Do coin collectors know something that we don’t?
Even in the first year of the second decade of the new millennium with its spiraling cornucopia of technological wonders, there are still persons whose job is to collect coins from parking meters.
Despite Sacramento’s move to switch many downtown meters to automated kiosks that accept cash or credit cards, then issue a dashboard ticket stating the amount of time purchased, an occasional coin collector can still be seen walking the streets.
Pushing a 5-foot Kelly-green canister topped with a funnel and rolling on two wheelbarrow tires, the collector moves from meter to meter, meticulously clearing each of their metallic contents. At best it seems a repetitive, mind-numbing livelihood, plodding along behind the canister, stopping, inserting the proper key, opening the meter and letting the coins noisily cascade into the funnel.
Walk 10 paces and repeat. Then repeat. And repeat and repeat and repeat.
Comparisons to the punishment of Sisyphus are inevitable. The legendary Greek king dodged the death ordained for him by the Gods and, when finally snared, was compelled to push a massive rock up an incline, only to have it fall back. Then push it up again and witness gravity pull it down once more.
Over and over. Endlessly. Forever and a half.
Meter after meter after meter. Day in. Day out. Meters are located outdoors instead of in the trackless netherworld. Nevertheless, the unremitting monotony seems comparable.
But is it?
In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus describes the main character as “the absurd hero.”
Yes, Camus says, Sisyphus is doomed to focus his whole being on accomplishing nothing. But when he walks back down to push the rock up anew, he is free.
“That is the hour of consciousness,” Camus says. “At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
In fact, Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
And so, might well be the parking-meter coin collector.
During the intervals between meters, like Sisyphus, the collector is completely free. Completely free to sing, skip, dance, recite poetry, let the mind wander to exotic locales, far from the Teichert & Son-stamped concrete beneath steel-toed work shoes.
For all the casual observer knows, the coin collector could be like the contented window cleaner in the old Van Morrison song, blowing a little saxophone on the weekend, listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, spending lunch reading Christian Humphreys on Zen or Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
Could be a classically trained bassoon player, an expert on SALT II, a pastry chef, a wine snob, a knitter, a Chihuahua breeder, an anime devotee.
Or just a coin collector hoping the tightness of the city budget means there will still be plenty of meters filled with plenty of coins until retirement age—when complete freedom finally arrives.