Tuppence a Bag

by Don Hartness

The message is all around us. All you have to do is connect the dots…

It started on the morning of Black Friday. I’m a delivery driver of pharmaceutical products to various retailers, along with random bits of freight (what can Brown do for you? Not everything it seems…). My route is a tight schedule, rarely affording the opportunity for conversation. Most days, I’m doing my best impersonation of the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (“I’m late! I’m late!”).

Today was a rare exception. Many of my customers were fully stocked, and the holiday rush was not yet upon me. I strolled through my day without a care in the world, greeting my customers with a cheery face while taking the time to share a few words. Each conversation, though, almost made me wish for my normally hectic pace…

“She pushed her to the ground to get to that T.V! Can you believe it?!”

“They were screaming at each other, right in the middle of the store. The manager had to pull them apart…”

“She didn’t get to the laptop before the other woman, so she punched the other woman in the face, and took it from her! Amazing…”

Relieved to be back home, I thoughtlessly flipped on the television, more for the sound than for anything I might find to watch. To my surprise, the opening credits to a childhood favorite greeted me.

Mary Poppins. I immediately began to choke-up.

I know. Pathetic, right? A grown man, about to blubber like a baby, just because of a children’s movie. I’m tearing up again just writing about it.  Sheesh…

I can’t help it, for two reasons. Not often, but occasionally, my father would gather us all for a family event. One holiday season, it was for the specific purpose of watching this movie. Sipping hot chocolate at five years old while watching the hypnotic Julie Andrews represents a nostalgically fond childhood memory for me.

The second reason is a specific scene.  It makes me tear up every time: the bird woman.

I think I also cried as a kid, although I can’t remember. What I do remember is the feeling of sorrow for someone so poor, forced to sell something as worthless as food for rats with wings (a term I would learn later in life, of course). Now, as Ms. Andrews began her heartbreaking melody, I was re-acquainted with a new remorse…

“Come feed the little birds, show them you care.  And you’ll be glad if you do. Their young ones are hungry, Their nests are so bare; All it takes is tuppence from you.”

Sure, it’s a children’s movie. Yet, isn’t it amazing the profound lessons a children’s tale contains for adults, lessons often ignored due to their simplicity and genre? These lessons slip into our subconscious as children, not fully understood, but still captured in its essence. Somewhere along the way, we lose them, as Mr. Banks, the father of the children, demonstrates.

You remember the scene, don’t you? Young Michael Banks has two tuppence for the birds, but Mr. Banks, et al., has other plans: investment in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Their reasons? Why, it’s prudent! Not only that; think of the possibilities!

And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands, in the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands. You see, Michael, you’ll be part of:
Railways through Africa!
Dams across the Nile!
Fleets of ocean greyhounds!
Majestic, self-amortizing canals!
Plantations of riiipeeniiing tea!

Of course, this is all a cover for their real motivations, as revealed in the second verse of the song, and further reinforced by the opulent living of one Mr. Banks:

You can purchase first and second trust deeds
Think of the foreclosures!
Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares!
Bankruptcies! Debtor sales!
All manner of private enterprise!
Shipyards! The mercantile!
Collieries! Tanneries!
Incorporations! Amalgamations! Banks!

Strip the setting of Edwardian England, and it sounds like today’s financial world, doesn’t it? And yet, while some point to this scene as a lesson in prudent banking for today’s financial institutions, the banks are not the problem.

It’s a brave new world, or so we are told. In reality, it’s merely a metastasized version of the old. With a bulging workload and hours that are approaching slavery standards, we feverishly work for every last bit of tuppence we can get our hands on. Some of it goes into various financial mechanisms that, by and large, do not engage in such noble projects as dams, fleets, or railways. Instead, it is invested in products and services that, again, by and large, make nothing, produce nothing, and contribute nothing. That which does not flow into the coffers of directors is channeled into crowd controlling consumer products.

While we pat ourselves on the back for our prudence and fiscal responsibility, we take our remaining tuppence and engage in vulgar displays of greed, reaching with our grubby little paws for the next toy or gadget in an endless cycle of consumption with no end.  Black Friday merely adds competition (and some snarling) for a product that is not in shortage (it’s still on the shelf next week for just a few more tuppence), not necessary for survival, and will most likely be broken or obsolete within the next year.

And as for the bird woman? Our tax-deductible donation should take care of her. If we gave her more tuppence on top of that, we would only be encouraging fat birds!

All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles, look down as she sells her wares. Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling, each time someone shows that he cares.

My guess is that there isn’t many smiling faces among the saints and apostles today.