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Medium of Exchange (Revised)

“I tried once to imagine the path that a dollar takes when it leaves my wallet, when I buy a can of soup.”

In a few hours I'm meeting a man to talk about a job. The interview will take place in a massive building in midtown Manhattan. I'll wear a blazer, but no tie, and go through security, where my bag will be explored by a tired-looking guard, and I'll receive a nametag. If I get the job, I'll spend a few weeks helping a team of people design a software application. The application will in turn help men and women manage mutual funds worth one or two billion dollars a shot.

My work will be in Manhattan, but it might as well be in another country, where money is no longer the stuff used to buy a sandwich or pay your health insurance, but rather, a fluid, strange, almost magical element, with a language all its own. Whenever I work in finance, I realize that the dollar in my wallet, this green rectangle of paper that I might use to buy a newspaper, lives a life far more complex than I can describe. And I get a little jealous of it.

As a member of the middle class I buy things. But the rich do things with their money. I've watched wealthy men and women turn a million dollars into respect, a partnership, a new business. They convert their funds into opportunities and relationships, translate cash into power, amplify their ideas into businesses, summer cottages, and tax shelters.

I've tried to understand how they work. After all, these are the people that run the world, or at least they act like the do. I've tried to fathom the stock market, the derivatives, the mergers, all the voodoo of accounting, but in the end, I realized, it's simply people in conversation, communicating in a stream of checks and balance sheets, shaking hands and making cell phone calls.

I tried once to imagine the path that a dollar takes when it leaves my wallet, when I buy a can of soup. It goes to the cashier, and then to the bank, and then it turns into a bit of light, traveling through the world's networks, spreading out through loans and the larger money supply, dented by interest rates, skimmed and re-skimmed in fractional percentages, hopping continents at light speed.

I've tried to learn the language of money, to fake the speech of the financiers, but I've had to accept that money is simply not a medium in which I can work. I am not a native speaker, and my middle-class accent betrays my ignorance. When I hear “a hundred million dollars,” I think of a hundred million loaves of bread, a hundred million cans of soup on sale. I can't help it. Whereas my clients, who hire me and thus pay for my apartment and my cans of soup, are the ones who can think in money-as-light, money as signal, and know how to listen for opportunity, endlessly seeking their percentage, their commission, their reward for being a native speaker.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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