Integrity Isn’t Worth the Cost of a Quarter

Copyright Tam Black 2010 Edited for May 2013 by permission
Copyright Tam Black 2010
Edited for May 2013 by permission

Did you know that a roll of quarters weighs about half a pound? Each quarter (40 in a roll) weighs about .2 ounces. So, if you go to pay for something (say at a vegetable market) and you have a roll of quarters, all the clerk needs to do to make sure your roll is complete is weigh it on the vegetable scale. If the scale shows “.5”—half a pound—there is $10.00 worth of quarters in your roll. If it says “.48”, you are missing one. If it says “.52” you have one too many. Pretty cool huh?

I found this little bit of trivia out in precisely that way. I was buying vegetables at my local market, where I have been a regular customer for several years, and am on a “Hi, how are you?” basis with the owners. I had my roll of quarters out at the cashier, ready to count, and the clerk said, “No, I’ll just weigh them.”  This was the first time I had heard of this and didn’t know what the “right” number should be, but I trusted this young girl who had been my cashier many times. The number came up “.52”. She looked at that, looked at me, and seeming uncertain, called the owner over for verification. “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.” the owner said hastily. But I could see the doubt on the cashier’s face…and the cashier saw me see the doubt on her face. At this point, I pretty much knew what was going on despite never having had my quarters weighed like this. But, I wasn’t going to say anything; I liked this cashier and “making a scene”—even a little one, might not have been helpful to her at the time. But she knew that I knew what just happened. When the owner turned her back, the cashier quickly took a quarter out of her till and gave it to me, verifying that I did understand what had just transpired. I looked at her very directly and mouthed “Thank you”.

I was thanking her for her honesty, not for the quarter, and she knew it.

As I walked out of the store I thought to myself: This owner, this person who I have been friendly with for several years, this person who I support with my money and my business just cheated me. The fact of it being a “mere” quarter does not matter. She was completely present, conscious, and intent in the moment of making the decision. She put her integrity on the line for a quarter. Ethical standards crumbled for a quarter. She lost my faith and my trust for a quarter.

I suppose she did it because she thought I was ignorant (which, I was—up until that moment), or not paying attention (she doesn’t know me very well), or because this type of thing is standard practice (how much revenue is earned made from people over-paying? How much does she know that and count on it?). Maybe to her it was no big deal. And a quarter is not a big deal. But, if it is standard practice at the level of a quarter, what is the practice when tens, or hundreds, or thousands of dollars are at stake?

This is why the practice of putting money before people, putting money before nature and the environment, putting money before human dignity and basic human rights bothers me. Even for a quarter, those things become sacrificed in the pursuit of a dollar.

This is also why, in my own life, I make it an imperative to interact with the material world with absolute integrity, although I don’t always succeed. I question my motives; I analyze my intentions. I turn, sometimes forcibly, my will and desire toward that which is kind. I strive toward that which is helpful or beneficial to others. I deny my mind the lazy luxury of stewing in disgruntled dissatisfaction.

I can—and probably will—recount here on this site all of the times I have made mistakes, the times when I have not dealt with “the world” in absolute integrity. In fact, as I write, I wonder how I can question another’s integrity when I am so far from perfect. Sometimes I can only keep a finger on my own pulse, so to say, and when I interact in a way that is not in my best light….I generally know it. And I have to deal with my own internal and sometimes external consequences.  I am the only one who fully experiences the outcomes of my relationships with others, starting with thought and intention. I like my life a lot better when I follow my own imperative and put kindness and human dignity before more material considerations.

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