High tea in the Than Which There Is None More British room atÂ Camellia is always a good way to introduce Aulinta to visitors and potential new residents. Whether Ceanothus and Alm are good introducers is, well, debatable. But they volunteered and no one else wanted to, so they are the Official Describers of Stuff and Things (a title they invented for themselves) for anyone who chooses their particular services as opposed to more-advisedly just reading up on it.
They had chosen Than Which because it had a panoramic view from the Awaswas Ohlone seasonal village by the lagoon all the way north to the Bridge of Waters, with the hills beyond. Alm had insisted on meeting on a Tuesday because he had just watched Withnail and I and thought that necessitated a ploughman’s lunch, for whatever reason.
Rye Must already possessed a quintessentially Aulintan name andâ€”with a general knowledge of Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age European history and a more specific knowledge of the chamber tombs and other burial practices of the Funnelbeaker culture, coupled with recent work on both the Estonian national awakening and the post-Soviet revival of the indigenous Pagan religious practices of Taaraism and Maauskâ€”seemed like a good fit for the teaching post she was taking at the college. She had evoked the services of the Official Describers of Stuff and Things on a dare from some of her future colleagues, and they were on the topic of mediums of exchange.
“So,” Rye said, reaching for yet another cucumber sandwich, “if you have the time banking and the barter and the LETS and the scrip and the regional currency and the mutual credit and as far as I can tell every other form of alternative exchange medium, what do you use US dollars for?”
“Steel girders.” Alm blurted. Ceanothus and Rye looked at him, expecting elaboration, but he continued with, “Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness,” and went wolfishly back to his pickled onions.
Cean rolled her eyes. Withnail and I had already intruded on the conversation far too much today. “That’s his shorthand for ‘everything we can’t make here and can’t figure out other trade systems for,’ which, yes, includes steel girders. Others might say ‘cotton cloth’ or ‘peanut butter’ though there is a cooperative farm in Georgia who trades us peanut butter for artichokes and classes on re-wetlanding. By the way, he does know that Withnail and I is problematic and one shouldn’t identify with it,” Cean emphasized, tapping the table in front of Alm’s plate.
Alm looked up guiltily. “Yes, yes, I’m not an actual monster. Or a sexist. Or a drunk. Or a homophobe. I mean, any more than I can help it, given that I was raised in Colorado and have only had fifteen years to really unentrench myself. Unentrench. Would that be the same as disinter? Disinhume? Anyway, it’s a cult classic and I’m doing a thing on British cult classics for the Teen Center. Obviously leaving out Withnail and I. Inappropriate.”
“Then why did you watch it twice last night?” Cean asked.
“Research.” Alm poured another cup of tea and attacked the cheese and bread.
“Well, it’s kind of changed your social cues and participation in consensual reality,” Cean said, astonishingly neutrally. Turning back to Rye, Cean asked, “Did that answer your question?”
Rye spooned clotted cream onto a scone. “Basically. I mean, I get it, steel girders. Peanut butter. It makes sense. Is the point of having part of my upcoming, uh, salary paid in US dollars so I can buy peanut butter?”
Alm sat up straight for the first time all day and, catching sight of himself in the mirror hanging over the mantle on the far side of the room, pretended he was startled to find that his hair was both unbrushed and, it seemed, radically unwashed. “Salary. From the Latin salarium. Possibly originating from Roman soldiers having part of their payment be in actual literal salt. But, in truth, no. You are not being paid US dollars so you can buy steel girders.”
“Or peanut butter,” Cean interrupted.
