One would think that some New Yorkers were fresh off the boat, or at least had never seen the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer is refused his calzones after attempting to pay in pennies. Everyone knows that merchants frequently won't accept bills over $20 or other denominations; don't they?
Apparently not! The New York Times has an article today over a man so incensed his local Chinese restaurant wouldn't accept pennies as payment––not for the full sum, just as change (his bill was $2.75, and he paid with two dollar bills and some change, including ten pennies)––that he e-mailed a number of elected officials. The media circus ensued:
Reporters descended upon the cramped, seatless lobby of Great Wall as customers elbowed their way inside to order food. A Bronx lawmaker stood outside alongside Mr. Jones, vowing to take up the issue in Albany. And the worker Mr. Jones said had refused his pennies, Juan Lin, denied the allegations, saying that she did indeed accept them and displaying, as proof, a clear plastic container filled with pennies — customers’ pennies, she said.
As reporters pestered her with questions and a crowd, including a number of ministers, gathered on the sidewalk, Ms. Lin came out from behind the counter, breaking down in tears as she stood beneath menu pictures of beef and broccoli and fish sticks. She shook the small cup of pennies, went back behind the counter and took more lunchtime orders. The day’s special was a chicken sandwich, for $2.50.
State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. called a press conference outside the restaurant to play the race card, exclaiming “And we are in America. This is America. If you want to do business in America, you have to accept all American currency.” That's a great sound bite, except completely untrue. If state senator Diaz, Jr. saw the Seinfeld episode where Kramer was kicked out the pizzeria for trying to pay in change, he would be familiar with the U.S. Treasury's policy regarding payment and pennies. It states that while pennies are legal tender as payment for a contractual debt or payment to a government organization, private merchants are free to determine whatever legal tender they do and do not want to accept.
Still, the Post reports that Diaz is "drafting legislation to slap business owners who refuse pennies with a fine of $500, 30 days' jail or both" - let's hope other State Senators are familiar with Treasury policy. And the Daily News' article implies that a misunderstanding started the penny debacle.
There's also an amusing story about a man whose brother dared him to collect a million pennies and what happened when the brother succeeded, but found it hard to find anyone to cash them in or even dispose of them. There's a happy ending.