Living Off The Avails Of Others Part Three A Hand Full Of Pennies

I’m all right Jack, Keep your hands off my stack… $72 bucks in quarters
— photo by Me, March 24, 2008


“Money”; Pink Floyd
Let me know if the YouTube isn’t available.


“So there was my mom, finally starting a career which paid her real money, in a new marriage with a wonderful human being and finally moving past her past… with me on the phone once a month asking for money.”
From the first part of Living Off The Avails Of Others: The Monster In The Room

“What Really Is and What Might Have Been can get confusing and sometimes people have to live in the later to get past the former… and there’s no quicker way to snap back into What Really Is than a midnight phone call from your son asking for $20 or maybe, you know, $40 for some food.”
From the second part of Living Off The Avails Of Others: What Really Is And What Should Have Been


This is the third in what will probably be a 2350 part series on what is without a doubt the primary cause of my clinical depressions. Superficially it’s about money… and my total lack of it. But it’s really about a whole lot more… it’s about my relationship with my mother, her parents, my father and his parents. It’s about the help I’ve been offered in my Recovery and in my Life by each of them, how little there has actually been offered and the guilt I feel surrounding the whole freaking mess.



I’ve spent a lot of my adult life counting out enough pennies to buy a loaf of bread. I’d lay them out on my mattress and stack them on my dresser in sets of ten cents. I’d count each stack at least three times, just to be sure because standing in front of a semi-hostile counter jockey, counting out three hundred pennies it’s embarrassing and a total waste of time to be eight pennies short.

I’d alway wait until the line was gone… always seeming like the polite young man as I let the line pass but, really, who wants to be at the local convenience store counting out pennies in front of someone you might pass on the street tomorrow… it’s impossible to look cool, to look Hard as you pass someone with a smile on their face and you’re thinking “did they see me yesterday? Were they in the store? Fuck… am I the ‘Penny Guy’ now?”

Sometimes I’d walk to the next store. Walk a few extra blocks to a store where no one knew me. Walk a few blocks with three or four hundred pennies bouncing and jangling around in my pockets. I’d always divvy them up, four pockets with one hundred pennies each. Trying to find a walking groove which allowed me to keep my pants on.

The counter-jockeys were almost always… discouraged when I’d ask them if they accepted pennies. Then I’d watch as they counted them out with my loaf of bread and can of pop between us. Just hoping I’d managed to count them properly, hoping they’d count them properly. As I got used to the process, just to be safe, I’d always toss in an extra ten cents… if I had it, just in case.


In 1979, a couple of weeks after mom escaped from the Political Collective my brother and I had grown up in, my father came for a visit. It was, in his mind, the last chance to plead his case for his marriage. The other women meant Nothing, he could change, he could be a husband and father.

His brilliant plan, his sacrifice, would be to set mom and us up in One City and his mistress and my then-unborne half-brother Somewhere Else as branch offices of the Collective.

They yelled through most of the night. I can remember him… I can remember him sitting on my little bed that night holding me, his arm on my shoulder as he handed me the second present he had ever given to me. It was a little leather baseball glove, barely big enough for my hand even then.

And he handed me a pen and told me to write my name on it so no one would take it… he made sure I used his last name, and not mom’s. He told me he would have gotten more but he had no money. He had no money.

The next morning he was gone when I woke up… and while I was still in my pyjamas I ran around our apartment collecting pennies and when I had what I thought was enough I stuffed them into an envelope and asked mom where I could send them so my father could be better.


A year later, in fourth grade, I did something stupid at school. I stole a kids toy, then blamed it on some Other kid. I think the worst part was the teacher believed me. When I got home that night I decided I had had enough of this stupid town and this stupid life. I made sure my little brother was comfortable and knew how to change the channel on the TV, went into my mom’s room and broke into her piggy-bank. I took as many handfuls of pennies I could stuff into my little pockets. I was leaving.

