I drove up to a fast-food joint in Waterville the other day to grab a cup of coffee.

In a hurry, I did the drive-through, ordered the coffee, and was told it was $1.07.

I approached the window, whipped out a dollar bill and a dime, handed it to the clerk and waited.

The young man just looked at me. “Do you want your change?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Do you want the three cents?” he asked back.

I looked at him as if he were from Mars. “Ah, yes, please.”

“OK,” he said, and handed me three pennies.

Am I missing something here?

I know three cents is not a lot of money, but it was the first time a clerk had ever asked me if I wanted my change back.

Driving away, my mind raced. I wanted to tell the boy that when I was his age, three cents meant a heck of a lot.

Back in the 60s, it would get you three pieces of Double Bubble Gum, including funnies wrapped around them with waxed paper, or three Squirrel Nut candies. Or in some cases, three pieces of candy per penny, which meant nine all together — a virtual steal. Maybe that clerk at the window was short three cents in his cash drawer and needed to make it up, I thought; in which case, I gladly would have given him the three cents.

I worked at a self-service gas station in Hartford, Conn., while working my way through college many years ago and I was required to balance the paperwork at the end of my shift. If I was short, I had to make up the difference out of my own pocket.

There were times when I’d toss in some of my own pennies if a customer was short; sometimes they even left a penny or two, saying, “Keep the change.”

But I never asked a patron, when he handed me a $20 bill for $19.97 worth of gas, if he wanted his change.

It would have been tantamount to saying, “Go away. We don’t give change here.”

And I would have been without a job the next day.

When I was a kid, old people often said that we of the younger generation didn’t appreciate the value of a dollar.

In the 1920s, you could buy a loaf of bread or a newspaper for just a few cents. Imagine the reaction a sales clerk would get back then if he asked a customer whether he wanted his change.

As my mind tried to wrap itself around the fast-food clerk’s comment, I imagined his reasons for asking if I wanted my change.

Maybe he collects coins and is interested in finding some real old pennies to add to his collection? If so, I can understand that. My husband collected coins when he was a child and found it fun and interesting, so I’d gladly sell that clerk all my pennies if he had asked.

Have you ever noticed how you often see pennies lying on the ground as if they were litter, with people just disregarding and stepping all over them?

If someone were to travel to every town in the U.S. and collect all the discarded pennies, he might actually become rich.

Do I sound like an old penny pincher? Well, in my college days I was. I’d collect pennies in a big jar for months until it was full. Then, I’d fetch penny rolls from the bank, roll the coins and trade them in for bills — sometimes as much as $10 per load. And back then, $10 was a lot of money.
Anyway, back to that sales clerk.

It wasn’t so much the number of pennies I was owed that bothered me as the fact that the clerk asked if I wanted them.

Do businesses now train young workers to ask customers if they want their change?

The ironies of all ironies: My sister and I enlisted my husband to fetch us some ice cream from a local vendor last week when we were in Skowhegan.

He returned moments later with a story that sounded eerily familiar.

“I gave the woman $10 and was supposed to get 16 cents back, but she asked if I would take 15, rather than 16,” he said. Seriously? Twice in one week ? I’m beginning to think I live in the twilight zone.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays.


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