The only change I’ve ever found in this damned world was some discarded pennies. I’ve found them in the alleyways, high on misplaced dreams. I’ve found them left on Wall Street, trashed by American greed. I’ve found them in grocery stores, scrambling to survive. I’ve found them in free clinics, scared by the cost of their life. I’ve found them in fast food joints, looking for sweet, fat-fried joy. I’ve found them in back bars, melancholy on their mind, synthetic hope bubbling from their stein. I’ve found them in public schools, where they first begin to learn their place. I’ve found them in the suburban city malls, loitering to belong, unable to afford their own space.
We’re walking down a dampened sidewalk, my friend Jessica and I, and I’m trying to understand. Her certainty is thrilling in that way. It makes you believe that you can understand—if not her—the values she has so carefully conceived.
Her hair is a frenzy. A million raindrop planets light upon the orbits of her strands. I want to ask Why, but I’m afraid to see her universe careen off to space when she emphatically shakes her head and tells me I’m asking the wrong question. I’m afraid of what will happen to her. I’m afraid of losing my friend. She knows I wouldn’t just mean Why? but Why are you doing this to me?
You might wonder why pennies still exist. It’s common knowledge that it costs more for society to keep a penny down. It’s common courtesy to keep your mouth shut and be grateful to be around. It could be worse. At least America wants to keep producing pennies. Of course America wants to keep producing us. Every penny lost, another cent won. Spill us out into the churning rivers of our social system. See how many escape the rushing waters. Watch how well a penny floats when it’s never given a chance to swim.
We were raised in the long shadow of Washington. The specter that dims all the DMV. Fertilized by the manure of our nation’s political system we grew hardy, sturdy and numb. Or at least one of us grew numb and disassociated. Jessica sucked everything in and morphed it into fuel. By age ten she was already a tall willow amongst the shrubs the rest of us would prove to be. And yet, for some reason, she provided shade for me beneath her branches. I would tell her my pre-adolescent secrets and she would tell me her plans. Of course, she would tell anyone her ambitions. So full and clear they were. She made it easy to be her friend. She had the ability not only to not put pressure on someone, but to take it away: guarding my embarrassments, acknowledging an anxious personality.
Keep our head down; we are the fairy tales the elite tell their children. The bogeymen come to steal their hard-lucked wealth. Branded lazy and insolent upon our birthing, we carry these tokens with us to death.
We are the offspring of psychological undercutting. Ruthlessly efficient, certain corporations progress us to new lows. The better to build their golden parachutes. Watch them fly high over destructions they have sowed. With such mighty revenue, the worth of moral values has been deflated. Gaping loopholes through which bubbles are blown continually get misinterpreted as mere leveraging of growth. Pop, pop! Naysayers are the scat of a nation in pristine economic health. Scat! Scat, they say. Get out of the way. Pat, pat; trust that patriarchy knows best.
Our home was Langley Park, but Jessica always wanted the real one. Trade our brick and concrete housing for the metal and glass of elite opportunity. She never wavered from her belief that she would make it. Damn if she wasn’t right. She was the one-in-a-million who chases their dreams and catches them. Those dragons are too scary for most of us to even try. The odds too weighty for one person to lift. It takes a community and Jessica was always courageous enough to accept and seek help.
Most of us couldn’t even make it to college. She made it to Georgetown. I was thrilled to even be considered by UMD. Red line, Green, the easy travel between didn’t matter; our proud Metro couldn’t understand how far apart we really were. She thrived in those cathedrals by the river. Learned even more languages than the ones she already knew. Merged Spanish, Mandarin, and Russian with C++, Python, and Assembly. She went from star student to star candidate, and it never seemed in doubt.
Our ignorance is their bliss. They. Who’s they? Such a nebulous term. Are we not they? In only the worst ways. We fight for the They. Die for the They. Strive for and starve for the They. But They are not We.
As she became a diplomat, or something of that Stateroom nature, I returned to the neighborhood. I was not alone. And that alone convinces me that we need a new theory on gravity. How can one small portion of the world have such a strong pull? We returned for our parents. We returned for our friends. We returned because the bills of the world are a bit easier to handle when you look around and see others struggling the same. Social metaphysics, the world kept moving but these areas can bend time.
And yet the calendar continued to turn. The sun became bright again, and with it re-emerged my hope that she would return, too. Maybe I just wanted to hang out with her in that light—in her light—but I think it was more weak. So, so greedily, I hoped. That she would come back and prove to me, to us all, that not even rockets can truly escape this place.