I walked across the busy street and up the hill to the Anglican Church, I can remember the feeling of my heavy pockets bouncing against my legs. I stole a bike that was leaning against the Church and rode it a few blocks until I found a store. My plan was to stock up on food then travel to my grandparent’s hobby farm in the Quebec mountains.

I stood in front of the counter-jockey with two fists full of pennies and asked if I could afford a large bottle of pop and some chips. After he slowly counted them out he said I could have two bottles.

Which meant abandoning the bike… so I walked until I came to a bridge. This was when I made what I thought was going to be my last phone call… I called home and mom picked up. I told her I wasn’t coming back. I hated it there and I didn’t want to come back.

I don’t remember the conversation. I do remember I was crying. I do remember I told mom I was leaving for good and hanging up the phone. But I didn’t leave… I walked around for a few hours drinking pop until it got dark, then I found my way home.


I haven’t needed to count pennies in a long time… but I did recently. March had a lot of bills so I’m as broke as I have been in a few years. A few days ago, when I saw there was a dollar left in my bank account, I spent the rest of the day wondering how I was going to afford milk… so I looked at the calender and realized my Federal Disability Cheque comes on Wednesday (tomorrow), so really all I have to do is make it through a couple of days.

So I thought of my pennies. But this time when I poured the container out on my desk it was mostly silver. When I was in my early to mid-twenties I can remember being so happy when I saw a glint of silver in my penny pile, it was like a little electric shock.

I’m not that down about having to count out change… I’m living from monthly cheque to monthly cheque but I know there’s another cheque coming. On the last day of the month I generally have enough in my bank account for some bread, milk and a can of pop… plus I have the key to my parents’ place. In a weird way things are much, much better for me now financially then even when I was getting Paid.

But a large chunk of who I am, of how I deal with money, is still built around preparing myself to walk to a store with pockets full of pennies.






About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression when I was nineteen, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. It's now 2022, and I have an 8-year old son, and a 12-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at
This entry was posted in Bipolar Disease, Bipolar Disorder, Clinical Depression, crazy people with no pants, Depression, Health, Lithium, Living Off The Avails, Living With Depression, Living With Manic Depression, Manic Depression, Poverty, Salted Truths, UmBiPMaD Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Living Off The Avails Of Others Part Three A Hand Full Of Pennies

  1. bromac says:

    I used to donate plasma in college for cigarette money—it also made my beer-drunk pretty easy.

  2. Gabriel... says:

    Can’t sell blood in Canada… we’re just not capitalist enough. Or we’re just too socialist and we’re waiting for the Government to set up some kind of spending program. It could explain why there’s such a shortage… only 2.9% of Canadians donate blood.

    The big thing in the groups I hung around in were medical experiments… like we’d be passing the time, or a bong, and talking about ways to not be poor and someone would say “oh, dude… check it out, I know this guy who has a sister and she totally works as a janitor for this drug company and they, like, pay people to be stoned.”

    I remember when I was 20 or 21 someone telling me there was a street value for my Lithium, which I had lots of and wasn’t using. But it turned out Lithium is like maple syrup in this country… all you have to do is suck the right tree. That sounds a little evil. I knew I could sell it down in the States, but getting there was pretty much impossible and not really worth the trip.

  3. thordora says:

    I’ve had to count my pennies, but never in any desperate way, thankfully.

    I’ve been lucky considering my spend it all problem….manic broke me…it’s not awesome by any stretch. But then, I’ll just go work retail if all else fails. Most other people won’t stoop to that level. 🙂

  4. I would just count my change and stack it because it was fun for me and soothing *laughing* It still is? No, really!

    I used to donate blood all the time. However, when I became mental, my meds were all okayed (granted, I had to explain in greeeeaaaat detail what the hell they were!) But after all the seizure business started, all of the sudden I needed “special permission” from my doctor and some “King Of Blood Donation.”

    Who I assumed was a doctor too?

    It was just too much paperwork and I was like…I’m not going to seize from having them drain some blood from me…ugh.

    I kind of feel bad about it. My cocktail’s a lot prettier now, though. Despite being all seizurrific, I wonder if any meds would get me blacklisted.

