Bag of Slugs

A photo of a small coin purse — with coins; not slugs — that is similar to the one mentioned in this piece. (Photo by Jack Szwergold; Taken January 1, 2020)

It was a Saturday in the early 1980s; maybe 1981 or 1982. The day was nice and non-eventful and I was putzing around in my room doing not much of anything when I heard something which was not much at all: It was an odd hush around the apartment.

It was odd because there would always be sound of some kind. Either my mom and dad talking to each other, noise from the TV or radio or even the noise of food being prepared or cleaned up in the kitchen. Pure silence didn’t occur in my apartment unless it was intentional. And judging by the faint whispers I heard from my mom and dad, something intentional was happening.

I got up and walked down the hallway of the apartment. There was nothing and nobody in the bedroom and less in the bathroom and kitchen. But as I got to the living room, that’s when I saw it: My mom was sitting down on the couch talking to my dad in Polish or Yiddish and my dad was standing near the window looking down to the alley in the back of the building and talking back to my mom.

“What’s happening?” I asked my dad. He shushed me a bit, and made a hand motion for me to come to him.

“Be quiet,” he said as he stepped aside and let me get near them window. I peered down with him and saw it: Two fairly bulky Russian guys talking to each other near the barrels and boxes just outside the back basement stairs.

“What are they doing?” I quietly asked my dad.

“I don’t know,” he responded, “Just be careful.”

With that he went back to sit on the couch and talk to my mom about what he saw. I stood by the window and watched the two Russian guys talk and gesture to each other. Some kind of backroom conversation was happening. About what? I had no idea. But they were passionate about something.

This went on for a while — maybe about 10 or 15 minutes — and then suddenly they just left.

I told my dad who stood up and looked out the window with me. As we tried to see what we could see, I spotted something on top of one of the barrels: A small black purse.

“Look!” I said to my dad. He looked down and said, “Oh, I don’t know.”

“What could be in it?” I asked and he just said, “Don’t touch it!” almost reading my pre-teen mind as we stared down at the purse.

I looked at him, looked at the purse and ran back to my room. He followed me close behind and asked “Where are you going?” And as I put on my sneakers I said, “I’m getting that purse.”

“No!” he said as I stood up, grabbed my keys and headed to the door. “It will be quick. Don’t worry,” I said as I bolted down the stairs.

Our apartment was only on the second floor, so I got down quickly. Once on the ground floor and near the mailboxes, I turned and headed to the air shaft door.

Nobody other than the building’s super, Johnny, really went through that doorway since it just lead to the air shaft and the basement entrances. So I was a little bit nervous about pushing that door open. But once I put my hand on the handle, I took a deep breath, darted out the door, across the air shaft to the basement stairs, down the stairs and across the way to the other side and there I saw it: The little black purse.

I paused for a second, grabbed it, and then ran back out.

As I ran back to the air shaft I could hear the sound of Johnny and his whole family talking and wondering what happened. When Johnny saw me he asked, “Jack? What happened?” I ran to the building door and shouted, “I dropped something!” as I went through that door and headed up the stairs back to our apartment.

My dad was waiting for me right there, hanging outside the apartment door and simply said, “Come! Come inside! Quick!” as he held the door open and I jogged back inside.

I ran to my room and my dad followed.

I put the purse down on the table and took a breath or two before opening it up. What was in it? It felt bulky but oddly light.

As my dad came by my desk, I unzipped it and let its contents pour out: It was a bunch of round pieces of metal of various sizes.

“What is this?” my dad asked as I thought the same thing as I spread the pieces of metal across my desk.

After a few seconds I realized what they were.

“Slugs!” I told my dad as I reached over to my toy safe/bank and opened it up. I took out some coins and compared the sizes of real coins to what was in that purse. The round bits of metal were the exact sizes of quarters, dimes and nickels. The bulk of the slugs were quarter sized.

“This is fake money,” I told my dad and as he handled some of the slugs he said, “And what can we do with this?” he asked.

I responded “I can use them in candy machines.” Candy and prize machines were still around on pretty much every street corner, so to me this was a mini-gold mine.

“Okay, but be careful!” he said.

With that I headed outside with a few of the slugs.

I wanted to test them out but not too close to home. So that ruled out Met Food or the Speedway drugstore machines. So I headed over to Brighton 6th Street and put a quarter I one of the machines, carefully turned the handle and to my own amazement… It worked! I got someone thing.

I took out a dime slug, put it in one of the smaller candy machines, turned the handle and got some candy.

This was great! As I walked home I thought about how cool this cache of slugs was; it was like 2 weeks worth of allowance to buy junk! Win for me and a win for my dad since I didn’t have to constantly ask him got money when I went out to buy junk like this.

I wondered about the Russians who left the purse behind. Was it an accident? What were they doing? I assumed the slugs were samples of work that one of the guys did and they were negotiating some kind of deal.

But who were the slugs for? Would they be buying cigarettes with them from the vending machines that still existed in the bar around the corner? Would they be selling the slugs to fellow Russians it’s a discount so people could make cheap phone calls or save on doing laundry?

Who knows and I wasn’t going to ask. I was simply a kid from a poor family who stumbled on a little back of fake coins by accident and would make the best use of them I could: By ripping off corner vending machines for my own amusement.

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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Jack Szwergold

Jack Szwergold

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.

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