow she stepped up, examined the menu, asked the coffee shithead about his day, ordered something, and decided on a payment method while I used my two enormous polar bear hands to move money from hand to wallet to floor. Great. Now I’m taking up space at the counter like some kind of idiot who doesn’t know when the conversation is over. Get out of the way already! I tell myself deliriously. You’re making a scene!

Of course, I’m still awkwardly fumbling with shoving the bills into the wallet, fretting over the fact that they’re wrinkling and not going to be properly sorted by denomination and, hell, now I need to pick up my drink because it’s in the way of this lady’s double venti large extra dry ice mocha special jambo slushie colonic, which appears to come with both a funnel and strap-on attachment. The coffee asshole gently pushes my large coffee to the side so he can fit the trough on the counter.

Fuck! I’m sorry everyone! I’m just trying to maintain a little composure while I put away my hard-earned cash rather than simply throwing it in the air and yelling “HAVE AT IT” like a generous prince on festival day. If I had a goddamn second to do this thing, I’m sure it would go extraordinarily smoothly, a ball on a freshly greased bowling alley gliding right into the strike zone.

But no! Never smoothly. Wallet in left hand, some bills still in the right. Change all over the place. Picking up my scalding drink with my right hand. Bills damp because I’m spilling coffee. Hand on fire. Fuck it. Someone’s going to die tonight.

I shuffle away from the counter like a flustered crab, essentials clenched between my two grasping claws, bulging eyes desperately searching the Starbucks for a place to set down all of this shit and pull myself together. Eventually, it happens. Bills into wallet, sorted by denomination. Change off the ground, into pocket, eventually to be tossed in some bowl on my counter. Wallet into back pocket. Drink into mouth. Normalcy resumes.

But it’s a charged, anguished normalcy. The experience has scarred me, the evening now destined to be an unpleasant two hours of trying to figure out just what went so wrong. Journaling, caffeination, communal atmosphere, all on the back burner. I have to delve deep into anxieties about my insufficiencies as a human being, reach into the black hole of my subconscious to find that one moment in my childhood where I was first given change, when I first learned about this hell we all must deal with. Did I overcome it then? Can I overcome it now? Chances are slim.

And it seems like this situation is never going to change. It’s not just Starbucks. Every shop, store, and retailer; every deli, bar, and restaurant; every place in the whole entire world that deals in cash money – inside all of these places, there is a glum, heavy-lidded teenager who is going to place bills in your hand and then place change on top of those bills. He is going to make your day miserable through one small, seemingly insignificant action. If only he knew the power he holds. He could simply wait for a person to file her bills before he offers the coinage. He could change lives this way. Give change correctly to one person and she’ll teach the next. The next will teach others and on and on until finally society is improved, evolved, a shining beacon of hope and empathy. People will laugh and smile! They’ll greet each other with firm handshakes and remember names. Plans will be made for a weekend at the beach house, you know, the one where Laura and John got married last summer. It’s gonna be great.

All because some stupid teenager stopped thinking about whether his gf had looked at his snapchat yet and actually bothered to provide change correctly. Goddamn it.

And don’t even get me started on people who add the receipt to this unholy stack. There’s a special level of hell for those folks and I’ll bet you can guess what their punishment is.

(Their punishment is receiving change)

  2 comments for “The Madness of Getting Money Back

  1. kathy morgan
    September 26, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    If you were rich you could tell the “coffee servant” just toss the change in the tip jar. But you need the quarters for the wash.

  2. coffeehog
    September 27, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    On $2 latte Wednesday’s, I’ve evolved to having $2.12 exact change for the coffee/cash exchange. Oh, the pain of a fist-full-of-funk and another gripping a scalding cup of coffee. Empathy!

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