Thursday, February 20, 2014

Change Is Hard

The basement laundry was coin operated for our first several years in New York City back in the 1980s. Then they put in a "launder-card" system and the sun rose on a new era.

Gone forever were the days of worrying not only about whether I had enough money, but also about whether it was the right money, the days of hoarding quarters for the jar, hoping one or two would come back with counter change, even sometimes tailoring purchases to achieve a sales total that would get me some.

It was a minor nuisance of city life, but an ever-present one. Then came the cards, and the tyranny of the quarter stopped on a dime. When it did, I never looked back.

Until now.

In Mexico, the question isn't whether you'll get back the desired coin with your change. It's whether your seller will be able to make change at all. There are times when your money is no good here. Or there. Or anywhere, so it seems, because nobody's got enough change.

And the prevailing retail culture here is that if you find yourself in a situation where the retailer can't make change from the legal tender you present, you are the one who has committed a social misdemeanor.

Last month I popped into an Oxxo, Mexico's answer to the 7-11, and poured myself a cup of their lousy coffee for which the price was the peso equivalent of about 40 cents. My heart sank at the counter when I realized the smallest thing I was carrying was a 200-peso bill, worth about 16 bucks.

The girl at the register made a face like a mouthful of spoiled milk and a scornful comment that I translated to myself as, "These people." She did, however, come up with the change and handed it over with a great show of struggling not to spit on it first.

If that's what happens in a national, high-volume convenience store chain, you can imagine a similar scene at a trinket shop or a fruit stand. You don't get the Oxxo attitude there, but you don't get your merchandise either, or at least not right away.

The clerk, or even the owner, will utter a quiet "Momentito, señor," and go looking for somebody in the back who might be carrying enough cash to make the change. If nobody's there, he may go out the door to cast the net wider on the street.

On occasion, it may take two or even more contributors to assemble the required scratch.  I slink away, mumbling my "Que tengan buen dia" -- have a good day -- and wondering how much of it they'll have to spend getting straight with each other.

We do our best to avoid these awkward moments, but there's no way to escape all of them. They call cash efectivo around here, but there are times when it doesn't deserve the name.

The ATM's dispense 500-peso bills for the lion's share of our cash withdrawals. Then we try to plan our shopping in hierarchical order. You can break a 500 at the supermarket, although we prefer to use a credit card there.

A 500 can also be used for a fill-up at the Pemex station, where we can't use credit cards anyway. And you can hand one to the waiter at a restaurant. He'll take it away out of your sight, and if they have trouble digesting it, at least you don't have to watch.

Any further shopping that doesn't include large purchases needs to be put off until after you've done one or more of the above.

Even then, you're not necessarily in the clear. Elizabeth's Dora balloon sprang a leak the other day, so Pam walked her down to the oceanfront malecon to get a replacement from the well-stocked vendor.

The price was 30 pesos. Pam handed the man two 20-peso notes, feeling pleased with how well she'd planned for the transaction.

"Momentito, señora," he said.

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