This time last year, I wasn’t in the mood for a frivolous story featuring privileged college kids. Or at least I didn’t think I was. I was one of an estimated 8.5 million U.S. workers without a job, afraid the U.S. economy was on the brink of collapse. Cash felt distant and elusive; along with unemployment and isolation arrived a monotonous hopelessness about my economic future—a sorry substitute for a paycheck. As I scrounged for quarters to do laundry during the national coin shortage, I naively thought we were on the cusp of currency obsolescence.
One Friday night during that uncertain autumn, between bites of cheap pizza and swigs of cheaper beer, I heard a story from three Williams College grads, one of whom I was dating at the time. I’d tagged along for their reunion weekend in a Vermont airbnb I wasn’t paying for (and couldn’t have afforded), and found myself with nothing better to do than listen to men I didn’t know reminisce about their glory days in a college town I’ve never visited.
But this story didn’t take place during their golden student years. Though it was before their time, they became the extended memory of the original characters. As they rambled through the events, I felt myself stop chewing, my lower jaw unhinging. “Wait, back up,” I interjected, short-circuiting the tale.
I deal with stories for a living and this one gave me a precious few dollars of delight when I had spent everything else. Into the depleted treasury of my mental reserves, I filed away this story, worth more than its words.
Now, I’m extending the memory a bit further—to you. Maybe you’ll enjoy it.
Thirteen years earlier, Williams College sophomore Brendan Christian noticed an abnormal number of $2 bills trickling into his life.
The first appeared at a party. While grabbing a fistful of tortilla chips, he discovered a folded $2 bill in the bowl. “Look what I found!” he exclaimed to classmates hovering around the snacks. “That’s so rare!” a partier responded, feeding Brendan’s enthusiasm.
Five more showed up in the dining hall, where Brendan unearthed a wad of starch-coated $2 bills in his mashed potatoes. He turned to his friend and cross-country teammate, senior Bill Ference, and said in amazement, “I better get these cleaned off, knowing how rare they are.”
Another five materialized in the student mailroom when, sifting through his stack of mail, Brendan paused at an envelope with a nameless handwritten return address from Utah. Drawing a blank for anyone he knew west of his Chicago-area hometown, Brendan slid his finger beneath the envelope’s seal to find five $2 bills, crisp and pristine.
Someone had to be pranking him, planting the money in his path. Cash, a token passed hand to hand, can tell a story through its chain of ownership if we’re perceptive enough to trace the money trail. Though Brendan couldn’t imagine who was responsible for the $2 bills or why they’d shown up in his life, he was already part of a story, one that began long before he stepped foot on the Williams campus. A tale as ancient as our capacity to ascribe value.
By the time he opened his letter from Utah, Brendan had forgotten about a months-ago dining hall conversation, before the chips and the mashed potatoes and the unsigned letter. After a team track practice, it came up that someone owed someone else money. It was a small debt: a coffee or a beer — and amid the shuffle to settle up, a $2 bill surfaced.
It captured the table’s attention, and the conversation veered toward the U.S. supply. How many are there? How rare are they?
Some people were sure that $2s were hard to come by, remembering how relatives gave the bills to them as a Christmas treat — I resonate with this recollection; my grandfather marked holidays by giving me $2 bills that I hoarded, keeping them in a rectangular metal tin in my childhood bedroom, where they sit untouched today.
Everyone at dinner took sides. Brendan was soft-spoken but adamant that spotting a deuce was a stroke of luck. And Bill Ference, though skeptical about the $2’s rarity, was hit with a lightning bolt: “Brendan had this ‘Oh Gosh Golly’ Midwestern charm about him, and it triggered the idea that I could give him a thrill with $2 bills.”
Bill long had a reputation as a master of hijinks. He’d ridden a team van down a mountain with no brakes. He’d slipped out after a night track race to go rafting in a flimsy inflatable turtle on Massachusetts’ flooded Green River. “Bill never hesitates to do something, even if it’s a lot of work,” Brendan says. “He always thinks it’s worth it, no matter the effort.”