“Steel girders are peanut butter in this model. Or, act like peanut butter. Except, you know, not as bridge supports or whatever…” Alm trailed off, making a face Cean easily interpreted as him trying to imagine how to make bridge supports from peanut butter. She tapped the table again and Alm came to. “‘Steel girders,’ which I’ll put in scare quotes for your sake, Cean, are on the whole bought at a higher level and then disseminated into the local alternative economies. So, for example, the worker-owned collective farms in south county sell vegetables outside the region, get US dollars for them, and then they use those dollars to buy fruits and vegetables we can’t grow around here and subsequently offer those along with the stuff they grow themselves to the food co-ops and other places. And these outside products are then gettable via all the normal means. Which can include US dollars. There are people who continue to mostly use US dollars, and it’s not like we actually want to stop them. If this is the grand experiment of all possible mediums of exchange, then national currency has to have some place. Or that’s the logic anyway. I don’t know. Money is weird. I rarely use it.”
Cean finished chewing her mouthful of gingerbread, swallowed, and finally answered Rye’s question: “You get paid partly in US dollars because you might need to get things like books or train tickets outside the region or, I don’t know, those Hickory Farms gift baskets. We don’t expect everyone to sever all ties with global markets. We are still part of the larger world, as they are part of us.” Cean looked at Alm, who had stopped trying to flatten his hair in his reflection in the silver teapot and was diagramming sentences on a cloth napkin. “You’ll have to pay for that napkin, you know.”
“See?” Alm said. “We still use the language. ‘Pay for.’ That’s not exactly what I’ll be doing but our vocabulary, how to describe exchange without the language of capitalism. We’re still working on that. Oh! Oh! I know what we should talk about!”
“What?” Rye asked.
“The Numismatist.” Alm and Cean said this at the same time, jinxed each other, and then unjinxed each other. Cean continued, “The Numismatist is in charge of the souvenir pennies.”
“What are you even talking about?” Rye thought it was her turn to pour the tea, and did so, but almost overflowed her cup trying to keep an eye on Alm and Cean as they telegraphed an entire conversation to each other using only facial expressions and, a few times, hand gestures. After about twenty seconds, they both turned to Rye and Cean asked, “What is money when it’s not money? I mean, how do you mark the exchange of things that aren’t actually privately owned? Or, um, how do you solidify social exchange that’s about possession but not ownership? Or….”
“I don’t think you’re actually helping,” Alm said. Cean turned her head slowly towards him, Exorcist-style, her mouth still half open while her brain tried to sort how to describe this to a newcomer.
Alm pushed the jam tarts towards Cean, startling her back into herself, and said, “Ok. So you know how all the land here is held in trust by the descendants of people indigenous to this area before European colonization?”
Rye nodded, thinking it was safer than trying to insert a question into the description of what was clearly a source of some wonder or delight to both her hosts.
“But we live here, and we live in houses of one kind or another, and we get to have locks on those houses if that’s what we want, and we do certain kinds of maintenance on them or we put in a request for someone more skilled to do it, and we can’t just magically decide that we want to live in another house and then move in there if someone else is living there already, right?” Alm looked at Rye, who nodded again. “So, we have possession of a thing without ‘owning’ it in the way that people talk about owning things they’ve bought. Some people still call it ‘buying in,’ because like I said our vocabulary has a relative dearth of ways to describe what I’m talking about. Or we’ve just been schooled for a couple centuries so that when we talk about Freud and we use the term Besetzung, you know, cathexis, we describe it as ‘investment’ instead of ‘occupation’ or even ‘squatting,’ which might be more accurate translationwise.”
Cean took up the thread, “But there still have to be ways to mark possession or occupation when it comes to a house. There are, of course, neighborhood lists but some people wanted something different and one day this person Jury Rigged…”
“Wait. Who?” Rye interjected.
“Jury Rigged. That’s just what they’re called. It’s a different story. Anyway, Jury Rigged, who was trading possession of their house because they were tired of living in TimeLand and wanted to live in the woods decided to mark their interchange by giving the prior possessor, who was moving to Stilt Village to be closer to work, one of those smashed souvenir pennies you can get in places, you know, where’s there’s a machine and you put in two quarters and a penny and crank a crank and the penny comes out all flat and elongated and stamped with some image and words.”