    My guess would be my stim? They might not like what is basically extended release Ritalin in the blood? Heh. Transfuse someone and they go on a nice drug trip? Although, I don’t know if the extended would make for a good party drug or you need the immediate release.

    I never bothered to look into it.

  5. Gabriel... says:

    Actually that’s interesting, PatAnon… I used to give blood back in high school (then run outside and smoke a cigarette), but when they asked for my medical history after I was diagnosed with manic depression I was told I couldn’t donate anymore… I’ll have to look into that.

    I know, years later after the Blood Scandal, they put all kinds of restrictions on who could have what when they donated blood… maybe they included seizure stuff in their list?

    Thor Dora… I’ve always had the “manic-spending” thing, but the problem I had was I spent most of my adult life on social assistance or, now, disability so my manic-spending moments were pretty brief and hidden by the fact there was no money… it really wasn’t until I was working (for money) in Toronto when I really saw my own manic-spending habits. When I was on welfare I’d plow through my $120 in a couple of days with nothing to show for it but an ashtray of smokes, when I was working in Toronto I was blowing through $3000 in ten to fourteen days with nothing but a hangover at the end… maybe a pair of pants.

    I tried to get into retail once, but I had no register experience. Since then I’ve always insisted to my cousins and sisters they get register experience before they got out of high school, just in case.

  6. Freya says:

    Counting and stacking coins is soothing to me. I remember told talk peanut butter jar that my dad and I always counted every couple years. Each time it’d be around $75 and he would let me buy whatever I wanted with it. My sisters never helped count the money so he told me to not tell and if they ever wanted to help they’d get their share. They never did. 🙂

    Anyhow, I’ve always enjoyed counting up coins and now I see my daughter becoming enthralled with it as well. I use all coins as my Starbucks money…not enough to cover it all, but then when I use the coins it’s not so damaging, or doesn’t seem that way.

    When my daughter was here last December it was the day before payday but we wanted to travel to see a friend. So there we were, counting up HER collection of coins so we would have gas money. That sucked. Especially that she remembers it still (but at least she remembers I paid her back right away lol).

    I’ve always been told to donate blood but from day one they’ve turned me down because my iron levels are so extremely low.

  7. Gabriel... says:

    Hi Freya

    I had no idea counting coins could be a communal event… I don’t remember it ever occurring to me that people collected their change in ways like I do. I know my parents keep a dish in their bedroom for emptying their pockets in as they’re preparing for bed… and there’s always coins in whose ever car I’m in. But it never occurred to me that people might store coins for “later”… I just assumed… I don’t even know what I assumed right now. That their coins disappeared..? Weird.

    I’ve got three large tins jammed with pennies and a couple of bowls with other change, a long time ago it just become something I don’t even think about… kind of like a squirrel storing nuts for winter, it’s just instinct now.

  8. nursemyra says:

    I was so poor when I was pregnant with my first child that I used to scour the streets looking for bottles to cash in and I stole fruit and eggs from other people’s yards. this was in NZ where people often kept their own chooks. I don’t remember being at all unhappy during that moneyless period.

    my ex mother in law used to say to me “if all your worries are money worries, then you’ve got no worries at all”. it bothered the hell out of me because that was during another time when finances were very tight with an out of work husband and two children to support.

    now I’m so much more aware of health problems through having a partner die of cancer and a son with a life threatening disease. I’m almost prepared to admit she was right.

    being poor really sucks but money is useless if your health is gone. hope you’re feeling healthy gabriel, and hope your money situation improves soon. do you envisage being in paid employment again or are you hoping to make money from publishing your book?

  9. Kitty says:

    “did they see me yesterday? Were they in the store? Fuck… am I the ‘Penny Guy’ now?”

    I just love that.

    My mom used to sell her plasma to pay the bills, so much that she looked like a junkie.

  10. bromac says:

    We paid for our extra-curricular activities in Amsterdam through years of collected change.

    Now we collect all change, even pennies, and make deposits into a bank acct in our daughter’s name.

