Adam Chandler is a former staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom.
There’s a lot of confusion about the secret life of submerged pennies.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an event the rarity of which ranks somewhere between the Transit of Venus and a life-affirming debate on Facebook: A fountain in New York’s Madison Square Park had been drained and cleaners were hard at work collecting the change at the bottom.
Since the fountain is near The Atlantic’s Manhattan office and adjacent to the world’s first Shake Shack, I’d seen many a tourist discharge his or her spare change into the water over the years. And I had always casually wondered what became of it. It turns out, one of my wishes was now coming true. I approached one of the workers, who was vague on the details.
According to him, the money collected in the 149-year-old granite fountain generally goes to charity when there is enough of it; when fewer coins remain, however, he said the workers are free to keep it. About $20 had been collected so far, perhaps enough for the two men to get Shack Stacks, fries, and shakes nearby.
The Madison Square Park Conservancy, which maintains the park, did not respond to more formal inquiries about its leftover-change policy, but some clues may lie in the practices of its uptown peer Bryant Park. Back in 2012, Jerome Barth, then the park’s director of operations told The New York Times that the money collected from the fountain “goes to the cost of cleaning the fountain.” Given that both parks, like most of New York City’s bigger parks, are governed by nonprofit organizations, a claim that the money goes to charity is technically true.
But many of the coins don’t even make it until cleaning day. “We have over 50 beautiful, decorative display fountains in NYC parks,” Maeri Ferguson from the Parks & Recreation Department’s press office rhapsodized in an email. “They are cleaned regularly by Parks staff (every few weeks) but we consistently find that most of the coins have already been removed by entrepreneurial New Yorkers and there is not a significant amount left to be collected.” Beyond that, the city does not seem to have a firm policy in place for handling the coinage.
Apparently, if you can take it here, you can take it anywhere. Next, I reached out to Kansas City, which calls itself “The City of Fountains.” Their answer was the same: “We do not collect the coins in the fountains as they disappear almost as soon as they are thrown in—picked out by homeless,” wrote Heidi Downer, a manager from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “I am interested if other cities actually collect enough to make an impact.” It seems entrepreneurs are everywhere these days.
Kansas City’s official literature claims that the only city with more fountains is Rome, which holds a major exception to the prevailing paradigm of citizen-collected coins. Throwing coins into Trevi Fountain is codified by years of tradition, a ritual (over the back, right hand over left shoulder), and by film, such as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which features the participants throwing the coins wrong. The thousands of dollars thrown daily in the fountain fund a supermarket for the needy.
That’s not to say Rome doesn’t have its own entrepreneurs. For over three decades, Roberto Cercelletta, who went by the nickname D’Artagnan, pillaged the fountain for as much as $1,000 on a daily basis. He was ultimately felled by the Italian press, which chronicled his exploits, the difficulties he faced following the introduction of the euro coin (which was immune to his magnetized wand), and his eventual downfall at the hands of Italian police, who finally arrested him in 2002.
Private fountains, however, are another story. At the Mall of America in Minnesota, nonprofit organizations are free to apply for a piece of the $24,000 that gets collected from the fountains each year. Charities also benefit from the tens of thousands of coins thrown in the fountains at places like Disney parks, Vegas casinos, and Rainforest Cafes.
The implications of this charitable giving on the wishes themselves remains unclear. But those hoping for a better world should feel somewhat assured. Their coins might feed someone hungry, and not just with any old hamburger, but with Shake Shack.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.