And the thrill Bill could give Brendan was evidently worth it, because he got to work.
First, Bill sowed the seeds of rarity. After dinner, he emailed out a link to everyone who had been part of the conversation, sending those who clicked on it (including Brendan) to a sloppily constructed website entitled “Official $2 Bill Website” that Bill had put together that day using a template builder. It proclaimed in barely convincing terms that only 100 $2 bills were in existence.
Then, he started small, slipping bills into the chips and the mashed potatoes, before turning his attention to the letter, orchestrating the effort to mail a pre-addressed envelope to a Utahn friend, with instructions to mail it back to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it would find its way to Brendan in the student mailroom.
From there, Bill broke the levy and the trickle of bills became a flood.
A few weeks after receiving the letter, Brendan sat in a large lecture hall, turning the pages of an Environmental Studies exam booklet when a man entered the classroom. The unusual interruption in the silent lecture hall prompted Brendan to break focus, look up from his exam, and watch as the interloper—slightly older, maybe a senior, though Brendan had never seen him before—strode toward the professor and said, “I need to know if Brendan Christian is in the class right now.”
The professor, surprised yet acquiescent, pointed toward the wooden chair where Brendan was seated. The solemn stranger approached Brendan and handed him an unmarked manila envelope.
Brendan dutifully finished his exam before touching the envelope, but as he exited the classroom, he opened it and dipped his hand in, brushing against green, leafy opulence: a stack of 100 crisp $2 bills. He removed the bills, and along with them came a piece of paper with a phone number scrawled across it. He dialed the number, waited for it to stop ringing, and then listened to a voicemail recording that narrated a series of four numbers.
Bewildered, Brendan was now certain he was being had. But he also believed the $2 bill to be rare. “Guys, I’m kind of freaked out,” Bill recalls him saying, “I now own more $2 bills than there are in existence,” remembering and referencing the very “official” website Bill had sent out months before, which had bolstered Brendan’s belief that there were precious few $2s in the world.
Bill, having way too much fun to stop, went to Walmart and purchased two items: a lockable briefcase, the kind he’d seen in movies featuring large cash transactions, and a pair of sturdy metal handcuffs. Back in his dorm room, he measured the briefcase, calculating he could fit $4,800 worth of $2 bills inside.
Bill checked his bank balance, and for the first time in the course of his elaborate scheme, found himself constrained by the fact that he had only $3,700 in his bank account. What he did have, in lieu of another grand, was a friend who was willing to loan him $1,100. Bill, who would do nothing by halves, was determined to fill the briefcase to the brim.
The next morning, having amassed the requisite cash, Bill trekked to the Spring Street TD Banknorth just south of the Williams campus, sizing up the tellers and requesting to withdraw $4,800 worth of $2 bills. The bank employees were unfazed. “Sure,” one replied, “we’ll probably be able to get that to you two days from now.”
And like clockwork, or by the simple laws of supply and demand, two days later, Bill arrived back at the bank and picked up nearly five grand worth of $2 bills. They arrived pristine, as if freshly printed just for him, every corner crisp, the stacks of money still encased in their wrappers, bound in their official currency straps. He filled the suitcase and went to dinner.
In the dining hall that evening, Brendan returned to his seat after grabbing seconds. He set his plate down next to his glass of milk and took a sip when a metal key bonked against his tooth. ”It was the perfect beverage to hide a key, because it’s opaque,” Bill recalls; milk was, unsurprisingly, the drink of choice for wholesome Midwestern Brendan.
A flustered Brendan fished the key out from his glass and kept it with him, hit with the nauseating realization that he possessed the counterpart to some unknown lock. His anxiety had not waned by the evening when a knock sounded on his door as he was getting ready for bed. (Though he wasn’t there, Bill speculates that Brendan had probably been wearing footie pajamas.) At the door was another man he’d never seen before, in his hand, a briefcase, and encircling his wrist, a handcuff that attached him to the case.
