Cash on hand. In hand. Rarely these days, because why carry dirty paper when there’s clean, convenient plastic tucked in by the phone and welcome almost anywhere? But there were days when cash was king. Days of waiting table, paid in cash, watching the plastic tip buckets fill and counting on the possibilities that engendered – rent and food, certainly, but really it promised Paris.
I worked until my feet could take no more and then worked a bit longer and then kissed my boyfriend and rode my cash to London, to Paris, to wandering southwestern France, buying my way to bottles of wine better than I drink now and bullfights and dreams of the lost generation and the beautiful, the damned and the talented. I sat on provencal beaches, counting how long my cash would last and made my way back to Paris and the shelter of Shakespeare and Company and the pleasures of a kir and plate of chips overlooking the Seine and losing myself in the twists and turns of left bank streets and my own wild romanticism.
When the francs ran low and the exchange rate started to fall away from favorable, I tuned my cash into pounds and my attention back to London, then turned the cash into a rail pass and headed north. I slept on trains to save my hotel cash for the apples and cheese and cans of baked beams that fed me from Orkney to Cornwall and back again. Picasso gave way to Merlin, altogether different men and time, but both with their magic. The cash I hoarded for books could be set aside for museums if I was cagey about hostel book exchanges or kept my eyes out for the stories left behind on the trains. So many stories on those trains.
One chance traveling companion set aside a book telling me dismissively that if there was no romance, she wasn’t interested. For me, every story was a romance. It was a courtship with words and lives I might have lived or might live still. My cashless constraints made me spend attention rather than dollars. This happened again in later life, living alone and making the mortgage, and I’d pay the bills and then count out $300 in cash that was meant to feed me and the pets and the car and provide any pleasures I could afford. And since I couldn't’ afford many cash pleasures, I learned to revel in the free ones, the pleasure of hard work in the garden and replaying the same cassette tapes over and over and a long soak in hot water and waking to the possibilities of a day spent walking the woods or rowing the river. I’d rather have my steady supply of cash than the poverty of those lean, young times, but I treasure the knowledge of self and world that I bought in that cashless time.