BOSTON — `CAN I get five coins for this five-dollar bill?'' I ask the bank teller. Silence.
``Can I get five coins?'' I repeat.
She looks nervously at the people behind me and forces a smile. ``Do you want quarters?''
``No. Dollar coins.''
``Do you remember the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin?'' I ask.
``Oh, yes!'' she grins. ``But we never have those.'' She looks in her drawer in case she's wrong. ``They were such a pain.''
Next bank: same story.
Third bank: success.
``You want an Eisenhower silver dollar, too?'' I head for the drugstore.
``That's 82 cents,'' says the kid at the cash register. He hesitates when I hand him the Susan B. Anthony dollar, then sets it on the till. ``I've never seen one before,'' he says. ``I think I'll take it home.''
Another Susan B. Anthony coin bites the dust.
In fact, 442 million of them are gathering dust at the United States Mint and Federal Reserve banks. That's more than half the total number minted: 857 million (from 1979 to 1981).
``There's no demand for them,'' says Hamilton Dix, in the Mint's office of public affairs.
The remaining 415 million in circulation have all but disappeared. ``We have no way of knowing exactly where the coins are,'' Ms. Hamilton says. Most are in Federal Reserve branches (almost 5 million in Boston), banks, and personal collections.
Surely the suffragette from Adams, Mass., wouldn't have stood for such treatment - idle in vaults, collected in drawers, of little service. Born of pioneer Quaker stock in 1820, Susan Brownell Anthony fought for reform: temperance, emancipation of slaves, equal rights, pay, and the vote for women.
Yet her coin never caught on. Most people say it's too similar to the quarter; there's no place for it in cash registers; paper dollars are lighter; the coin wasn't introduced with proper fanfare. By all accounts, Susan was the wrong coin at the wrong time.
``It's a terrible picture of her,'' says Robert Leuver, executive director of the American Numismatic Association.
``She looks a little like George Washington,'' says Walter Reed of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, representing vending machine companies that have pushed hard for a dollar coin. To help avoid confusion with the quarter, ``The back should have been plainly marked with the number 1,'' he says. Instead an eagle is landing on the moon.
But the push for a dollar coin is on again. The ``Christopher Columbus Dollar Coin'' bill has been introduced in Congress by Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D), after failure last year. This legislation would mint ``gold'' coins (made of copper) the same size as the Anthony dollar, but with smooth edges, and remove paper bills from circulation in 18 months.
``We need a new dollar,'' says Mr. Reed. Most vended items cost more than 50 cents, and machines that accept bills are inefficient, he says. The dollar coin would make it possible to vend big items like salads, batteries, books. It would be useful in mass-transit systems; today it speeds drivers through tollbooths on New York City bridges.
Actually, the dollar coin would lighten consumers' pockets. Though at 8.1 grams it's heavier than a quarter's 5.7 grams, one dollar is lighter than four quarters.
Still, if Americans aren't desperately spending Susan, will they take to a different dollar coin?
``I feel like I have more money when I have a dollar bill,'' one woman says. Says a young man, ``I think you don't care as much about coins as bills. You lose coins.''
``When I think of coins, I think of less than a dollar,'' says another. ``But as long as I can spend it, I don't care if it's a coin or a bill.''
To obtain Susan B. Anthony dollars, call the US Mint (301) 436-7400 for a catalog; or write to Customer Service Center, US Mint, 10001 Aerospace Drive, Lanham, MD 20706.