Check the gumshoed bottom of your local detective’s boot and you might just find another penny being stamped down to the ground. Justice is blind but we pennies are forced to see. Scraping ourselves together in the courtrooms, trying to figure how to pay the disproportionally penalizing fees. The calculus is broke. The abacus stacked back far too long ago. Big data, the math won’t add. Confounding variables cloaked through legislation, intent obscured by lawmakers paid off in pursuit of narcissistic elevation. No wonder we have such a broken-hearted nation.
Called upon to defend it, our oxidized blood runs green. Doublespeaking merchants of death. Our love of family and friends perverted. Loyalty misused. Our beliefs in the ideals of this country all we have to hold onto as we’re shipped off to dangerous worlds, to the lands of other people who have been even more abused.
She did come back. For this moment, at least. Somehow more knowledgeable, but deep down unchanged. The words she’s telling me, they could cut steel, but her voice is morning soft. There is a rustling excitement beneath the weary lines. She knows we can’t actually talk about what will happen, though. She understands the legion slurping wormholes this brave new world holds. The technological ears that governments and agencies have perked up at all times.
So we speak between the lines. Well, she speaks; I listen. I read her face for those silent meanings we both absorbed so long ago. The rhythm of a person learned only through the intense focus and empathy of a child. Her mouth is taut and grim, but her eyes still glimmer. A fire burns inside her, a desire for what’s right. A flaming belief she can’t dismiss. It will be immolating. And pure.
Was it always this way? Some bronze pennies of yesteryear don’t think so. They help to keep us all down. They say it was tough work that got them to their modest fortunes. That they had more mettle, different metal. Look how much they could buy in their day. How well they could provide. Dissonant generations, our similarities get looked past. Rippled time, different ages, same complaints. Exaggerated incongruity generated by sloppy rhetoric, sitcom jokes and easy memes. The laughter and hate leaves us projecting, fear and knowledge gaps beam back reflections. Past work can’t be discounted. Young words should still stir. Pennies push against the bending. Let our stubbornness be our cure.
She won’t run like Edward Snowden. She’s too brave—too bold—for that. Won’t announce through WikiLeaks. The self-aggrandizing head and over-politicization would simply murk her message. She will send it to the media. And no doubt she already has a few trusted colleagues along the onioned outskirts of the web.
No one person has the key to every blueprint of the machine for obvious reasons. She has had to collect this through charisma in dangerous networks. There will be immediate discrediting. There will be misinformation spewed by profiteering propagandists. But that’s why she knows she must stand tall. She will be the lightning rod and dance electric through this storm. A Joan of Arc of truth. Because she believes people can handle it. That they deserve it. She is trying to wash away this interplay of politics and personal interests. Bring plasmatic light upon the shadows of governments; the status quo was fluorescent, constructed, unnourishing for all but those who held the switch. She trusts that we all can be better if we understand the mechanisms. That with responsibility and solidarity we can help reshape the world a little closer to that more perfect Union we had planned.
I’m not so sure that it will be worth it. Losing my friend to this cause. I am selfish and afraid. Fuck it, I’m terrified. And furious. Terrified people won’t listen this time either. Furious at how much easier it is to look the other way.
But I hug her and tell her I love her. Watch her walk back off into the rain. Know that this will probably be the last time I ever see her in person. I have to be okay with that, because she’s trying to make this world a better place. Damned if I won’t now, too.
Can it be any other way? A zero-sum game populated by ones. A binary of treasures. A near-unattainable myth that says you might be the one. Indentured citizens to Horatio Alger’s dream. Work-release prisoners to what seems more and more like a scheme. Is the universe so capricious as to penalize the masses for not being the few? As pennies, we know it to be true. It has been engrained into our core. Smelted, ironed, forged. So we hate each other for the mirror we become. We rage against each other for who we have become. It’s time to twist that guilty impulse of who we have become. Subvert it from within. Find ways to praise each other. Recognize those weathered lines. See beauty in our brother. Refuse to believe the poisoned gossip that’s been stewed. Help up our fallen sister. Remember that our gospel isn’t sung in the key of blues. Let’s raise our colleagues on our backs. Raze the rules that hold us back. Teach our young and old that the moment’s not lost, that it still can be now. Our voices are numerous; we can work this all out.
We are the lost pennies. The bricks of this nation. We’ve always been told we aren’t worth as much. We’ve always believed we aren’t worth as much.
*Italics are taken from Jessica Menjívar’s opening statement preceding the release of classified and intercepted financial and governmental information. While we are still currently sifting through all the documents and their implications, we urge readers to research the Panama Papers, the leaked NSA documents, Cablegate, and the Drone Papers, among others, and thank and encourage all whistleblowing warriors of the light.
Alex S. French writes from Montana. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y Magazine. Twitter: @asfrenchaf