Opinion

Got change for my million dollar bill?

A grocery store clerk handed me a two-dollar bill the other day with my other change. My immediate thought was that the bill was bogus. After all, you so rarely see one that it’s easy to forget it is legal tender. But it’s got Thomas Jefferson’s face on it. However, if you ever receive a three or four-dollar bill — with the faces of Millard Fillmore and Zachary Taylor on them — be very suspicious.

Which brings to mind the story of Alice Pike. You may not remember her name, but you might recall her story. It happened several years ago, and Alice insisted she wasn’t trying to scam anyone at the Wal-Mart store in Covington, Ga. It was just an honest mistake. Yet, she was hauled off to the hoosegow on a charge of counterfeiting. At the time, a police officer was quoted as saying that Ms. Pike had tried to pull off “one of the most bone-headed moves ever.”

First of all, without trying to take sides, I believe that the word “bone-headed” is way out of line. After all, if a human head is not composed at least partly of bone, that head would feature a bare brain, making a person with such a head rather gross to look at and a poor dining companion. So the officer’s comment about Ms. Pike was block-headed.

For the record, here’s what happened to Alice Pike back in 2003: While trying to pay for merchandise totaling around $1,600, Alice gave the cashier at the Wal-Mart store a $1 million bill. Yes, I said a $1 million bill! An astute and eagle-eyed store manager immediately realized that the bill might be a fake. Some of the reasons he thought so included:

1. The bill featured a portrait of Mayor McCheese.

2. The building pictured on the backside was the Experience Music Project.

3. The bill bore the signature of “U.S. Treasury Secretary Pauley Shore.”

True, the preceding description is as phony as a $3 million bill. Nonetheless, they arrested poor Alice Pike. She told the police that she did not know the bill was a fake. She said her former husband had given it to her. Why would she have ever suspected a former husband of giving her phony money? All these years she’d probably been telling her friends, “He treated me very well in our divorce settlement.”

But it turns out — surprise — that the U.S. has never produced a $1 million bill. I always figured that guys like Bill Gates keep several $1 million bills in their wallets. After all, without million dollar bills, how would anyone be able to make change for a billion? But the Treasury Department doesn’t make them.

In fact, the highest denomination bill that the U.S. produces these days is the $100 version, the one with Benjamin Franklin’s mug on it. But up until 1945, the Treasury Department also printed a $1,000 bill (with Grover Cleveland), a $5,000 bill (James Madison), a $10,000 bill (Salmon P. Chase) and a $100,000 bill (Woodrow Wilson). So it might have made sense to Alice Pike that day at Wal-Mart that her bill was genuine, too.

But in fact, the fake money Alice tried to pass off was created in 1982 by a Canadian firm as a sort of toy item that they sold for a dollar. Back then, the Treasury Department decided there was no real violation of federal currency laws. In other words, the novelty $1 million bill is no more deceptive than trying to pass off a large pepper mill as the Space Needle. But Alice got in trouble because she apparently thought it was a real one-million dollar bill.

Nowadays, the Treasury Department prints money only in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and the aforementioned $100 denominations. This is thanks to the invention of alternate choices such as gift certificates, espresso punch cards and Free Beef Days at Les Schwab.

I sympathize with Alice Pike. Without my reading glasses, I could easily hand a clerk a $1 million bill while thinking it was a $10 bill. Do you think anybody would have been mad at Alice if she’d done that? I don’t think so.

Meanwhile, if the U.S. government ever does decide to mint a new denomination, how about a sixteen-dollar-and-fifty-cent bill? That way it’d be a lot easier to pay for two lousy, stinking hours of parking at a downtown Seattle parking garage.

• Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com.

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