Tonight, I hailed a friendly cab in Los Angeles, and as I checked my wallet to be sure I could pay him, I made my usual crack about how it's hard to know how much money you have because US currency all looks the same. Suddenly the driver perked up, interested not so much in where I'd traveled as in what other currencies I'd seen. So we talked about plastic Australian money that never wears out and the vagueness of the Euronotes and the beauty of the portait-format Swiss.
He was Egyptian, he said, but his wife was Mexican, and he held forth about both countries' banknotes. His daughter, he explained, was collecting all the currencies of the world. Or really, it seemed, he was doing it for her. He wanted her to grow up knowing about the size of the world, and to feel the sense of possibility in the idea that someday she might travel to all these places.
He listed some of the currencies he already had, mostly from non-Euro Europe, Japan, a few others. He was just getting started when we reached my hotel.
So I said: hey, just hang on a minute, ok? He did, and I ran up to my room. I happened to have my "international wallet" there -- the one with my passport that I carry overseas -- and I recalled I had some cheap notes there from Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. I ran back down, suffused with a wonderful sense of immediate and unquestionable purpose.
He was waiting in the lobby, smiling. Finally I got a good look at him: 30s, muscular, crucifix pendant, and just unbelievably happy.
I gave him an Australian 5, (small, purple, durable plastic, young Queen Liz on the front but also a sprig of Eucalyptus, and on the back, the fearsome symmetries of the capital, Canberra). I gave him a New Zealand 10 (blue, calm, with Kiwi suffragette Kate Sheppard on the front, mellow ducks reverse). And I gave him Hong Kong 10 and 20 (REALLY big, fierce lions, lots of abstraction, and a premodern pastoral scene). Then I tried to pay him. I owed him $9 and while that was all worth a bit more than that, I knew he couldn't eat it. No no, he would take nothing. He was beaming. His daughter would be overjoyed, and that was what mattered most.