“I think you have the key to this,” he deadpanned to Brendan, displaying his cuffed wrist. Brendan scrambled to grab the key he’d found in his milk and unlocked the man, freeing the suitcase, which, on closer examination, required a four-digit combination to be unlocked.
Brendan remembered the slip of paper from the envelope delivered during his exam. Suddenly everything clicked; he redialed the seven-digit number and this time, on the answering machine, heard Bill’s voice dictating the four numbers that would open the lock.
Rows and rows of crisp, $2 bill bundles lined the briefcase, reflected in Brendan’s widening eyes. The man who delivered the cash departed, and behind him, Brendan bolted the door and locked the windows. He began a frantic count of the money and realized the whopping total: including the bills from the chips, potatoes, Utah mail, mid-exam envelope, and now the briefcase, he possessed over $5,000 worth of $2 bills. It was an obscene, impractical sum for a college sophomore to stash beneath his bed, and in Brendan’s miscalculation of the bill’s rarity it was not only an impractical number, but an impossible one.
In many ways, the story itself seems impossible: a prank of privilege that could only unfold in cloistered Williamstown, Massachusetts, tucked into the Berkshires and removed from the rest of the world during the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
But in an important way, Brendan and Bill’s story speaks to a collective American belief about the $2 bill: that it is rare.
In a very literal sense, the $2 bill is rare. There are fewer $2 bills in existence than any other denomination still printed. But the $2 is still being printed, despite rumors that the machinery to create new $2s idles in Fort Knox or Washington, D.C.—$2s were last produced in 2019, 160 million of them.
According to the Federal Reserve Board, in 2020, there were 1.4 billion $2 bills in circulation, a small total compared to 13.1 billion $1 bills—the most highly circulated denomination in the U.S. Still, the number of $2s is of the same order of magnitude as the number of circulating $5 bills (3.2 billion) and $10 bills (2.3 billion). Yet, we see the $2 far less frequently. Why?
In Brendan’s words, “You don’t spend $4,800 worth of $2 bills. You hang onto them.”
Our impulse to keep the $2 is partially rooted in the timing of the bill’s re-release. The $2 bill was discontinued in 1966, and no $2s were printed for the next nine years. The most recent redesign of the $2 was unveiled in 1976 in commemoration of the U.S. bicentennial. No major currency redesigns had occurred since 1929, when Federal Reserve notes were standardized for each denomination, so while the much-anticipated 1976 release was a great marketing tactic, it was a terrible strategy for circulation. The $2 became an instant collectible, and no one was incentivized to spend it.
But the $2 went through many incarnations before the bicentennial, issued as a Legal Tender Note, National Bank Note, Silver Certificate, Coin Note, Federal Reserve Bank Note, and finally as the U.S. Note we know today.
More than a century before the 1976 release, in 1862, the $2 was first issued as a Legal Tender Note, featuring Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the U.S. In 1875, National Bank Notes, currency issued by U.S.-chartered national banks, were released; these bills were federally backed and could be redeemed anywhere, unlike previous bills that could be redeemed only at the local banks that backed them. The First National Bank of Emporia, Kansas, released the $2 bill, which depicted a woman poised to unfurl an American flag. Next to her, an oversized numeral 2 laid sideways, and the bill soon acquired the nickname “Lazy Deuce.”
Years later, an educational series of silver certificates released in 1896 featured a cluster of female figures meant to represent the “Mother of Science” presenting her children (“Steam” and “Electricity”) to the ever-grateful female allegorical figures incarnated as “Commerce” and “Manufacturing.” It was the most visibility women would have on the $2s (or any note), to this day.
