The Tale of a Tainted Tenner by O. Henry
Money talks. But you may think that the conversation of a little old ten-dollar bill in New York would be nothing more than a whisper. Oh, very well! Pass up this sotto voce autobiography of an X if you like. If you are one of the kind that prefers to listen to John D’s checkbook roar at you through a megaphone as it passes by, all right. But don’t forget that small change can say a word to the point now and then. The next time you tip your grocer’s clerk a silver quarter to give you extra weight of his boss’s goods read the four words above the lady’s head. How are they for repartee?
I am a ten-dollar Treasury note, series of 1901. You may have seen one in a friend’s hand. On my face, in the centre, is a picture of the bison Americanus, miscalled a buffalo by fifty or sixty millions of Americans. The heads of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark adorn the ends. On my back is the graceful figure of Liberty or Ceres or Maxine Elliot standing in the centre of the stage on a conservatory plant. My references is–or are–Section 3,588, Revised Statutes. Ten cold, hard dollars–I don’t say whether silver, gold, lead or iron–Uncle Sam will hand you over his counter if you want to cash me in.
I beg you will excuse any conversational breaks that I make–thanks, I knew you would–got that sneaking little respect and agreeable feeling toward even an X, haven’t you? You see, a tainted bill doesn’t have much chance to acquire a correct form of expression. I never knew a really cultured and educated person that could afford to hold a ten-spot any longer than it would take to do an Arthur Duffy to the nearest That’s All! sign or delicatessen store.
For a six-year-old, I’ve had a lively and gorgeous circulation. I guess I’ve paid as many debts as the man who dies. I’ve been owned by a good many kinds of people. But a little old ragged, damp, dingy five-dollar silver certificate gave me a jar one day. I was next to it in the fat and bad-smelling purse of a butcher.
“Hey, you Sitting Bull,” says I, “don’t scrouge so. Anyhow, don’t you think it’s about time you went in on a customs payment and got reissued? For a series of 1899 you’re a sight.”
“Oh, don’t get crackly just because you’re a Buffalo bill,” says the fiver. “You’d be limp, too, if you’d been stuffed down in a thick cotton-and-lisle-thread under an elastic all day, and the thermometer not a degree under 85 in the store.”
“I never heard of a pocketbook like that,” says I. “Who carried you?”
“A shopgirl,” says the five-spot.
“What’s that?” I had to ask.
“You’ll never know till their millennium comes,” says the fiver.
Just then a two-dollar bill behind me with a George Washington head, spoke up to the fiver:
“Aw, cut out yer kicks. Ain’t lisle thread good enough for yer? If you was under all cotton like I’ve been to-day, and choked up with factory dust till the lady with the cornucopia on me sneezed half a dozen times, you’d have some reason to complain.”
That was the next day after I arrived in New York. I came in a $500 package of tens to a Brooklyn bank from one of its Pennsylvania correspondents–and I haven’t made the acquaintance of any of the five and two spot’s friends’ pocketbooks yet. Silk for mine, every time.
I was lucky money. I kept on the move. Sometimes I changed hands twenty times a day. I saw the inside of every business; I fought for my owner’s every pleasure. It seemed that on Saturday nights I never missed being slapped down on a bar. Tens were always slapped down, while ones and twos were slid over to the bartenders folded. I got in the habit of looking for mine, and I managed to soak in a little straight or some spilled Martini or Manhattan whenever I could. Once I got tied up in a great greasy roll of bills in a pushcart peddler’s jeans. I thought I never would get in circulation again, for the future department store owner lived on eight cents’ worth of dog meat and onions a day. But this peddler got into trouble one day on account of having his cart too near a crossing, and I was rescued. I always will feel grateful to the cop that got me. He changed me at a cigar store near the Bowery that was running a crap game in the back room. So it was the Captain of the precinct, after all, that did me the best turn, when he got his. He blew me for wine the next evening in a Broadway restaurant; and I really felt as glad to get back again as an Astor does when he sees the lights of Charing Cross.
A tainted ten certainly does get action on Broadway. I was alimony once, and got folded in a little dogskin purse among a lot of dimes. They were bragging about the busy times there were in Ossining whenever three girls got hold of one of them during the ice cream season. But it’s Slow Moving Vehicles Keep to the Right for the little Bok tips when you think of the way we bison plasters refuse to stick to anything during the rush lobster hour.
The first I ever heard of tainted money was one night when a good thing with a Van to his name threw me over with some other bills to buy a stack of blues.
About midnight a big, easy-going man with a fat face like a monk’s and the eye of a janitor with his wages raised took me and a lot of other notes and rolled us into what is termed a “wad” among the money tainters.
“Ticket me for five hundred,” said he to the banker, “and look out for everything, Charlie. I’m going out for a stroll in the glen before the moonlight fades from the brow of the cliff. If anybody finds the roof in their way there’s $60,000 wrapped in a comic supplement in the upper left-hand corner of the safe. Be bold; everywhere be bold, but be not bowled over. ‘Night.”
