Wednesday, December 10, 2014


They're tiny and seemingly meaningless- but in their day these little babies were the gateway to the rest of the world beyond my own neighborhood. They have always held a fascination for me. The first time I saw one was on my father’s dresser with his change. I remember that I didn't need one until I was over 6. I still recall the slogan- "Little enough to ride for free- little enough to ride your knee."

As a coin collector I used to shun these little guys- but I always made sure to save one or two whenever the NYC tokens were changed. I have given them away, one by one, over the years, to friends and my kids. My wife even has one of the older little ones as a necklace. In 1967 I went by "D" train into Manhattan and shopped at Macy's on 34th Street for Christmas using one of these same tokens.

The best part of holding one of these in your hands is the unknown, untold story that each could tell. Look at the Honolulu token for instance. I see a sailor on liberty in pre-World War II Hawaii. The trolley probably took him from the docks to the bar district or maybe he even had a girlfriend. Where was this token on the morning of December 7th, 1941? Oh, how I wish these guys could talk!

The Baltimore and the South Carolina tokens are from the days of segregation and were once held in the hands of white, blue collar workers as well as the African American passengers, who, after handing over the fare had to "move to the rear of the bus." How odd that they could share the tokens but not the seats...

The Miami token recalls a time when people from New York went down to Florida for the winter. While there they used the streetcars and rode alongside the Cuban maids and hotel workers. I have a picture of my mother's family in Miami in the 1940's and can't help wonder if my mom; or even my great granddad Max; used one of these on the way to Neiman Marcus to shop. Maybe even this one!

The delicate designs, the flourishes at the edges and the delightful cutouts in the centers give these tokens all the grace of real coins. They are hallmarks to the past.

You can find these little beauties in almost any coin shop- usually in a box marked "Special" and selling for less than a buck. I like to turn them over in my hand and read the inscriptions and spin stories in my head about them, where they were and who used them. Not bad for less than a buck.

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