Yesterday I wrote about how technology has changed banking. Today let’s talk about how technology has changed cash.
I was raised by a father who believed a man should always have cash on hand. Cash for the restaurant tab, cash for tips. If a gentleman was squiring his lady down the street, there’d always be the odd flower merchant who’d appear, proffering the perfect bloom to delight one’s date. A couple of bucks to grease the wheels of a parking attendant, a coat-check girl, or maybe to pay for a pack of gum from the newsstand. All of these acts, and so many more, defined a man as “a sport,” high praise from my father.
How a man handled his cash told the world a lot about him. If he had to withdraw cash from his wallet, he was fussy, and could be counted upon to avoid paying the bill. A sport carried his cash folded over into a wad, and could easily peel away the required denomination. Sports didn’t ask for, nor carried, change. Sports never waited for the other guy to pay; he had a lot of ego tied up in being a sport, and no one could take that away—except another sport.
To this day one of the qualities I admire most in a person is his or her generosity. People who divide the check when they dine together amuse me. My approach has always been, “Hey, I’ve got this one; you’ll get the next one.”
I’m not sure when it happened, but over the last decade, cash has fallen on hard times. Like some on-the-outs celebutard, cash is yesterday’s news. People pride themselves on never carrying it. And why should they? Vending machines spit out a $1.50 pack of gum with just a swipe of an ATM card. Even the paperboy has a Cube account. (Who am I kidding? There aren’t paperboys anymore.)
I predict that today’s kids will soon be sharing their fond memories of carrying an ATM card in their wallet. Their smartphones will handle all their everyday transactions. For them, cash was dirty and risky to carry. A plastic card was so much cleaner.
But if you’ve ever watched the movie Goodfellas, you’ll agree with me that our eschewal of cash isn’t all for the good. Besides being a crook, Robert De Niro’s character in the movie was a true sport. He’d enter a club and palm a bill for the doorman. The maître d’ would slide a $50 into a jacket pocket. The waiter would be tipped in advance, and told to keep ’em coming. All done with such confidence and dispatch.
Because a bankroll of cash brings the holder a lot more than buying power; it allows you to be a sport. And that’s never going out of style.