In high school, me and my 10 closest friends used to pile into Civics, Corollas and Mustangs and chug 40 minutes to fast casual restaurants on Saturday nights. Sitting around sticky tables and binging on unlimited bread sticks, we gossiped, made fun of each other and ordered meals we believed were fancy, miming suburban adulthood.
When the check arrived, we turned into teenagers again. The cash would come out. Negotiations began.
You don’t really know your friends until you’ve split a check 11 ways. Some friends glibly tossed 20s onto the table, and some carried loose change like arcade employees to ensure they would not overpay by a penny. Some claimed they deserved a free meal because they had driven and we owed them for gas, or because they covered you last time, or because they gave you their math homework to copy. I veered between stingy and munificent depending on whether it was winter or summer (I had a job scooping ice cream).
Splitting the check was a miserable operation made more miserable when we asked, belatedly, for the server to grant us separate checks. They often refused. As a part-time ice cream scooper, I understood their resistance.
Fifteen years after high school, I find myself mourning the cash economy. Cash has become increasingly irrelevant due to the rise of electronic payment options like Venmo and Apple Pay. More recently, according to the New York Times, “the coronavirus is accelerating a shift toward a cashless future”. Throughout the pandemic, before we knew more about the dangers of surface transmission, paying with cash seemed like an unnecessary risk. The imaginative fun of wondering where your dollar had been transformed into a suspicious background check: had the prior owner washed their hands properly?
I understand why people might not want to use cash outside of recent pandemic-related safety concerns. Cash is dirty. It’s quite often old. It rips. It’s bulky. It features the faces of white, slave-owning men. It’s liable to tumble away in strong autumn wind.
My love for cash was instilled in me from a young age. When I was a child, there was a clear divide between my divorced parents. Whereas my mom preferred to buy everything using credit cards, my father always used cash. What might seem like mere differences of personal preference in actuality spoke volumes about their distinct economic upbringings. My mom grew up the youngest daughter of an upper-middle class family in rural New Jersey. After the death of his parents as a child, my father bounced around between foster homes before settling in my mom’s hometown. My mom still has the same salaried position she obtained when I was a kid. My father constantly worked odd jobs when I was growing up.
Cash is the most reliable source of income for those without bank accounts. It is paid to those working under the table; it’s the tender preferred by the Tooth Fairy. What else in this world so seamlessly bridges the black market with childhood whimsy? My eldest stepsister used to carry one dollar with her at all times to ensure she “never went broke”.
Cash is not, as the saying goes, king. Rather, it is paid by kings to people like my father: those working under the table to serve their wealthier clients. On my Sundays with him, he would drag me along on his jobs rewiring garages and installing ceiling fans for wealthy families in New Jersey suburbs. He was normally paid in cash for these jobs. On the rare occasions he received a check, he and I would drive to various bodegas and restaurants trying to cash it.
After completing a job, before delivering me to my mom, he would bring me to a toy store to pick out a gift – a bribe. Even as a kid, I understood he bought me toys out of guilt, wishing he didn’t need to hustle and could, instead, spend time with me. I can’t remember a single gift he bought for me. But I distinctly remember the cash he kept folded in his metal money clip, how he would slide the bills free and count them, nervously, before handing the right amount to the cashier.
Like many men, my father had a difficult time expressing his feelings, and it’s not a surprise he used money to show his love. His reliance on cash made clear how vulnerable – economically and emotionally – he truly was.
Years later, when I was 17, I watched my grandfather die tragically, and when I told my father about the incident that same day, he hugged and consoled me as I wept. After letting go, he pulled a $50 bill from his pocket, handed it over, and suggested I go to the mall. It would be easy to resent him for this gesture. But this was the expression of love he knew how to give. I did go to the mall that day and bought something distracting and stupid. I buried my grief somewhere else, if only for a few hours, and for that I was grateful.
In college, I waited tables at a small Japanese restaurant where cash made up more than half of my earnings. At the end of the night, my boss would divide up the tips into envelopes for each server – after tipping out the sushi chefs, the cooks, and pulling a percentage to cover credit card fees. My biweekly checks abstractly hinted at the work I’d put in, whereas tips were immediate markers of effort. My coworkers and I often went out for drinks after our shifts. I never drank more than I could afford with my tips. I wasn’t a night owl, and as coworkers ordered fresh rounds, asking me to stay out, I liked having an excuse to go home: I had simply run out of cash.
I still feel uneasy using credit cards. I opened my first when I was 20 to get 15% off at Banana Republic and left it unused until it expired. I opened my second in my mid-20s; it remains my only card. For years, I used cash when buying alcohol or junk food – I was concerned about health insurance companies tracing my spending habits to determine my premiums.
When lockdown began, I squirrelled away $500 in a secure location. At 32, I still don’t like to leave the house without a $20 bill in my pocket. There is something solid about cash that credit cards will never replicate. Like many tangible items being phased out in a digital world, cash is not environmentally ideal, though the mining of crypto-currency is the furthest thing from a solution.
Cash offers what credit cards and crypto-currency never will: a clear and indisputable marker of what I have, who I can be, and what I am planning to lose.