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November Diary
Ten-dollar whiskey shots, jury duty for profit, and more.


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John Derbyshire

The sawbuck economy     Mark Twain, heading westward in 1861:

In the east, in those days, the smallest moneyed denomination was a penny and it represented the smallest purchasable quantity of any commodity. West of Cincinnati the smallest coin in use was the silver five-cent piece and no smaller quantity of an article could be bought than “five cents’ worth.” In Overland City the lowest coin appeared to be the ten-cent piece; but in Salt Lake there did not seem to be any money in circulation smaller than a quarter, or any smaller quantity purchasable of any commodity than twenty-five cents’ worth. We had always been used to half dimes and “five cents’ worth” as the minimum of financial negotiations; but in Salt Lake if one wanted a cigar, it was a quarter; if he wanted a chalk pipe, it was a quarter; if he wanted a peach, or a candle, or a newspaper, or a shave, or a little Gentile whiskey to rub on his corns to arrest indigestion and keep him from having the toothache, twenty-five cents was the price, every time.

I’m starting to get the impression that in our time, at any rate in New York City, the smallest unit of currency is a ten-dollar bill.

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Being an old married guy, and a homebody, and stingy, I don’t drink in bars much any more. This month, though, for reasons that don’t matter, and are absolutely not life-, marriage-, or career-threatening, I’ve been spending time in Manhattan watering holes. A shot of Jack Daniels, I have learned, is now $10 on Third Avenue. (Though only $9.50 on Second. I’m going to leave the social anthropologists to work out the reason for the difference.)

A pack of cigarettes, I’m told, also goes for $10. “What this country needs,” opined Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, “is a really good five-cent cigar.” You can’t get a decent cigar under two bucks nowadays, to judge from tobacconists’ websites. I suspect that for an item of any quality, you’re looking at . . . ten dollars. I don’t know what the going price is for a chalk pipe, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear that that’s ten dollars, too.

W. C. Fields character: Was I in here last night and did I spend a twenty-dollar bill?

Bartender: Yeah.

Fields character: Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind! I thought I’d lost it.

Ol’ W. C. would only have got two Jack Daniels for his double sawbuck nowadays — barely enough to wake the taste buds.

A jury of your peers     An interesting story here from America’s Newspaper of Record. Headline:Jury duty? Pick me, please!”

A flagging job market is good for courts desperate to fill juries, officials said, adding that, for the first time in years, people are actually volunteering to play their required role in the American legal system.

“People are calling up, saying, ‘Look, I lost my job; now would be a good time for me to serve,’” said Vincent Homenick, chief clerk of the jury division for Manhattan. “Not that $40 will pay the bills, but it’s something.”

Homenick said he has gotten about 20 calls since May from folks asking if they could become jurors — far more than normal.

“The jury pool is also more diverse than normal right now,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of Wall Streeters and other professionals. It’s not your typical jury of civil servants.”

That confirms a thing most of us have long suspected: Trial by jury in the present-day U.S.A. is really trial by public-sector employees. They are the ones who will be least missed if they take a few weeks away from their “work.” They are also the ones with the most boring jobs, which they are glad to get away from — like this juror, a postal worker.

Happy birthday, Noddy!     Yes, the little wooden chap was 60 years old this month. The first of the Noddy books, Noddy Goes to Toyland, appeared in November 1949. I got it as a present for my fifth birthday seven months later, along with a fine rifle, which came with a cork attached by a length of string. You jammed the cork in the barrel and pressed the trigger, whereupon the cork flew out with a satisfying POP! Look, there wasn’t much going on in 1950 England.

Noddy got into trouble with the Thought Police in the 1980s because the villains in the stories were golliwogs. In one of the books, Noddy is the victim of a nighttime mugging and car-jacking by golliwogs. Good grief! The golliwogs were hastily retired, replaced in the villain role by scheming, hook-nosed goblins who looked to me like the old caricatures of Jews in anti-Semitic literature. The Thought Police seem not to have noticed the resemblance, though, so perhaps it’s just my fevered imagination.


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