After 1918, Thomas Jefferson assumed the portrait hole on all subsequently printed $2 bills. A decade later, all U.S. currency was standardized to the size used today. That 1928 design—Thomas Jefferson on the front, his Monticello estate on the reverse—would be consistently printed until 1966, when $2 bill production was halted.
During the Great Depression, most people had very little wealth, and many items cost less than a dollar; rendering the $2 bill less functional than the $1 bill. And so people found other, more clandestine uses for it: bribery of politicians, gambling at horse races, and tipping at strip clubs, as John Bennardo reports in his 2015 movie, The Two Dollar Bill Documentary. By the mid-20th century, the bill had taken on a negative connotation as the note of choice for unsavory dealings; these associations lent the $2 an air of mystery and danger, fueling skepticism about its authenticity.
Even now, Professor Bill Maurer, an economic anthropologist at the University of California Irvine, explains that our conventions of pricing aren’t well-suited for the $2 denomination. “If you’ve got a $1 or a $5, you’re more likely to pull that out.” The arithmetic of $10s, $5s, and $1s is more intuitive for people to compute mentally.
Without the mundanity of use in daily transactions, the $2’s relative rarity means it elicits a certain reaction when it does show up. It becomes the centerpiece of rituals. The keynote of dining hall conversations, a bill collected and left behind in childhood bedrooms.
Maurer practically sang as he described the exchange of the $2 bill on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Living in Southern California where there is a large Persian community, Maurer developed a habit of frequenting coffee shops after Nowruz in late March, hoping to receive his change from his morning coffee in the form of $2 bills scrawled with “Happy New Year!” in Farsi. Maurer’s excitement echoes the mirth produced by Bill Ference’s prank, the small thrill of experiencing something you don’t see every day.
Now employed and feeling more lighthearted about the U.S. economy (and its currency), I recently took a metaphorical bill from Ference’s wallet and visited my own bank to withdraw some $2s. On the day I walked into the lobby of the TD bank in Cambridge’s Central Square, the tellers only had ten $2 bills. “I’ll take them all!” I said, as they forked over ten crisp bills, the corners of each rectangle perfectly sharp until I folded them loosely in half and stuffed them into my wallet.
I walked down Mass Ave that afternoon, prepared to buy coffee with cash, but when the barista said, “You can tap or swipe when you’re ready,” I was caught off guard. I thrust forward two $2s, and she responded, gleefully, “$2 bills! I haven’t seen those in a while!”
The next day I left my tip from a few beers with friends in the form of $2s and watched from afar as the bartender swept the neat stack of bills off the counter with a puzzled expression that morphed into delight.
During a late-summer heat wave a week later, I walked to a pool near my apartment and handed the man at the register two $2 bills to cover the entry fee for my two friends and me. The guy at the front desk raised only his eyebrows as he took my money. He lifted the cash drawer from the register, not pleased to have to make any extra movements in the staggering heat, and deposited the $2s in the cool metal bottom of the drawer, then handed me a $1 in change. Throughout my experiment, I had an urge to ration the $2s, to spread them out or spread them around. I didn’t want to spend more than one $2 bill in any one establishment, feeling compelled to mix in a $1 or a $5. Yet I made myself pay in $2s. They are not special, I told myself; I can get more.
But they are special. No card transaction can ever replicate the private experience of delight I shared with each of these people. It’s impossible to reproduce the tactile sensation of paying with cash, and moreso, paying with a $2. Maurer says, “It’s a thing that comes through your hands once in a blue moon, so every time that happens…it compels people to ask themselves what to do with it.”
Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve paid less often with paper bills, switching almost entirely over to contactless payments and interfacing with currency only to sate my basement washing machine’s appetite for precious quarters.
Coin and currency usage generally tracks with gross domestic product, but during the pandemic, a period of extreme financial instability, we witnessed a polarizing shift in how and by whom money was used, says Maurer. The pandemic illuminated a bimodal experience: while people on the higher end of the income distribution scale have been able to go completely contactless, to pay with Venmo and have their groceries delivered as if by magic, with little attention to how they arrived, people who were already in a cash economy became even more reliant on cash.
