June 28, 2021

By Arthur H. Gunther III




     I did not have to look up, as I was arranging my pocket money, to know the age of the fellow counting my change. He had to be about 62 or older. The clue? The bill was $11, and I gave him $21. Quickly, I was given $10.

There was no electronic register in this farm store, just a man in work jeans who moments before was hauling plants off a skid and, looking over at the check-out counter, saw me waiting. He just ambled by, nodded hello, added up the cost of my items in his head and said “$11.”

I had no $10 bill, just a $20 and some singles but did not want a bunch of singles back, so I gave him $21, which of course meant that he would flip back a ten spot. I had another motive, and that was to see if people really could still add in their heads and also recall how such common sense currency exchanges as $21 against $11 was the norm.

The fellow came through with flying colors — never hesitated, though I think he was a bit surprised by my old-fashioned move. Until he looked up himself and saw his contemporary.

Today’s electronic registers will also instruct cashiers to give $11 in change after the operator inputs $21, but I can tell you, when I have tried to give some clerks $21, they have handed back the $1 bill, saying “You gave me too much.”

This isn’t a complaint about electronic registers. Progress happens.  It’s just that my generation and the ones before and perhaps for a few years after, had to use their heads to add and subtract, divide and multiply. You could grab a piece of paper, yes, but at least in my fourth-grade class with Mrs. Still, we had to do the arithmetic in our heads. It was a challenge, and I still do it today as a brain exercise.

Countermen and women of years back did it in their heads, too, or added the bill on the same paper bag that would contain your goods, the fellow or gal pulling a pencil from between the ear and head, sometimes wetting the tip out of habit, as if to sharpen skills and be precise, and then do the bill.

A lost art. Quaint perhaps, but also somehow an intimate connection in an ordinary shopping experience. One that came even if you and the counterperson didn’t exchange a word.


The writer is a retired newspaperman.