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Picking pennies in front of a steamroller: A parable comes to life

Chapter 1

On Sunday we were over on 125 St so I stopped by the Jamaican beef patties place but they were closed. Jesus Taco was next door so I went there instead. What a mistake! I don’t know what Masanao and Yu-Sung could’ve been thinking. Anyway, then I had Jamaican beef patties on the brain so I went by Monday afternoon and asked for 9: 3 spicy beef, 3 mild beef (for the kids), and 3 chicken (not the jerk chicken; Bob got those the other day and they didn’t impress me). I’m about to pay and then a bunch of people come in and start ordering. The woman behind the counter asks if I’m in a hurry, I ask why, she whispers, For the same price you can get a dozen. So I get two more spicy beef and a chicken. She whispers that I shouldn’t tell anyone. I can’t really figure out why I’m getting this special treatment. So I walk out of there with 12 patties. Total cost: $17.25. It’s a good deal: they’re small but not that small. Sure, I ate 6 of them, but I was hungry.

Chapter 2

A half hour later, I’m pulling keys out of my pocket lock up my bike and a bunch of change falls out. (Remember—the patties cost $17.25, so I had three quarters in my pocket, plus whatever happened to be there already.) I see all three quarters plus a couple of pennies. The change is on the street, and, as I’m leaning down to pick it up, I notice there’s a parked car, right in front of me, with its engine running. There’s no way the driver can see me if I’m bending down behind the rear wheels. And if he backs up, I’m dead meat.

It suddenly comes to me—this is what they mean when they talk about “picking pennies in front of a steamroller.” That’s exactly what I was about to do!

After a brief moment of indecision, I bent down and picked up the quarters. I left the pennies where they were, though.

P.S. The last time I experienced an economics cliche in real time was a few weeks ago, when I spotted $5 in cash on the street.


  1. Aleks Jakulin says:

    Jesus taco makes quesadillas with flour tortillas they bake in front of you – that's what I always had there. There aren't too many places with homemade tortillas. Never tried anything else there.

  2. howardjp says:

    I have a similar story to the $5 at

  3. Andrew Gelman says:


    The Mexican place on Broadway, a block south of 125th, will make your tortillas by hand if you ask them to.

    But now that we found out that you can get maseca in the local grocery we've been making fresh corn tortillas at home. They're great.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I found a $50 two years ago. I'm an economist and the event strikes me deeply to the core almost every day. I could only justify it by simultaneously assuming the existence of a very rapid steamroller that I just didn't see.

  5. Mark Palko says:

    Whenever Dick Cavett had a tycoon on his show, he would ask "What's the smallest denomination of coin you'll stop and pick up in the street?" He found that almost everyone picks up a quarter but Donald Trump was about the only one who would bend down for a penny.

  6. Bob Carpenter says:

    Mitzi and I found $60 on the subway stairs a few years ago, but were the only people around for a block. We felt bad because $60 could make a real difference to someone, especially if it was all the money they had on them and no way to get more easily (not everyone has an ATM card and a positive bank balance — at minimum wage in New York, that's around 8 hours of work).

    My dad spends his entire walking (not waking) life staring at the ground around him for spare change or bills. He finds tons of it. When we're in New York, he stops to pick something up almost every block. He doesn't understand why we leave all that change lying around (odd, because he also stops to pet the dogs).

    That's Golden Krust we're talking about for patties, and they have branches all over the city, by the way. There's one on 14th between 5th and 6th Ave, right next to Crossroads, a very quirky wine store. Patties are realy easy to make, especially if you cheat and buy premade empanada wrappers. For instance, you could stuff Andrew's leftover chili in them and make portable finger food.

  7. Phil says:

    I have a friend who picks up pennies. Sometimes I drop a few and watch him pick them up. It's sort of an adult version of "would you eat a bug for a quarter?"

  8. Willem says:

    My family and I once were walking in Amsterdam when money literally fell out of the sky (really a lot of bills of various denominations, all in all a few hundred euros).

    So everybody starts laughing and running after the money. My aunt took it to the police, we were allowed to store it ourselves, in the following months nobody claimed it and it eventually was ours! My share was like 20 times my allowance at the time.

    …And that's why I became an economist.