Letter from the spices aisle

There was plenty of food to buy and there were few people shopping for it at Wegmans yesterday morning, which was probably about right for ten A.M. on a normal Friday. At the entrance, a policeman in uniform was standing in front of the citrus display, but he mostly seemed to be checking his phone. Am I overreacting? I wondered. I was at a grocery store instead of at my desk because I had thought that this wasn’t going to be a normal morning. Over breakfast, I had seen a tweet in my feed of empty shelves in Hokkaido, Japan, where a state of emergency had recently been declared on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Stores there had sold out of all paper products. I knew what happens to milk and bread at New York City grocery stores when there’s a rumor of a snowstorm, and had figured I had better sacrifice my hours for writing, which are never all that productive anyway.

I had a long shopping list. It didn’t make sense not to do the shopping for the week as well as for the apocalypse. I had instructed myself only to buy things that we regularly do eat and use. Oatmeal, farro—neither of which I could find, and I was too shy to ask, though Peter tells me that Wegmans does have both, the oatmeal we like apparently located in the “British” section of an ethnic foods aisle—canned beans, lentils. An exception: tunafish. In the early years of our relationship, Peter and I ate far too many servings of a dish we ended up calling “tunabeans” and now we almost never eat tuna from a can. But cans of tuna seemed very much like the sort of thing one eats at the end of the world. We joke a lot about how we’ll probably have to eat catfood in our old age, for example. I bought two.

Would two be enough? I wasn’t sure what I was planning for, exactly. Sheltering in place during some kind of general lockdown? Sweating out at home our own cases of coronavirus? (Would that even be legal?) I added a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, which we allow our otherwise vegeta- and pescatarian selves to eat when we have respiratory ailments. But two cans of soup wouldn’t be enough if either of us actually did get sick. On the other hand, we weren’t sick yet. Maybe because it was hard to believe I was really buying groceries for a plague, I only seemed able to do it halfheartedly.

I bought a couple of boxes of tissues, even though I’m a handkerchief person, and as I put them in my cart, in my head I wrote a joke, which I later shared on Twitter, about how I was going to use them in a few weeks as currency, the way packs of cigarettes used to be traded in the gulag archipelago. Shopping in extremis seems to put me in mind of the Warsaw Pact. When I lived in Prague, decades ago, while Czechoslovakia was in a ditch between communism and capitalism, there were rolling, unpredictable shortages because farmers and other producers of goods were hoarding in anticipation of being able to get better prices once the new world order arrived. For a long time there were no potatoes; at one point, there was a run (as it were) on toilet paper, and on paper generally. Having been triggered by the Hokkaido tweet, I bought four rolls, and two of paper towels, in addition to the tissues. For years after Prague, I remained neurotic about keeping a stocked pantry, and about having candles and matches in a drawer somewhere in case the power went out. Half a dozen years ago I even made Verizon give us a backup battery when they insisted on replacing the good old-fashioned copper cable to our landline with a fiber optic one, which doesn’t transmit electricity. The phone company has a power system independent of Con Edison’s, and Verizon’s “update” was going to disconnect us from it. Now this backup battery is so old that it beeps an announcement of its death every few months, but as with most modern applicances, if you unplug it and then plug it back in, it resets and you get a little more life out of it. Just before leaving for the grocery store, in fact, it had been beeping and I had unplugged it anew.

When I started this essay, I thought I knew where it was going, but now I’m not sure.

When I got home, I saw out the window that our neighbors across the way have put up a Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the snake asking not to be trodden. When I was a child, it was just a historical curiosity—I think it was around a fair amount during the bicentennial—but now it seems so dire. Last fall, when I visited my father, who lives in rural Texas, I was struck by how many houses in the state are flying “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t think I had ever seen flags for a political campaign before. Yard signs and bumper stickers, but not flags. And the presidential election was then still a year away! It suggested a shift in the kind of allegiance people were expressing. My parents both often tell me that I don’t understand what support for Trump is like in their part of the country now, and they’re probably right.

I put the groceries away, ate lunch, tried to do a little work. Later in the afternoon, on my bike on the way to Cross Fit, I decided I should write an essay about how shopping for a plague is reminding me of having lived once before in a society that was in crisis, but then I had been young and the disorder had seemed like an adventure and a challenge—like a story that I was visiting rather than one that I was described by. And Wegmans had been so calm! Maybe after all I was the one carrying around the anxiety about being able to provide in an emergency, perhaps on account of still being a writer, which doesn’t quite add up to a living. We still needed oatmeal and farro. There was a Whole Foods on the way back from Cross Fit, and after class, I stopped there on my bike ride home.

At Whole Foods, though I knew where to find the oatmeal we liked, there wasn’t any. “It’s getting pretty cleared out,” said an employee, when I asked if they really didn’t have that brand in stock. They still had another brand that we don’t like quite as much, so I took two bags of it. Then took another three, because we have oatmeal every morning. Would five be enough? There were still a few bags of farro; I took them. The only cans of beans still left were lesser-known varieties, but I already had enough beans. Most of the pasta shelves were empty. Maybe people who shop at Whole Foods are more avid news consumers than people who shop at Wegmans? Or maybe the mood of the city had changed over the course of the day? In which case perhaps it hadn’t actually been crazy of me to have gone to the store in the morning. I got in line with my few items, but while waiting, I started to feel anxious. Did I really have everything we needed? Had I gotten enough tunafish?