There’s a misconception that cash is becoming obsolete, Rosie Rios says. If that name sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen it in your wallet: her signature—Rosa Gumataotao Rios—appears on 1.7 trillion of the nearly 2.2 trillion U.S. dollars in circulation worldwide. Rios served as Treasurer of the U.S. during the Obama administration from 2009. At that time, Google Wallet and other similar initiatives were coming forward and many thought Americans wouldn’t use coin and currency in the same way. “Some folks were suggesting we should wind down operations” Rios says of the late aughts, when she was in charge of all seven facilities of coin and currency production. But, she continues, if you ask the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, “they will tell you that demand has never been higher.”
When Rios entered office in 2009, there were 835 billion dollars of currency in circulation worldwide. By the time she left in 2016, that figure had doubled. Coin production and usage has also skyrocketed, evidence that people are circulating cash, not just stuffing it beneath their mattresses. When Rios began her term as secretary, “we were producing about three billion coins a year.” When she left, that figure was 15 billion per year. As a portion of the overall pie of spending, coin and currency usage is unlikely to increase, but in terms of volume, production continues to grow.
U.S. currency is world-revered, Rios says. “It’s trusted; it’s fungible; it’s liquid; it has anti-counterfeiting measures in place—that’s why it takes so long to redesign currency—so, people trust it. And it’s government backed. Until someone comes up with something else that has all those boxes to check, I don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon.”
But money does more than just check boxes. Says Maurer, “money also serves as a kind of extended memory. It helps us imagine transactions in history and in the indefinite future.” That temporal dimension is what allows us to have a 30-year mortgage or an interest rate, and it’s in this sense that money allows us to extend our agency. It allows us to tell a story about ourselves: where we came from and where we’re going.
As U.S. Treasurer, currency redesign was Rios’s top priority: she wanted to change the faces on our bills. She was part of Obama’s Treasury-Federal Reserve Transition team at the height of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, one of two dozen financial professionals brought on to help stabilize the economy.
During her time on the transition team, Rios took daily breaks in the Treasury’s Historical Resource Center. The Treasury produces more than just currency; it makes all the financial products of the federal government, from postage stamps to savings bonds to military payment certificates. As Rios explored the Historical Resource Center, she noticed a pattern emerge: “every image I came across of a woman was not a real woman; it was an allegorical figure, like a lady of liberty. … But every image I came across of a man was a real man: a founding father, a cabinet member, a president.”
Who and what appears (or doesn’t appear) on our currency says a lot about who and what we value. As a general rule, most global currencies have an important person on the front and a significant edifice or monument on the back. The $2 bill does not follow that pattern. The series printed in 1976 and still printed today doesn’t depict an edifice or monument on the back, but an activity: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, based on a painting by John Trumbull. Rather than memorializing a static male portrait, the 1976 engraving tells a story about our nation’s founding.
“Physical bank notes are some of the most widely circulated and seen forms of paper that exist,” Bill Maurer explains. “Not everyone reads the newspaper, but everyone deals with cash at some point in their lives, and it’s a missed opportunity not to tell a story there.”
This was why Rios pushed so hard for currency redesign. So many hoary heads of white men look out at us from the bills; when she began her term as Treasurer, not one of our notes depicted portraits of women, and in that omission, we were missing important opportunities to tell new stories about women and their contributions to our national narrative. By selecting only a bewigged few to represent us on our currency, not only do we fail to tell other histories, we erase them.
Rios posed a question to the Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing: “Why haven’t we had the portrait of a woman on our federal reserve notes in the history of our country?” Then she asked his deputy, and the deputy’s deputy, all of them men. She got the same answer from each one of them: “No one has ever brought it up.”