I found myself between two $20 gold certificates. One of ’em says to me:
“Well, old shorthorn, you’re in luck to-night. You’ll see something of life. Old Jack’s going to make the Tenderloin look like a hamburg steak.”
“Explain,” says I. “I’m used to joints, but I don’t care for filet mignon with the kind of sauce you serve.”
“‘Xcuse me,” said the twenty. “Old Jack is the proprietor of this gambling house. He’s going on a whiz to-night because he offered $50,000 to a church and it refused to accept it because they said his money was tainted.”
“What is a church?” I asked.
“Oh, I forgot,” says the twenty, “that I was talking to a tenner. Of course you don’t know. You’re too much to put into the contribution basket, and not enough to buy anything at a bazaar. A church is–a large building in which penwipers and tidies are sold at $20 each.”
I don’t care much about chinning with gold certificates. There’s a streak of yellow in ’em. All is not gold that’s quitters.
Old Jack certainly was a gild-edged sport. When it came his time to loosen up he never referred the waiter to an actuary.
By and by it got around that he was smiting the rock in the wilderness; and all along Broadway things with cold noses and hot gullets fell in on our trail. The third Jungle Book was there waiting for somebody to put covers on it. Old Jack’s money may have had a taint to it, but all the same he had orders for his Camembert piling up on him every minute. First his friends rallied round him; and then the fellows that his friends knew by sight; and then a few of his enemies buried the hatchet; and finally he was buying souvenirs for so many Neapolitan fisher maidens and butterfly octettes that the head waiters were ‘phoning all over town for Julian Mitchell to please come around and get them into some kind of order.
At last we floated into an uptown cafe that I knew by heart. When the hod-carriers’ union in jackets and aprons saw us coming the chief goal kicker called out: “Six–eleven–forty-two–nineteen–twelve” to his men, and they put on nose guards till it was clear whether we meant Port Arthur or Portsmouth. But old Jack wasn’t working for the furniture and glass factories that night. He sat down quiet and sang “Ramble” in a half-hearted way. His feelings had been hurt, so the twenty told me, because his offer to the church had been refused.
But the wassail went on; and Brady himself couldn’t have hammered the thirst mob into a better imitation of the real penchant for the stuff that you screw out of a bottle with a napkin.
Old Jack paid the twenty above me for a round, leaving me on the outside of his roll. He laid the roll on the table and sent for the proprietor.
“Mike,” says he, “here’s money that the good people have refused. Will it buy of your wares in the name of the devil? They say it’s tainted.”
“I will,” says Mike, “and I’ll put it in the drawer next to the bills that was paid to the parson’s daughter for kisses at the church fair to build a new parsonage for the parson’s daughter to live in.”
At 1 o’clock when the hod-carriers were making ready to close up the front and keep the inside open, a woman slips in the door of the restaurant and comes up to Old Jack’s table. You’ve seen the kind–black shawl, creepy hair, ragged skirt, white face, eyes a cross between Gabriel’s and a sick kitten’s–the kind of woman that’s always on the lookout for an automobile or the mendicancy squad–and she stands there without a word and looks at the money.
Old Jack gets up, peels me off the roll and hands me to her with a bow.
“Madam,” says he, just like actors I’ve heard, “here is a tainted bill. I am a gambler. This bill came to me to-night from a gentleman’s son. Where he got it I do not know. If you will do me the favor to accept it, it is yours.”
The woman took me with a trembling hand.
“Sir,” said she, “I counted thousands of this issue of bills into packages when they were virgin from the presses. I was a clerk in the Treasury Department. There was an official to whom I owed my position. You say they are tainted now. If you only knew–but I won’t say any more. Thank you with all my heart, sir–thank you–thank you.”
Where do you suppose that woman carried me almost at a run? To a bakery. Away from Old Jack and a sizzling good time to a bakery. And I get changed, and she does a Sheridan-twenty-miles-away with a dozen rolls and a section of jelly cake as big as a turbine water-wheel. Of course I lost sight of her then, for I was snowed up in the bakery, wondering whether I’d get changed at the drug store the next day in an alum deal or paid over to the cement works.
A week afterward I butted up against one of the one-dollar bills the baker had given the woman for change.
“Hallo, E35039669,” says I, “weren’t you in the change for me in a bakery last Saturday night?”
“Yep,” says the solitaire in his free and easy style.
“How did the deal turn out?” I asked.
“She blew E17051431 for mills and round steak,” says the one-spot. “She kept me till the rent man came. It was a bum room with a sick kid in it. But you ought to have seen him go for the bread and tincture of formaldehyde. Half-starved, I guess. Then she prayed some. Don’t get stuck up, tenner. We one-spots hear ten prayers, where you hear one. She said something about ‘who giveth to the poor.’ Oh, let’s cut out the slum talk. I’m certainly tired of the company that keeps me. I wish I was big enough to move in society with you tainted bills.”
“Shut up,” says I; “there’s no such thing. I know the rest of it. There’s a ‘lendeth to the Lord’ somewhere in it. Now look on my back and read what you see there.”
“This note is a legal tender at its face value for all debts public and private.”
“This talk about tainted money makes me tired,” says I.