“And that person, Xochitl Mendizabal, decided to give that penny to the Stilt Village Super Group, which sounds like a rock band but isn’t, to mark the change of occupation,” Alm said. “Then Stilt Village needed a different boat with a flatter bottom to go to different parts of Jesse Marsh, so they got one that Old Man Andthessea had been using and gave him the penny to mark the change of possession.”
“Old Man Andthessea?” Rye asked.
“Your name is Rye Must,” Cean replied. “If you’re going to get hung up on other people’s improbable names then no story will ever get told. Most newcomers keep a list and then ask about a bunch of them on ‘How the Person Got Their Name’ night down at the Last Visible Dog. It’s the first Thursday of each month. Starts at 7.”
“This first smashed pennyÂ was from The Mystery Spot,” Alm continued as if no interruption had occurred. “Not that that’s actually that important. It’s just a nice touch. By this time other people had heard about this and thought it was, you know, like, funny and maybe even useful because if you aren’t paying money for these huge items, houses, boats, whatnot, it’s still a noteworthy event, changing possession, and having some way to mark that, like, to have a marker of social interchange seemed…”
“Nice.” Cean finished. “Kindly. And that became a tradition. And then there was a sort of run on souvenir pennies, like a speculation market, which was totally not at all the point, and people had some arguments about which pennies were ‘worth’ more and claiming that their marker of social interchange was better because clearly a smashed penny from the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco is ‘worth’ less than one from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.”
“Or the Trakai Island Castle in Lithuania. Nautical Miles had one of those, I don’t know where they came across it,” Alm muttered.
“And after some of the kinds of minor crises you get in this town, people got it together, had a couple of meetings, and came up with a system. You know the Rai stones on the island of Yap?” Cean asked.
“Yeah,” Rye said, “but tell me about them anyway so that the people reading a transcript of this conversation will understand.”
“Well,” Cean continued, “Yap is an island in Micronesia, and they use these stone discs as a form of representative money. They vary in size: some are small enough to be easily portable, like ten centimeters across, but some are several meters across and weigh, like, four tons. One of the important things is that they aren’t quarried on Yap.”
“Yeah, why is that?” Alm asked.
“Wrong kind of stone. They’re from Palau, and made of a particular kind of limestone. It’s part of their value: their transport, that the Yapese had to sail to Palau, quarry and shape these stones with a hole in the middle, put a log through that hole and get dozens or even hundreds of people to move them to the shore, get them on boats, and sail them back a couple of hundred kilometers on outrigger canoes with those Oceanian crab claw sails. But the point is that while they’re used as money, usually for things of large social value, like ransom or marriage or inheritance, and they do change hands, they’re really mostly too big to move around easily so they stay in place but the Yapese have oral histories about which stone belongs to whom. So you could have a stone right outside your front door, but it really belongs to your friend down the street and before that it belonged to this other person a couple of kilometers away.”
“Do you have to, like, dust other people’s money?” Alm wondered.
“You are weirdly super-interested in how everything gets cleaned, Alm,” Cean chided.
“Yeah, well, I’m ‘paying’ for this meal by dishwashing here a couple of nights a week, so you should be grateful,” Alm retorted.
“Yes, yes. I’m grateful. Sure, they dust other people’s money if that makes you happy.”
“Well, I bet they get dirty. There’s storms and farming and stuff.”
“Ok. Anyway. There was even one that sank on the trip from Palau to Yap, but it’s still considered to be there and can still be exchanged even though no one can see it. So, the point is that you have these objects that have value attached to them both because of the difficulty of getting them and because people attach value to them socially, but they have no intrinsic value in that they’re not, say, adzes or whatever.” Cean reached over and took some of Alm’s bread.
“Hey! I was eating that!” Alm objected.
“If you were eating it, why was it still on your plate?” Cean scoffed. “Plus money makes me hungry.”