Invigorated, Rios built a database of 250 historical American women; her team led a yearlong public engagement process, met with thousands of people across the country, attended town halls, solicited feedback on social media platforms, and read through letters and emails. The process culminated in 2016, when the database went live and the Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the $20 bill.
Five years later, we’re still waiting for a single bill bearing Tubman’s portrait to be printed, and 11.7 billion $20 notes with Andrew Jackson’s face still circulate around the globe. The currency redesign schedule, delayed by former Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the supposed account of enhancing the bill’s security features, means we won’t see Tubman’s portrait on the $20 until 2030, if then.
The histories engraved on our bills are powerful. We could be depicting stories of courage, justice, democracy. But while we wait another decade to see Tubman’s portrait, we’re retelling Jackson’s story, that of a man who owned enslaved people, a man who spearheaded a devastating policy of Indian removal and forced the displacement and deaths of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples.
New currency designs under consideration attempt to depict active scenes, with the hope of inspiring action. Maurer hints at some of the proposals: people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial, vignettes from the women’s suffrage movement, or moments representing the ongoing fight for racial justice. It could be decades before those designs make it onto bills, if they ever do.
I spent the last of my $2s on ice cream, shelling out four bills for two scoops of burnt sugar from Cambridge institution Christina’s, and receiving a few coins in change. I felt a twinge of wistfulness as I handed out the last of the bills, and was reminded of something Brendan said, reflecting on the stockpile of $2s stored beneath his dorm room’s twin XL bed: “It’s something that can’t be spent and can’t be deposited. Money is fungible; if you deposit a bunch of $2 bills and then get back $20s, it isn’t the same.”
I felt more at peace when I imagined each of these bills going on to live another life in circulation, perhaps spreading delight and surprise as each passed from hand to hand. Leaving my pocket, they can spark the small joy I witnessed on the faces of my barista and my bartender. They can be a Nowruz gift, a Christmas present.
They can even be the centerpiece of an elaborate prank orchestrated by a 22-year-old with too much time (and money) on his hands, a prank that left Brendan Christian in his dorm room staring at a briefcase of 2,500 $2 bills, certain his teammate Bill was behind it. No one else would go to such lengths, would feel so comfortable forfeiting all the money to his name.
Nor did Brendan want the entirety of Bill’s net worth (and the responsibility that came with it). But Bill took care of that as well. The annual team spring break was on the horizon, and each student who traveled was responsible for fronting a portion of the cost. “Hey, Brendan,” Bill piped up, “I’m a little short on cash and was wondering if I could borrow some money for the trip?” Brendan’s face lit up. “I happen to have a suitcase full of $5,000 in $2 bills,” he sang, “I’ll bring it by today.”
Bill never formally admitted to the prank, and Brendan never interrogated him about it. From the outside, I initially found it hard to understand why Bill went through such precise coordination, assumed so much risk, surmounted financial and logistical obstacles just for a prank. But Bill corrected me: “It wasn’t a prank in the truest sense. It was a journey of sorts. I felt like it would be a good natured experience for us to have in parallel.”
A story in common.
When it was over and some of the chatter had quieted, $2s kept appearing in the small shops on Spring Street—Williamstown’s tiny downtown area. Students would come in to Pappa Charlie’s to buy a sandwich with a $20, and to their surprise, receive $2s in change. The next week, they’d spend those $2s at Tunnel City Coffee. It was a thrill for everyone, an experience in parallel, to give and receive those $2s, to find themselves connected to Bill and Brendan’s journey, a local tall tale, whether they knew it or not.
The lore of “Two Dollar Bill” circulated for years. It outlasted the 2008 financial crisis. It outlasted Bill and Brendan’s time as Williams students. It passed around the small college campus even after all the co-conspirators and witnesses had graduated, then made its way to the outside world, finally to me in the fall of 2020 when I had no job and held little hope for my generation’s future. I clutched the story tightly, pocketing a bit of the human optimism I’d lost.
It was something I could save for a rainy day. Or pay it forward, to you.
This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.
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