  11. Counting coins as a “communal event…” Did that imply that a couple of us find it soothing/enthralling so we should have a “coin counting party?” Cool!

    I had this MASSIVE bottle of…rye where I’d put my empty change. It was some promotional item I would think as it stood about 2 ft. high off the ground. I simply can not believe it was actually filled with alcohol at one point but you never know! I bought it at some auction.

    I can’t remember how full of money I actually got it but being that huge I’m pretty sure it was mostly pennies? Who knows!

  12. Gabriel... says:

    Nurse Myra… paid employment is something I’m planning on for this summer. I’m going to be approaching the local papers about doing some design and column stuff for them.

    I think the Book payments work out to something like… if I sell a hundred books I can take three friends out for Happy Meals at McDonald’s. First time authors in Canada don’t make money so much as receive the coins from the publisher’s pocket. If we’re lucky sometimes there’s lint and we can start making a nest.

    Hello Kitty… I’m not sure why Canada developed a different blood strategy than the US, some kind of payment plan might help get more Canadians out to give blood but I’d be worried about people who are in the situation I was in — looking for money to keep going — who end up using the system too often.

    Everybody: I also just want to point out that the coins I was “collecting” Back In The Day were only about three to six weeks worth of change. It wasn’t so much collecting as “finding and hoarding”. The “collection” I have now is about eight to ten months worth and taken from a monthly income of about twice from ‘Then’. Basically the quarters in the photo above represent about 65% of my monthly income between 1990 and 1997.

    I caught the tail end of a CNN report this afternoon about how rising food costs are effecting Food Stamps, which is a program I’ve never really been familiar with. Basically, for people on the program (and apparently there are just as many people off it who need it) it breaks down to US$1.10/meal three times a day for a month.

    I think, after converting taxes and the Canadian dollar’s worth, that “Ontario Works”, Ontario’s welfare program, offers about a third more money (US$99 v. CDN$120) but that monthly Ontario cheque is It, there ain’t no more. I’m not sure if there are other programs in the States which offer more cash on top of Food Stamps.

  13. Michael says:

    What is the cure for poverty?

  14. Michael says:

    Cannabis would make a viable currency.

    6.40pm: Grow your own should be free, of course, but commerce should be taxed and that can finance lots.

    6.43pm: How about living and growing space?

    Me: three responses edited into one.

  15. Gabriel... says:

    Well… my plan would involve clear cutting Brazil for space to live and to grow weed on, then using the sawdust to bring tabletop curling to the third world.Then of course the free weed thing.

    Or… through genetic manipulation we create dozens of gigantic clones of Jimmy Carter, like forty-feet tall. Then we give him access to the wood from the rainforest, which means cancelling the Tabletop Curling For The Third World Program, and he can build us all homes and we can even have a team of normal-sized Jimmy’s grow our weed for us… which would totally be cool because we could genetically design the Jimmy’s to breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, like a tree. Or weed. Basically we let Jimmy Carter’s clones figure it out while we smoke a lot of free weed.

  16. Michael says:

    Well, that’s not a very serious plan, though.

  17. Gabriel... says:

    But all the cool kids around campus are into Jimmy Carter clones… are you saying they’re wasting their time in school and that college and / or university is a waste of time? Keeping kids uneducated is a pretty controversial opinion for someone from Berkeley. I’m surprised, I totally would have thought you’d think education was one of the steps out of poverty… I guess I totally misjudged where you were leading this discussion. Too bad, I thought you were just connecting with the other people who commented on this post.

  18. Michael says:

    Free education would be a good thing too. I’m totally willing to have a conversation with you, but if you’d rather I go away and leave you alone I can do that.

  19. Gabriel... says:

    Dude… on a post where I wrote about my relationship with my parents and grandparents you’ve left six short off-topic responses including two abstract questions which would require documents and studies from about eight United Nations agencies just to set the groundwork for an answer.

