In an increasingly cashless society where a national coin shortage has become an odd side effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the heroes might be unassuming types like Peter Merrill.
The 73-year-old Santa Fe-by-way-of-Long Island businessman took heed of the country’s coin plight and did his part by digging out his spare change jar. Inside, he said, was more than a decade’s worth of loose currency — nearly $4,000.
“This wasn’t the change you might find in your couch cushions or the cup holder in your car,” he said. “It might have started out like that, but it was more than that when it was over.”
His jar, roughly 15 inches tall and perhaps a foot wide, sat quietly in the back of a closet. Every trip to the store, he said, resulted in a tiny contribution.
A tab for $19.02 meant nearly a full dollar of loose coins. A cup of coffee here, a snack there — it all added up, one jingling pocketful at a time.
He’d even make a point to purchase a few dollar coins when making a bank deposit, coins that went straight into the jar.
“I always wondered how much was in there,” Merrill said. “I just never thought to check. I mean, who does? We all have loose change sitting around but mine happened to be in a jar you might see a bunch of pickles sitting in at your deli. It got to a point where it was too much for me to count.”
He always figured there would come a day when he’d cash in the change. That day was Aug. 13 when he made an appointment at his bank, First National 1870 on Cerrillos Road, after reading a sign at the post office about the national coin shortage.
In his own small way, Merrill knew he was the right man for the job.
“I came home and says to my wife, ‘I think that change could help,’ ” Merrill said. “It’s always nice to know you can do something good when people need it. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
Merrill has spent most of his adult life doing good. After moving to Santa Fe from Albany, N.Y., nearly 30 years ago, he has served as a classical singer and administrator with the Santa Fe Symphony Chorus, spent three years as the founder and chief of the Agua Fría Volunteer Fire District, and spent nearly a decade as the district commissioner for the local Boy Scouts of America.
Inspiration, he said, comes in many different ways. In this case, it happened to be a nondescript sign at the post office and a heapin’ helpful of coins lost to time.
Coming up with the plan was the easy part, he said. He isn’t sure how much his loot weighed, but it was too heavy for him to move all at once. He said he had to divide it into nine separate bags, which he put into a big plastic storage bin and wheeled out to his car with a hand cart.
He then reversed the process once he got to the bank, pulling each bag out of the car, putting the empty bin onto the cart, filling it up again and rolling it through the front door.
“I mean, what scale could I use for something I couldn’t even carry?” Merrill said. “It had to have weighed hundreds of pounds. Bigger than me.”
It took more than an hour for the staff at First National 1870 to sort through it all. Merrill jokes that it took that long to catch his breath.
The final tally: $3,845.77.
Merrill proudly keeps the receipt in his office at home.
“I’ve been at the bank for 17 years and that was definitely the most coin I have ever seen returned,” said Jay Toya, assistant vice president at First National 1870. “It was great to be able to put it back into circulation. This is a service we are happy to provide to our account holders.”
So what’s next?
A Mediterranean cruise perhaps?
Maybe hike to Machu Picchu or a week’s stay in Vegas?
None of the above. As the owner of a successful business specializing in mediation and arbitration reviews for construction disputes, Merrill said he’s got a far more practical goal in mind.
“I don’t drive anywhere, I don’t go anywhere, so I says to my wife, I says maybe a nice late-model used car,” he said, taking a mental detour to talk about the love affair he’s had with a 2004 Dodge Durango he’s been driving for years.
“I’ve lived a good, full life and, frankly, I just didn’t need the change,” he said. “Maybe it can be used to help someone out and maybe I’ll use that money for something fun.”