“Doesn’t it?” Alm handed over the cheese as well and continued, “So we had a case where there were these things of high social value, i.e. houses and boats, and wanted to have some kind of marker of change of possession, but also didn’t want to have, uh, social currency devaluation from people just going down to Cannery Row and making a bunch of smashed pennies with sea lions and otters or whatever on them and then using them for any old exchange, even ones that were…that had less importance. Less, I don’t know, value. So after all the meetings they decided that there would be one person who is The Numismatist, and that person keeps all the coins in some old coin collector folders, you know, with the slits you can slide the coins into? And that person keeps track of which coin ‘belongs’ to which person, and also would have some say on how much any penny is ‘worth,'” Alm was freely using scare quotes now. “And also in deciding how ‘much’ any new pennies introduced into the system could ‘get’ you in the ‘market.’ You see what I mean about vocabulary?”
“So, there’s smaller or less ‘costly’ items…now I’m doing it too!” Cean complained, “that you can actually own, like a bicycle, but there’s also all the bicycles that are owned in common that you can basically trade around but when you occupy or possess a bike if you’re part of the smashed penny people then you mark that occasion’s social importance by deploying one of your pennies, one of the less valuable ones, like from the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose.”
“Zoos.” Alm grumbled.
“You like the red pandas over there as much as any person I have ever seen like anything ever,” Cean said. “Anyway, then you tell The Numismatist who that coin ‘belongs’ to now, and they write it down and one of their jobs is to do dramatic readings of a coin’s history if people ask for that, so that’s another part of the system. The lore. Then, if anyone wants to join the smashed penny people, that person generally introduces three coins of high, medium, and low, uh, value. Difficulty of getting. Weirdness. You know, the relative amount of whatever would make one of them cool or interesting.”
“It would be neat if you could use them for ransom!” Alm said.
“But then they’d be like money. And also there would have to be kidnappings,” Cean noted.
“Yeah…yeah.” Alm was still thinking about it. “There is that. Dang.”
“So, the smashed souvenir pennies aren’t money,” Rye said.
“They are very precisely not money,” Alm replied.
“But they are money-like?” Rye asked.
“They are, in certain ways, quite money-esque. Moneyois. Moneyoise.” Alm got bogged down in words for a second. “They are a kind of fiat currency, backed by goodwill social intentions. New ones are only issued if they come across a new mother lode of social intention. You know, like when US currency was actually supposed to be tied to how much gold there was and bills were at least theoretically exchangeable for actual gold. But unlike the olden times US dollars, you can’t go into The Numismatist and demand a set amount of goodwill social intention in exchange for your smashed penny. You cannot redeem the symbol for the thing that creates its value. The only way to redeem the value of your smashed penny is to continue to participate in the particular system of, uh, marking of occupation or possession of goods in common with the ‘exchange’ of a smashed penny that does not change hands but remains in the file and the body of lore of The Numismatist.”
“You go to these thrice yearly meetings…” Cean noted.
“They’re really more like parties,” Alm interjected.
Cean continued, “And chit-chat about the relative ‘value’ of certain pennies. There’s a certain amount of boasting from people who have contributed ones that are unusual. Like from the Cruise Ship Dock Mall in Castries in St. Lucia. Evrikum Park in Almaty, Kazakhstan.”
“One of the Rodina-mat’ in Volgograd.”
“You just made that one up because you want one.”
“People are mostly proud that they contributed some absurdity to what is in effect an ongoing collective performance piece,” Cean concluded. “I think the best was when Michael Merriam took possession of the amusement park.”
“Yes! Yes!” Alm almost shouted. “He traveled to Japan and got a souvenir penny of Doraemon Waku-Waku Sky Park New Chitose Airport on HokkaidÅ, thinking to honor the magnitude of his social intention by getting the most unusual penny he could find.”
“Speaking of which,” Cean said. “You want to go to the amusement park? If we leave now we can catch the shore train over there.”
“That sounds good,” Rye agreed.
“I want to go on Rebecca? I like that one,” Alm said.
“Is that based on the Hitchcock movie, owned by Paramount Pictures?” Rye asked as they stood up and gathered their things.
“Well, ours has a question mark. Could be a totally different story.”
“Rebecca is a fairly common name.”