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Checking out cash's new cachet, the golden dollar coin

By Ellen Fox

APRIL 3, 2000:  You can't use 'em in parking meters -- yet. They don't fit in the coin slots of newspaper boxes downtown. Pay phones have no truck with them either. But to hear the tellers talk at banks like Harris and LaSalle, the new Sacagawea-sporting "golden dollar" coin is selling out. And it's little wonder: slip the shiny, two-month old currency in place of a worn-out paper dollar during transactions and watch its recipients' eyes light up. It's as if you'd given them real gold!

There isn't a speck of real gold in it, of course -- it's mostly just copper. But while it's still nowhere near as sexy as French currency (franc notes sport a bare-breasted female revolutionary), the dollar coin's face lift -- from crone-like feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony to bright-eyed, pioneering Shoshone teen mom Sacagawea -- is clearly a welcome bit of change. (If nothing else, it is certainly the only coin in the world depicting a papoose.)

"Ed! You seen this?!!" the McDonald's cashier hollers back to her manager as I pay for fries. "It's golden!" she gasped with eyes as wide as the proverbial (and now passe) silver dollars.

Ed emerges from the oily depths and inspects the coin the way easily-impressed natives are always examining European trinkets in the movies. He withdraws a dollar from his wallet and exchanges it for the coin. "You got another?" he begs, and I trade him again.

If Ed wanted, he could simply drop by any of the larger banks in town and pick up a roll of $25, or change them individually. The Federal Reserve started shipping them out to commercial banks near the end of January, though smaller banks might not have them yet. For some reason, Citibank doesn't carry them. The John Hancock Tower Bank One branch was accidentally shipped those angular Susan B.'s.

But while perfect for CTA and postal use (yes, you can use them in their machines), not every one is drooling over the dollars. The cashier at the pipe shop doesn't blink when I hand her the coins, nor does the harried popcorn-baggers at Garrett's. My cabbie just grunts and tosses them into his armrest. I leave the taxi in anxiety, wondering if he fully understands that the coins aren't quarters -- they're dollars, really!

Panhandlers and Streetwise vendors are wary, perhaps not having had the TV and Internet resources to find out about the change. (The Website -- usmint.gov -- includes a wealth of info on the coin's history and real-life model.) By the end of April, there will be half a billion of the coins in circulation. Use them freely with unsuspecting folks now (especially you, Tooth Fairy), before their sheen of novelty wears off.

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