by Buell Hollister

The room was a numismatic nunnery, filled with women, some of whom had been doing the same job, day after day and year after year, for almost half a century. They were tasked by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank with taking dilapidated paper money out of circulation. The job was just simple enough, yet just demanding enough, and the company among each other was just sufficient (enough) so that not a single one of them—except those who dropped out due to the demands of child bearing—had left. Certainly it was sufficient to Mildred, who had rarely missed a day for forty years.

Her penciled eyebrows arched in a high Betty Grable style that gave her a slightly surprised look, and her clothing, a bit larger in the waist to accommodate the changes in her body that four decades had wrought, had not been affected much by fashion since she started. She preferred polka dots on a blue background, or sometimes flowers.

She sat in one of the Boston Fed’s deepest and most secure rooms at a long desk lined with dozens of other women just like her, little partitions rising between them and a conveyor belt within easy reach in front of them all. The soft green walls were decorated only with black-framed photographs of the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank and a clock. Every day on the way to her workstation, Mildred passed through the Bank’s large granite front door, then down hallways and floor levels through security checkpoints, each more demanding and selective than the one before it. There were hidden traps and not-so-hidden steel gates, all designed to spring shut at the press of a remote button. The Fed had designed a system that was meant to persuade any rational criminal (and even a few who were not so rational) not even to think about robbing it in his wildest dreams.

As nunneries go, this was a somewhat noisy one filled with chatter about friends and relatives, movies seen, TV shows. Each woman would pick up the bundles of tattered bills from a canvas bin on castor wheels, separate them by denominations, then stack them in trays for ones, fives and so on. When her trays were full, Mildred would count the money, write the sum down, and then take each little stack to a punching device that would spear six diamond-shaped holes through it. Mildred, like the others, would then band and toss the bundle onto the belt. Her bundle would join the rest, moving along, rocking slightly, until it disappeared in an opening in the wall. Mildred had done the exact same thing every day for her entire working career. She felt that she had an important job. A lot of people have no idea that the Fed disposes of old paper money, she would say; people think that it turns into compost or something, but if someone doesn’t make it go away officially, newly printed money would just dilute everything—or at least a little more than it already does.

Mildred’s brain overflowed with trivia about paper money. She, like all the women, knew whose faces were on each denomination; a cheer went up when one of them found a U.S. Grant or a Ben Franklin, for example. On extremely rare occasions, a $500 William McKinley would turn up with a sizeable rip. Bills like that, or the $1000 Grover Cleveland or even the $5,000 James Madison, would come in once every few years, always torn deliberately in half. Half now, someone must have said, and you get the other half when the job is done. The women had never seen anything as big as a $10,000 Salmon P. Chase or a $100,000 Woodrow Wilson. That was no surprise since the last one was only used in transactions between branches of the Federal Reserve Bank itself and never appeared in general circulation.

Mildred liked handling the old paper money; it was inevitably soft, faded and ragged—sometimes patched with Scotch Tape, others missing corners, even whole ends. Many had little notes written on them, telephone numbers or people’s names. They occasionally said startling things like “I love you Janice—will you marry me?” Mildred had rubber protectors for her fingertips. As she flipped through the money, lips barely moving as she counted, she would imagine the people who had handled it in the past. The money had begun to take on their identities—she could imagine them clearly, going through their lives, using the very paper she was now counting to buy groceries, a drink at the local pub, a set of gym socks at Walgreens. A five spot would say “For Sally’s birthday” or have an address or phone number written down with a ballpoint pen. People used those pieces of currency in ways the engravers never imagined.

* * *
Then one day, without warning, it was all over.

There had been a budgetary cutback in Washington and she was given a painful choice: either retire or take a cut in pay and continue employment in the room where all currency met its final end; the shredding room. No skill required there, she was told, but since she had been such a good employee for so long, it was better than nothing.

She could not sleep the night before she was due to report to the new job.

Of course she knew that the money she had sorted, counted and punched was destroyed soon after, but the knowledge was more on an intellectual level; she had never really visualized—accepted—that destruction in a visceral sense and thus had no idea of what would happen to her. The first day she reported to work on the other side of the wall through which the conveyor belt ran, she thought she had been cast into a different universe. Everything was backward. The belt came at her with those bundles of cash instead of going away. The walls were a darker shade of green and there were no photographs, not even a calendar on them. The room shook with noise and a fine dust hung in the air, the residue of microscopic bits of cellulose puffing from the shredder. The bundles of bills marched, trembling ever so slightly (or was that just her imagination?), along the belt until they tipped into the mouth of the big machine that ground them into a featureless jumble of matter the same color as the walls. Mildred was supposed to tend the shredder, make sure the bundles of money did not fall to the floor, and change the bags on the other end when they got full. Full of the remains of her friends. Her skin dampened; she suppressed a thin scream of claustrophobic panic. She stood there, quite still for a long time, her stomach liquefying, then turned and ran crazily back out the door, down the hallways, past all the guards, through the heavy security gates, flung her identity card away and finally burst out into the Boston spring air smelling of the great, clean ocean.

Buell Hollister’s biography, in his own words: University of Virginia graduate – BA in English, with subsequent training in marine biology many years later in a fit of mid-life self reinvention. Originally I was a newspaper reporter for several years, then worked for Tufts University in its alumnae publications and newsletters. Simultaneously, I was a contributing writer for several boating and general interest periodicals including Sail Magazine, WoodenBoat, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and others. I was the Boston correspondent for the National Fisherman, a trade publication for the commercial fishing industry. After going back to school I spent the next fifteen years working for Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. I was also President of the St. Botolph Club in Boston, a club centered around the arts. I have done much freelance editing for other writers, both fiction and non fiction, and have put out several newsletters for various organizations. A few years ago, I ventured into full-time fiction writing myself. I recently published a novel, Leeram in Fordlandia, a yarn about a shrunken head with the personality of a New York cabdriver (Merrimac Media in Cambridge). I have also had poetry and short stories published in the Tufts Literary Magazine and Temenos Magazine.