When Pennies Fail to Pay the Bill, a Bronx Man Pushes for Change

A “penny saved is a penny earned,”  A “penny for your thoughts.”  This article brings a whole new look at “penny” sayings.  

Published: May 4, 2007 
Juan Lin accepted some pennies Thursday for Wayne Jones’s $2.75 takeout orderEvery penny counts. But 10 of them didn’t one recent night in the Bronx, and that’s how the trouble started.

It was about 11:30 p.m. on April 23 when Wayne Jones stopped at the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant in the Soundview section. Mr. Jones, 47, a lieutenant with the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Service, ordered four fried chicken wings to go. The total was $2.75.

Mr. Jones placed his money on the counter: two $1 bills, two quarters, one dime, one nickel — and 10 pennies.

“The lady behind the counter started yelling, ‘No pennies, no pennies,’ ” Mr. Jones said. The woman told him she would take 3 or 4 pennies, he said, but not 10.

Mr. Jones asked her why, but said he got no answer. An argument ensued, and Mr. Jones said he was asked to leave, with his $2.75 but without his chicken wings. He was outraged. He told his wife and two daughters to never order from Great Wall again. Then he sent e-mail messages to a number of elected officials.

He said that he believed the restaurant considered counting change a nuisance, and that this attitude discouraged poor and homeless people from buying meals there.

The tale of the 10 pennies unfolded yesterday in a sort of sidewalk circus. It was a melodrama of pocket-change proportions, part political stagecraft, part whodunit and, perhaps, part slow news day.

Reporters descended upon the cramped, seatless lobby of Great Wall as customers elbowed their way inside to order food. A Bronx lawmaker stood outside alongside Mr. Jones, vowing to take up the issue in Albany. And the worker Mr. Jones said had refused his pennies, Juan Lin, denied the allegations, saying that she did indeed accept them and displaying, as proof, a clear plastic container filled with pennies — customers’ pennies, she said.

As reporters pestered her with questions and a crowd, including a number of ministers, gathered on the sidewalk, Ms. Lin came out from behind the counter, breaking down in tears as she stood beneath menu pictures of beef and broccoli and fish sticks. She shook the small cup of pennies, went back behind the counter and took more lunchtime orders. The day’s special was a chicken sandwich, for $2.50.

Rubén Díaz Sr., a state senator whose district includes the restaurant on Watson Avenue, called the news conference outside Great Wall. His staff members handed out a draft of a bill Mr. Díaz plans to introduce in the Senate, requiring retail establishments to accept all forms and denominations of legal tender, with violations punishable by a fine of up to $500 or 30 days in jail, or both.

“We are a poor community,” Mr. Díaz said. “And we are in America. This is America. If you want to do business in America, you have to accept all American currency.”

As Mr. Jones put it: “This is a diverse community. They pay in diverse ways.”

Outside the restaurant, the block was abuzz with talk of spare change and spare ribs. Mr. Díaz referred to the treatment of Mr. Jones that night as “a kind of discrimination,” and at least one of the ministers who showed up at the restaurant in support of Mr. Jones spoke of getting the city to shut the restaurant down.

One customer, Bernadine Priester, 44, said Great Wall had once refused her pennies, too. “They look at you funny when you go in there with pennies,” she said.

Yesterday, she had no problem with the service. She placed her order with Ms. Lin, paid with a $5 bill and walked out with her lunch.

Mr. Jones spent more than an hour on Watson Avenue, explaining to reporters how this happened. He is a preacher and community liaison at the nearby Mount Zion C.M.E. Church, and he lives with his family, who had been regular Great Wall customers, in an apartment less than a block from the restaurant.

That night, he said, he had a lot of change in his pocket that he was eager to get rid of. “I could have very easily pulled out another form of currency and paid her in it,” he said. “But it was the principle of the thing. I could’ve been anyone. I could’ve been somebody off the street who had no other means of currency.”

After most of the reporters and Mr. Díaz had left, Mr. Jones went inside Great Wall and spoke briefly with Ms. Lin. “She did apologize,” Mr. Jones said later. “We shook hands. And then I placed an order.”

He asked for four chicken wings. He paid the $2.75 with two $1 bills, two quarters, one dime, one nickel — and 10 pennies.

Source of information: The New York Times