09/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

These Days It's Dimes That Are a Dime a Dozen

Not long ago a friend told me that after he'd spotted a quarter on the street one day and retrieved it, the woman with whom he'd been walking eyed him aghast and said, "You'd stoop for a quarter?!"

That's something I'd never say. I'm ready and willing to stoop for pennies, let alone quarters. My attitude is: You never know when a penny will come in handy, when that found penny is going to add to the three you already have to put towards a charge of, say, $4.99. Hand over a fiver, and you not only get a nickel back, you get rid of the loose pennies you've been carrying around.

As an inveterate stooper-for-pennies, however, I've noticed a recent significant change (no pun intended) on the streets of Manhattan. Yes, plenty of pennies are dropped, some even pressed inextricably into the asphalt. But just as often nowadays, maybe even more often, it's dimes that turn up on the pavement.

You heard me right: Dimes!

You never used to find dimes on the street. So what does this new serendipity mean? Does it mean that people who were once careless about pennies are now so well-heeled--in an economic downturn, no less--that they can be careless about dimes? Is this dime negligence a function of inflation, of supplementary cost-of-living adjustments?

In the realm of coin profligacy, does the rise of the discarded dime mean that nickels were passed by? Or just that the holes in various men's pockets and women's purses are small enough for pennies and dimes to slip through but not nickels or quarters?

Or are quarters in the offing? I can present evidence that they are. I was at a street fair recently when three Beatrix Potter books (published as reproductions of the originals) were being sold for two bits each. At a combined cost of six bits, this was a bargain, but since one of them was The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which I knew but didn't have on my shelf, I decided to lay out a quarter for just the one classic-of-Potter-classics. (It's still a good read.) Then guess what! I hadn't gone more than twenty feet when something on the street gleamed. I looked to see what had caught my eye. You guessed it: a quarter. I'd just been handed The Tale of Peter Rabbit for free.

(This I regard as a positive omen. The library gods meant for me to own the short tail--er, tale.)

It's possible that abandoned pennies, nickels and dimes fit the old saying that whatever goes around comes around. (Like umbrellas.) And I suppose I've lost as much coinage as the next fellow over the years. I know I once gave a cab driver a twenty when I meant to hand him a ten and then leaped from the vehicle saying magnanimously, "Keep the change."

On the other hand, I'm confident that had I kept records, they'd reveal I've found more change than I've lost. Were I to add up the pennies I've saved, it wouldn't come to much, of course. If I've snared a thousand pennies on City streets, that's--what? I'm not too good at higher mathematics--ten bucks? Any real profit there is in the convenience of having that extra penny when you need it.

Among my larger finds: thirty dollars once (a twenty and a ten) at a curb and, another happy time, a torn but salvageable fifty-dollar bill also at a curb. I figure people exiting cabs are often in a hurry (see above) and in their haste forget themselves. I once found a pound coin resting unclaimed on the London underground seat next to me. I was so unused to finding money in England that I looked around to see if I was about to be a prankster's victim. I wasn't.

What I haven't ascertained in this day and age of scattered dimes is their relationship to capitalism. When multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller was handing out dimes to kids in the street (and once to rubber-and-tire mogul Harvey Firestone for an impressive downhill putt), you could see the literal connection, but today not a single Rockefeller is known to be disseminating dimes voluntarily. The dimes are just there, begging the question: Do small-denomination coins adorn the streets in socialist countries?

Who knows? All I know is I'm not making this up. What I say to doubters about the current ubiquity of the one-tenth-of-a-dollar currency is: Look for it, you'll see it.

Just a last word on my finding dimes (and other change): I realize it may suggest that I devote more time to looking down than looking up. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I'd say I divide my time equally between the two endeavors.