Jim Scalia collected pennies; no, not in a Hoarders sense. Jim had painstakingly amassed one of almost every penny produced in U.S. Mints from 1909 until 1964. He’d been collecting Lincoln pennies for about two years, placing each one carefully in its proper slot in a blue numismatist’s book. By the time I’d gotten to know Jim he lacked only the illusive 1955S, the rare 1909S and 1910S, and the ultimate prize, the 1909SVDB, which contained the initials of its engraver, Victor D. Brenner.
I remember the day Jim first showed me his collection. I think we were playing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at his house. This was long before the age of cosplay. We just thought it was cool to dress in suits and pretend we were secret agents. I went for the black turtleneck look of Illya Kuryakin, and Jim went for the white shirt and tie of Napoleon Solo. Dark sport jackets for both of us.
Some months later, Jim and I, still dressed as secret agents, joined the thirty other members of Mr. Remais’ Social Studies class in canvassing door-to-door throughout Canarsie for signatures on a petition to “Save the Wyckoff House.” The Wyckoff House was the oldest continually occupied Dutch house in the Five Boroughs, but it was in an advanced state of disrepair. Mr. Remais thought a class of 12 and 13 year-olds could save it. And we believed him.
Jim and I had never heard of the Wyckoff House up until then, even though it was alleged to be located at the northwest edge of Canarsie, so we had to check it out. One day after school we set out from Jim’s house, in full Man from U.N.C.L.E. regalia, and trekked toward the location described by our teacher. We crept stealthily through a heavily-weeded area that looked like it might be hiding the old Dutch homestead. Just when we began feeling hopelessly lost, we entered a clearing and discovered a not-quite-overgrown drive. Creeping along the edge of the drive, but still under weedy cover, we made our way to the house itself. It was indeed occupied, but we’d seen enough and had no desire to meet any occupants who would live in such squalor. We returned to Jim’s house determined to get our petition signed and restore the house to its 17th century glory.
Many days of canvassing followed, along with a letter-writing campaign to Brooklyn Borough President Emmanuel Cellar and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Then we waited.
It was during this seemingly endless wait that Jim showed me his penny collection. I was impressed. That night at supper, I told Mom and Pop about it.
“Didn’t (insert some obscure relative’s name here) have something like that, Art?” asked Mom.
“I think so,” said Pop.
“Where is it?” I inquired.
“Have you looked in your dresser?” Mom answered.
My dresser? The suggestion baffled me. Why would I look in my dresser for something I didn’t even know existed? Why look in my dresser for anything? Mom washed and put away my clothes. She knew my sense of color coordination well enough to lay my clothes out before waking me each morning. God help the world if I dressed myself. I did try once in sixth grade. I put on a giant red and white polka dot Soupy Sales bow tie over a brown and lime green striped polo shirt. “Never again” Mom huffed. I rarely looked inside my dresser anymore.
After supper, I went to my room to check my dresser. Yikes! There were more clothes in there than I thought I had. I gained new respect for Mom’s choices when I saw all the potential mismatches she contended with every day. But underneath each drawer’s layer of socks and underwear and polo shirts lay buried treasure.
In one drawer generations of wallets lay interred. Some bore the marks of hard wear, maybe by a grandfather or great-uncle. Others were pristine. They were even more likely to have come from an ancestor—a dead one. Brrr. Why my dresser?
The wallet drawer eventually yielded what is now a prized possession: an early 1950s era Brooklyn Dodger wallet. It was cheaply made, for kids not grandparents, but it was, and is still, beautiful. That wallet now lives in my current dresser drawer, under my hiking socks, waiting to be discovered by another generation.
Beneath the neatly-folded t-shirts in the bottom drawer, next to the box containing leftover ration books from WWII, I discovered the penny books, two of them. One held Lincoln cents from 1909-1940 and the other from 1941-1959. When I asked Mom and Pop whose they were, something I figured they’d know since the collection ended so recently, they shrugged, “Who knows?”
That’s the way it was at my house. Things—antiques and cheap trinkets—appeared out of nowhere.
I carefully opened the first book. Very few spots were vacant. At that time I didn’t know the value of the coins to which I previously referred, so I called Jim Scalia.
“Hey!” I said. “I found an old penny collection. Want to check it out?”
Jim said, “Maybe later. What’s it got?”
“Almost everything,” I answered.
“Does it have a 1909SVDB?”
“No, that space is blank. But it’s got everything else.”
“Shit! I’ll be right over!”
Jim arrived in about 20 minutes, not dressed as a Man from U.N.C.L.E. He looked over the coin books. Indeed, the only pennies missing between 1909 and 1962 were the 9SVDB and the 1955S, although the 1910S was too worn to have been of much value.
Jim asked for a magnifying glass and, of course, Mom offered him a choice of modern or antique. He kept examining the 1909S and saying, “Shit.” He finally told me it was in at least very good (VG) condition and was worth $30-45. That’s in 1964 dollars. Not bad for a penny. He said a few of the others, like the 1911S, were worth a few bucks too.
Jim and I stayed friends throughout junior high, going our separate ways sometime in high school. He never found his 1909SVDB. The Wyckoff House children’s campaign succeeded, and the house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1967. I still have the letter from Emmanuel Cellar congratulating me on a job well done. I visited there a few years back, but not dressed as Illya Kuryakin. Guy Ritchie directed a movie version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 2015, but it wasn’t as cool as the original TV series. I kept my penny collection until the early 80s. I sold it when I learned a pastor friend needed some help with a mission project. It brought about $90, mostly from the 1909S.
New Yorkers love their sports teams. The Baisleys were no different, as you’ll discover in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
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