    If you want to reset, maybe take a peek at some of the things I’ve written and have any comments you’d like to share, I’ll be glad to read them and take them seriously. Otherwise I look forward to reading your top ten list of things People can Do to defeat poverty over on your blog.

  20. Michael says:

    Sorry, bro. Your post seemed to be about poverty, and your relationship to growing up under such conditions. We seem not to be communicating well on either my blog or yours, though you’re still very welcome to let me know what you think. As for depression, Aurum metallicum might help. But check it out for yourself.

  21. Gabriel... says:

    Dude, find a post and comment away. Maybe take a look at the rest of the “Avails” series. If you’re not too abstract I’ll respond to anything you throw up… unless I’m in a mood. Most of the people who comment here are up for a conversation and usually so am I…

    I haven’t heard of gold being a standard or accepted treatment for anything except maybe poverty… salt is working pretty well for me right now and it’s entirely covered by the provincial health plan.

    I was raised in poverty by people who believed poverty to be virtuous. I was taught to be poor by people who gave up access to their inheritance and to the legacy given to them at birth by their parents. These people made choices, then were surprised when those choices brought consequences. These people abandoned their children while they went looking for Revolutions and when they came back to Earth were surprised several of my cousins were addicted to drugs, a couple of us were homeless and all of us were unable to function within a normal relationship.

    My poverty doesn’t come from the normal causes… I’m broke now partly from a disease and partly because my parents and their friends and my uncles and their wives all thought it’d be a good idea I be trained to love Uncle Mao… and other stuff.

  22. Michael says:

    Gold in homeopathic form may have some benefits, which does not mean you shouldn’t continue to use what works and what you are provided with by your health system. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to go outside the system and try alternatives, but like I said, look into it for yourself.

    Poverty may be virtuous, it is true. However it may also be unpleasant. Suffering for its own sake is not really something that I advocate. I come from a more traditional family structure, and there are reasons one might strike off independently to find another way as well; I could not recommend my childhood to be honest. Though I would not trade it, for it is who I am, and I do love my family.

  23. Gabriel... says:

    Hello again Michael… just to be clear, I see No virtue in poverty. I think a large number of people from my parents generation managed to figure that out by 1981. I know back in the mid-1990’s there was a kind of Next Generation of kids who seemed to think they could gain some universal Truth through poverty but I’m pretty sure they’ve all stopped now as well. There were a lot of students here, for example, who thought Cuba’s agricultural system was something to aspire towards because they don’t use chemicals or tractors… forgetting that the six hours of daily back-breaking labour to put food on their plates kind of left not-so-much time to develop video games and bridges.

    Going outside the box to find treatments for manic depression or any other mental illness is not something I would ever recommend, but I do know people who try… including some people who post here. Personally I think we (bipolar II’s) need three things to start: a mood stabilizer, an anti-depressant and a sleep aid… then the guidance of a trained medical professional and the understanding of our family and/or closest supporters.

  24. Michael says:

    Personally, I’m in favor of automation. I think we should be conscious of our environment and find ways of living in harmony with the land, because the land is what sustains us and if we do not respect it then it will cease to produce enough good food. The use of solar and hydrogen technology would be ideal, and there are only political obstacles to growing enough hemp to replace our dependence on petroleum.

    By no means do I advise you to go against the advice of your doctor. Please do not take any suggestion that I make as any advocation not to follow the treatment plan you have been given.

    If I say that cannabis can be helpful, that does not mean that you should discontinue lithium. The two are not contraindicated. Certain strains may be more beneficial for adjusting your mood upward or downward as needed. However, this is not a recommendation that I can make, it is just something that you can decide for yourself.

    Aurum metallicum may bring someone out of a very deep and even suicidal depression. But by no means should that be taken as an alternative to your medically prescribed drugs.

  25. This was beautifully written. I’m glad your jar was filled with silver this time.

  26. Gabriel... says:

    Thanks a lot Emma, I really needed that.

    In a weird moment of synchronicity the NDP, a Canadian federal political party, introduced a motion today to get rid of the penny. It’s not the first time but it might actually happen this time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s