If you happen to win a “clean” five dollar bill at FFRF’s next convention, let me explain where it came from.
Anne Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, coined the term “clean money” in reference to godless currency. If you’re lucky enough to own some currency issued prior to the 1955 law requiring the godly motto, you can see that the back side appears uncluttered — hence Anne’s “clean” adjective. The annual drawing for increasingly rare “clean” money is a popular FFRF convention event.
This story began when the doorbell rang one weekend in late June 2020, during the early days of the pandemic when strangers weren’t ringing doorbells. A woman I’ll call “D,” carrying an overflowing shopping bag, stood solidly at our door. She told me she’d been kicked out of the Salvation Army shelter for 28 days and needed a place to stay.
Our city had been experiencing a series of severe thunderstorms and rain deluges, so I was shocked that anyone could be expelled in such weather. “D” claimed she would be leaving town soon (I later learned that this was wishful thinking) and needed a place to stay “just for two nights.” Concerned about the weather, impulsively I called an extended stay hotel and paid for two nights for her. As I put together some food and drink, Dan set up a Lyft ride, and off she went.
The next morning, a very indignant hotel clerk called to complain that “D” had disrupted the staff all night long, rearranging furniture and insisting that she was being spied on by cameras everywhere. She said “D” had already been booted out and could not stay a second night. It’s so sad, wrong and discouraging that a homeless or mentally ill person, no matter how headstrong, faces such a lack of support in our society. As freethinker Pearl Buck put it, the test of a society is the way it cares for its most helpless members.
“D” began making regular rounds in our middle-class neighborhood. Because of my attempt to get her a hotel room, I became her new best friend, even though, as Dan pointed out, “D” couldn’t remember my name. If Dan answered the door, she would always inquire, “Where’s my friend?” We’d chat a bit outside, while keeping the requisite pandemic distance. If we had some cash on hand, we gave her some; if not, we offered a snack. She reciprocated occasionally with a trinket that meant something to her. Soon, our neighborhood group emails began discussing a somewhat audacious homeless panhandler, clearly “D,” going door to door, often at odd hours. One guy heard his doorbell ring in the middle of the night, bolted out of bed, and opened the door. It was “D,” who was caught on his security video. He sleepily gave her a dollar, which she crumpled in disgust, saying, “What am I going to do with that?” (She had a point.)
“D” found that panhandling paid off. One week, she came back to show me her new nails, which I admired. If anyone deserved some self-care, it was “D.” It was a mystery to me how she managed to look clean and cheerful during that humid, wet summer.
Once, when she came by and Dan explained we had no cash or ready snack, she inexplicably asked him for a can of beans. He opened one, stuck a plastic spoon in it and handed it to her. When she got past our driveway, she dumped the entire contents on the street. (Would you want a cold can of beans for breakfast?)
Obviously, “D” had serious problems. If she thought you weren’t looking at her, she would often roll her eyes back into their sockets, which was a little unnerving, and begin muttering or chanting under her breath. She seemed afraid of institutionalization. I couldn’t help wondering about the dangers she’d experienced and faced as a homeless woman in her early 40s, compounded by whatever fearful delusions she suffered from. Yet, she usually appeared content and patient. When fall came, “D’s” visits stopped and I hoped she was someplace warm and safe.
Suddenly, this March, after an absence of more than a year, she began showing up in our neighborhood again. Last week, after I’d gotten home quite late from work and was looking forward to just relaxing, the doorbell rang at about 9:30 p.m. There “D” was. It was like déja vu when she announced, sadly, “I’ve been kicked out of the Salvation Army for 28 days and have nowhere to go.” The night was below freezing. “D” begged me to let her sleep in our house that night. “I promise I won’t make any moves on your husband,” she entreated. (That got a big smile from Dan when he heard about it.) Not knowing her vaccination status and aware of the hotel disturbances, I could not say yes.
As “D” waited on an outside bench as the night grew colder, I struck out calling 2-1-1. “D” next lobbied me to book her at an extended stay hotel. She first warned me that she only had a paper copy of her ID. “What happened to your original ID card?” I asked. “Oh, I shredded it,” she replied. When I most reluctantly called around, all the cheaper lodgings (who knew her by name) reported that, even if I paid the bill and accompanied her to check-in, she couldn’t stay without an original ID.
I reported this to “D,” who finally suggested: “You could buy me a bus ticket to Chicago.” It seemed like a plan. I bought a one-way ticket online for the next bus, unfortunately departing at 1:30 a.m. I put some fruit and cookies in a bag, Dan made her a flask of hot tea, and then I drove her downtown. I showed her the bus shelter, reminded her that the ticket was good for a year, and dropped her off at the nearby student union, which was still open.
Before getting out of the car, “D” told me she had a gift for me. She pulled out an envelope full of panhandling cash and started handing me bills. It was dark, and I couldn’t make them out very well. I tried to decline. But she urged, “These are special bills. They’re worth a lot of money. I go to the coin shop and buy them.” I accepted this act of friendship, putting us on equal terms. We parted amicably, and, I have to admit, with great relief on my part. “D” tried to thank me by “God blessing” me. When I told her I’m an atheist, she nodded and said everyone should be free to believe what they like. While I watched “D” trudge slowly up the steps of the student union, I realized that while she looks younger than her age, she walks like an elderly person.
After I arrived home, Dan predicted, “She’ll be back.” Within two days, there “D” was at our door, giving us a bright smile. She claimed some mix-up with the ticket (which she had thrown away). She explained that she had wandered around downtown all that first cold night. Then, as she showed us the heel of very bandaged foot, she said she had spent the second night in the hospital. “What happened?” I asked. “Someone at the shelter did that to me,” she replied mysteriously. Whatever the truth, I admire “D.” Despite the odds, she survives.
When I finally examined the two five dollar bills she’d given me, I was tickled to see that they were very dirty “clean” money, one from 1928 and and one from 1934. I know D” isn’t interested in old currency for the same reasons I am. But for someone with so little to share, her “widow’s mite” donation makes her an amazingly generous person. I’ve since donated them in “D’s” full name to FFRF for a future drawing. Who knows, maybe you’ll win it.