Friday, December 25, 2009

Pennies From Heaven

We've all heard the phrase "pennies from Heaven," but what does it mean? How did it originate?This idiom, if it qualifies as such, does not lend itself to easy interpretation. From the Oxford English Dictionary comes this definition: "e. pennies from heaven: money acquired without effort or risk; unexpected benefits, especially financial ones." This denotation would lend it a flavor synonymous to fortuitous, similarly defined as "happening by a fortunate accident or chance, lucky or fortunate.

Remember the game show To Tell The Truth? Hosted by Bud Collyer, it premiered in 1956 and ran through 1968, with various personnel changes along the way. The cast that I remember had panelists Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean, and Kitty Carlisle. They would question a contestant, all claiming to be the same character. At the end of the show, after their conclusions had been reached, the moderator would ask "Would the real Mr. Mystery please stand up?"

So, would the real Pennies from Heaven please stand up? Contestant Number One? Is it an American song popularized by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston? The lyrics of which were:

"Ev'ry time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven
Don'tcha know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?
You'll find your fortune fallin' all over town
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down

Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers
If you want the things you love, you must have showers
So when you hear it thunder, don't run under a tree
There'll be pennies from heaven for you and me

Those lyrics were a hit in their time, and crooners like Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, as well as Louis Prima and his Dixieland Band all stepped up to the microphone to perform their own rendition.

Contestant Number Two? Pennies from Heaven was a 1936 film, introducing the song, which subsequently was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song and Best Lyrics. Starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans, this Depression Era story portrays the falsely accused Crosby as Larry Poole, a self-confessed "troubadour", who crosses paths in prison with a deathrow inmate. The prisoner, seeking redemption, wants to leave some property to the relatives of his victim. Larry promises to do what he can to assist. He seeks to help out by delivering the deed, but as is often the course, his plans go awry.

Contestant Number Three? Pennies from Heaven was a 1978 BBC television series, written by Dennis Potter, and starring Bob Hoskins in a role which gained him notoriety and propelled his career on a fast track in the United Kingdom. Wikipedia states Pennies won the British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme. In a 2000 poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, Pennies from Heaven was placed at number 21.

Contestant Number Four? Pennies from Heaven was a 1981 musical, adapted from the 1978 British Broadcasting Company television series of the same title. The movie starred Steve Martin in his first dramatic role, one for which he practiced tap-dancing for six months. Also starring were Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. It's lavish dream sequences provided a stark contrast to the Depression Era 1934 Chicago setting in which it ostensibly took place. Dennis Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.

Whatever the source of this curious phrase, I'd like to use it as a springboard to discuss a philosophical consideration of philanthropy, this being the Christmas Season. From the time we were little, when our parents wanted us to share our toys, I can remember mine telling me "it's better to give than to receive. Because of the economy, times are tough for everyone. Charities around the country - from Toys for Tots, to The Salvation Army - are reporting a drop in donations.

The SPCA reports more owners are unable to provide adequate care for their pets, and are subsequently relinquishing them to humane society centers in increasing numbers. Chemung County reports that in 2008 they experienced an almost fifty percent increase in owner-surrenders over 2007. The burgeoning population of cats and dogs - that are neither neutered nor spayed - is leading to a proliferation of litters of kittens and puppies abandoned in the outskirts of communities. These animals will starve if not rescued, and there are not enough responsible owners willing to adopt those that do find their way to animal shelters.

And animals aren't the only ones going hungry. One in eleven Americans are now on food stamps. A survey of 180 food banks, conducted in late April and early May of 2008, found that nearly one hundred percent have seen an increase in the number of clients served within the last year. The increase is estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent, though many food banks reported increases as high as 40 percent.

Food banks represent the food source of last resort for the indigent, needy, and homeless. But there is a growing demand as well from clients one would not normally associate as needing such assistance. "We're getting calls all the time from people who want to know how to get here," said Kristine Gibson, community outreach manager at the Stockton food pantry. "And when I ask where they live, they give an address of a nice neighborhood, one where you or I would want to live."

Unfortunately, the economic downturn is having a disastrous effect on everyone. Seventy percent of households are struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck. Financial contributions, as well as durable goods and perishable food items are languishing as well. Demand is up, but supplies are down, if not nonexistent. "The way it's going, we're going to have a food disaster pretty soon," said Phyllis Legg, interim executive director of the Merced Food Bank, which serves 43 food pantries throughout foreclosure-ravaged Merced County.

So, we should be in agreement that a need exists. How does this reconcile with my usual columns on how to get started investing with a limited budget? Just this. I have been promoting the cause of protecting yourself against the imminent depreciation of the dollar. The pernicious practices of our administration, the profligate porkbarrel spending of Congress, and the poverty-inducing plunge in purchasing power promulgated by the FED's hyperinflationary quantitative easing policies have cast us adrift in financial rapids that are swift approaching a precipice.

You will need to purchase precious metals to survive the economic maelstrom for which we are irretrievably destined. Gold. Silver. Platinum. Perhaps even palladium. And for those of you who can't afford even the $20 if might cost to visit the coin shop and purchase an ounce of silver, check your change. If you have, literally, even just two cents to rub together, check their dates. One might be a pre-1982 Lincoln cent, which had 95% copper content. Saving those cents gives you an affordable means of participating in a base metals price rise that could offer monetary insurance similar to that provided by the "safe haven" precious metals.

After sorting through mounds of pennies found at home or obtained via your bank or credit union, one annoyance to copper cent collectors is what to do with the pesky post-1982 97.5% zinc pennies that you wish to discard. They build up quicker than you'd like to admit, almost as if they were pestiferous cockroaches - Periplaneta americana, insects of the order Blattaria - oblivious to Raid, haughtily accumulating where they fall on the floor, boasting that if there's ever nuclear holocaust that they'd survive while you would not. But I digress.

If you are fortunate enough to shepherd your resources to build a profit and work towards accumulating a fortune, rather than the goal being merely attainment of a degree of wealth for yourself that you might live in unimaginable luxury, why not begin to make charitable contributions? If it works for Warren Buffett and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, why not emulate their philanthropy, albeit on a much smaller scale? The Bible encourages us to tithe ten percent of our income. You need not attend church to bestow lagniappes.

But say you do attend church to hear your favorite preacher - bearing an astonishing resemblance to Max von Sydow - deliver a Yuletide sermon in Swiss-accented English? As music plays the offering plate is passed. Say the feeble Bible-toting arthritic septuagenarian spinster prayer warrior sitting next to you has to accept the red velvet lined oak collection plate from you. The one that you had just heaped with thirty-five pounds of zinc pennies. Can you imagine the delight that might play across her face as she smiled and hissed "God Bless you, Moron!"

And as the ushers returned to the dais to deposit their booty, wouldn't it make your heart lift in triumph to know that you had been integral to swelling the church coffers and helping the needy in their Outreach Program? Pastor von Sydow lifts his eyes heavenward and pauses for a moment in spiritual piety, then intones "Ve haf much to be tankful for tonight. Ve haf pennies. I haf never seen so many pennies for Heaven's Sake." Tears would fill his eyes, so that one could never doubt his sincerity. "Zincs alot, My Brethren. Ve haf Pennies from Heaven."

Buy Silver. Buy Gold. Save Copper. Start Now. Get rich. Give some away.

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