Passing Counterfeit Money and Other Thoughts on Policing

Here’s a story about passing counterfeit money:

I was traveling, in Amsterdam, about five years ago. I was nearly out of cash, so I went to an ATM in a modern mall, part of the Centraal Station area, where trains and trams transport passengers from all over the world. I got 100 euros, using my debit card. I did a little tourist-shopping. Then I stopped for a coffee and a croissant, at a Starbucks. The ultimate American thing to do.

When I got to the cashier, I gave him a ten-euro note from the cash I got from the ATM. He passed it through a machine and, in pleasant, Dutch-inflected English, informed me that the bill was counterfeit.

I was stunned—it can’t be, I said. I just got it from an ATM. He smiled, turned the machine toward me. Watch, he said. Then passed the bill under the machine several times, each time registering a bluish light and a red text: COUNTERFEIT. He pulled a pen-like device out from the cash register and ran it over the bill, as well. It was bad money, all right.

Do you have another way to pay? he asked. Preferably not a credit card?

I did. I gave him a handful of coins, change from other purchases, and it was good. He handed the counterfeit bill back to me. I don’t want it, I said. It’s policy, he said. 

I put it back into my zippered travel purse, and he said—ever so politely—you may want to keep that separate from your other money. I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket.

I was humiliated, although the cashier could not have been nicer. I left the Starbucks and drank the coffee standing up, out of sight, thinking dark thoughts about how a bank could have given me a bad bill. There was also no recourse. I could hardly go to the bank (if I could even find a bricks-and-mortar bank with the right name) and tell them that they gave me a bogus ten-euro note, demanding my money (approximately 12 dollars) back.

I went back to where we were staying and compared the bill with other ten-euro notes. I could not see the difference.  I thought about why a Starbucks in an international crossroads would scan every single bill, and how a usually reliable source of currency like a major bank could make a (face it, relatively minor) mistake. Stuff happens, as the bumper sticker says.

Eventually, I realized how incredibly lucky I was. I was a middle-aged white woman tourist, obviously (to the guy in Starbucks) American—probably to everyone else I passed. I was treated as if—of course—I had inadvertently been given a bad bill.

No harm, no foul. Just pay for your coffee. Stop being a Karen.

As the conversation in America moves to defunding or reshaping police forces across the country, it’s worth thinking about all the minor infractions happening every day in the realm of criminal justice, and how we interpret those as seriously criminal or merely needing correction. Potentially harmful things we all do—not using your turn signal on occasion, for example—but only some of us pay for.

It’s also worth thinking about infractions we deal with in the classroom, where teachers police the behaviors of children.  

Any teacher who is honest with herself will, if pressed, acknowledge that some kids get away with more. That we—at least mentally—label kids: Sneaky. Helpful. Lazy. Compliant. Honest—or dishonest.

The first (and only) time a genuine crime was committed in my classroom happened over 25 years ago, when a saxophone was stolen. The child who owned the saxophone suddenly ‘couldn’t find’ it. I thought it would turn up—my personal assumption was that the saxophone’s owner was ‘careless.’

After a month or so, I got a call from the local music store. A woman had tried to sell the saxophone in question to the store, which also dealt in used instruments, saying it was no longer needed by her daughter. Fortunately, the store kept serial numbers of instruments it had sold over time, and it was, indeed, the missing saxophone.

The child who lifted the sax from the band room was a compliant and helpful student. Her mother, who tried to cash in on a stolen instrument, was on the school board. When I brought the mess to my principal, he directed me not to tell anyone. Because it would make US look bad.

The missing sax was returned to its owner—whose parents were not informed that someone tried to sell their kid’s possession. Even though we knew. No harm, no foul. Don’t rock the boat.

All of these people are white, of course.

Things have got to change.

2 Comments

  1. Everyone who works as an authority figure, I think, tends to classify folks who have just broken rules as one of two types– well-meaning folks who just made a mistake, but are no threat to the system, and ill-intentioned folks who are trying to Get Away With Something and who must be put in their proper place. Some authority figures make the classification based on behavior or “respect,” and some figure it’s all just a matter of race and/or class.

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    1. Exactly. As a teacher, I was often taken aback by other teachers’ assessments of students I saw as rambunctious but good-hearted, or popular but devious. They were suspicious of my evaluations as well. Everyone has their triggers (mine was: All Band Kids are Good. Ha).

      The district where I taught was largely, but not entirely homogeneous–white, middle-class kids with two parents. But there was a big, 600-unit mobile home park on one side of the district. All of the kids who lived in the park went to one elementary school. Later, when a new elementary school was built, the boundary-shuffling revealed a strong, ugly preference for having the kids from the mini-mansion subdivisions go to the brand new school, and busing kids from the trailer park to the oldest and crappiest building. People on the committee (!) justified this by noting that people who lived in the trailer park paid their property taxes to the park management company, rather than individually, as standalone homes do. So, even when race is not an issue, kids are stratified by income.

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