I went back. “We need QR codes for all of these,” one employee was saying to another, gesturing at empty shelves where cans of beans had been. “They just declared a state of emergency in California,” another employee volunteered. “The whole state?” I asked, shocked. “I don’t know because I haven’t had time to look into it,” he replied. (In fact, so far only a few counties in Califonia have declared emergencies.) I got more tunafish—four cans, this time. There were still two small boxes (not cans, this was Whole Foods) of chicken soup on the shelf, and they seemed to be the last ones. I took them, too. Before I left the aisle I remembered that we needed whole coriander, not for the apocalypse but just for our regular lives. Whole Foods doesn’t have whole coriander, only ground coriander, and I knew this, but “Walk Away, Renee” had started to play on the store loudspeakers, and Peter had told me last week that one of the members of the Left Banke had died recently, so I stood in front of the spices for a while as if to verify that they didn’t have whole coriander and it occurred to me while I was standing there trying to hold it together that this wasn’t going to be the first plague I had lived through, actually, even though this one looked like it was going to move a lot faster, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had had one night during Hurricane Sandy when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a video of a Con Ed transformer exploding down by the East River—a feeling that everything was coming apart and that maybe it was going to be too much for me. I was fine, though, I knew. Peter and I were in good health (and even if we came down with coronavirus, we’d almost certainly be fine), and I was shopping for things like farro and steel-cut oatmeal. I was living in the richest country in the world. It’s just a sad song, I told myself.

On the ride home it occurred to me that if Trump loses in the fall, then by this time next year he won’t be President. In fact he won’t have been President for five weeks. This might not happen, of course, but it was pleasant to think about.

What was the (New) York shilling?

Last night I was doing some Swedish death cleaning of old emails, as one does, and found that way back in 2006, when I was still attempting to write a book of New York history, I asked a listserv if anyone knew what was meant by a “shilling” in New York in the early 19th century. Then, about a month later, I reported back an answer. I gave up on that book of New York history long ago (and wrote Necessary Errors instead, and even returned the advance for the history book, which, I know, no one does), but at least to me as someone who today no longer knows much of anything about New York history, the answer I came up with looks impressively thorough and seems worth archiving. So here it is, for any googlers who need to know… (I have updated the links, all of which had died, but otherwise have left my 2006 answer more or less undisturbed by time.)

I wonder if any of you might be able to help me out with a numismatical question, or to point me in the direction of the answer. What was a “shilling” in New York City in the 1840s/1850s? I had thought it was just a way of saying 12.5 cents, and didn’t refer to an actual coin, but I’ve found an account of someone having his shilling engraved and framed (in the spirit that merchants today sometimes display above their cash registers the first dollar they ever took in). Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Thanks to everyone on the list who has helped out with the mystery of the New York shilling. It turns out the currency and coinage in the U.S. before the Civil War is a great big mess, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the New York shilling, or “York shilling,” was worth about 12.5 U.S. cents between the 1830s and 1850s, but that the actual coin referred to was a Spanish (or Latin American) real. There were eight reales in a Spanish dollar; thus the nickname for Spanish dollars, “pieces of eight.” (This would also explain the slang reference to a quarter as “two bits,” i.e., two reales, or two York shillings.) Frank Anderson found a picture of a Spanish real that circulated in New York, in the American Numismatic Society website.

The York shilling does not seem to have been equivalent to the English shilling or to the Canadian shilling. For example, in William Chambers’s Things as They Are in America (1854), the Astor Hotel is said to cost $2.50 a day, or “10s. English,” so it looks like an English shilling = 25¢. According to an 1834 guide for emigrants to Canada (Official Information for Emigrants, Arriving at New York and who are desirous of Settling in the Canadas, 5 Canadian shillings = 8 York shillings = US$1 = 4s 6d English money. (Of course, the exchange rate varied over time.)

Just as there were twelve English pence in an English shilling, there seem to have been twelve pence in a York shilling, making pence in New York almost equivalent to U.S. cents (12 N.Y. pence = 12.5¢). There’s an example of calculating in York shillings and pence in George G. Foster’s New York in Slices (1848). A waiter tallies up “Clamsoup sixpnce, rosebeef large, shilln, roastchikn eighteen, extra bread three, butter sixpnce, pickle sixpnce, pudn sixpnce, cheese three, claret two shilln,” and arrives at the sum of “seven shilln.” By a little primitive algebra, this means that 3 shillings + 48 pence = 7 shillings, and thus one York shilling is worth 12 pence. (Note that the pence in question would not be equivalent to English pence, which, like English shillings, would be roughly twice as valuable as the New York version.)

It seems hard to say for how long or how widely this meaning of a York shilling (i.e., 12.5¢, in the form of a Spanish coin) obtained. In the 1855 novel The Modern Othello, a young Irish boy in a morning of re-selling newspapers earns “50 cents, an one shillin’ an’ two fips,” which he later gives to his mother, saying, “There’s the 6 shillin’ an’ the two fips mother.” A “fip” seems to be a nickel; in any case, by his math, a shilling is worth only 10¢. Perhaps the value of a York shilling declined in the 1850s? Or maybe the novelist simply wasn’t much good at math. This is already more than I needed to know about New York coinage, so I’ll leave that mystery to other investigators. Thanks again to all who sent me advice and clues.