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AS I was exiting my car at the local plaza recently, I noticed a nickel heads-up in the gutter. Stepping carefully over a puddle, I retrieved the almost-worthless coin and slipped it into my pocket. All I needed were 19 more to make a dollar. Which is nothing to sneeze at. There are days when you just can't make a buck no matter how hard you try. It was worth thinking about.

So I thought about it, and the lowly nickel's past and present, as I headed for the department store. All the rest of the day and week I continued to reflect on the subject. In fact, I'm still open to suggestions - from my own memory and from anyone else with ideas. So here are a few things that came to mind regarding what a nickel once bought. Since my generation is still extant, there ought to be some memory-nudging for others like myself who can't ignore a nickel in a rain gutter.

For five cents, you could get a generous double-header ice cream cone if the soda jerk liked you. Imagine that against what you pay nowadays. My father used to do a jig across the kitchen singing a comic ditty about paying for a donut with a five-cent piece. The song always ended with: ``There's a hole in your nickel, and it goes right through; Says I, `there's a hole in your donut, too.' '' (Could that be the origin of the saying ``not worth a plug nickel''?)

Who doesn't remember - or hasn't heard of - the proverbial street entrepreneur who sold apples during the Depression for a nickel apiece? Big, luscious, juicy, red apples. A nickel was a very large reward from a flush neighbor-lady when you returned with a bag of potatoes from the grocery store for her. You protested ``No, thanks,'' but on the third insistence allowed your modesty to be deep-sixed. You could be a genuine big shot and put it in your church envelope if you felt altruistic. After all, didn't the Lord love a cheerful giver? And didn't bread on the water come back as French toast? (If the mallards didn't get it first.)

I can recall two characters whose dealings with nickels years ago stand out. The first was known as ``The Nickel Man'' in our town. He was reputed to have a jewelled finger in just about every real-estate pie in the community, and had long ago ``made his pile.''

All the children who knocked at his door for many Halloweens were awarded a shiny new nickel - provided they performed a song or dance for him. (That was when a lollipop or a bag of homemade popcorn was considered a fair treat.) Many a grown child today can still envision those stacks of coins on his parlor table.

The second gentleman was an Italian immigrant who sold candy bars in various locations around the streets of Waterbury, Conn. He kept his merchandise in a basket and was known for his singsong delivery of ``Evrat'ing a nickel-a.'' After each transaction he chanted: ``T'anka you, Gumba.'' He was called that - Gumba - (comrade, friend.) His passing marked the end of a period in the Brass City.

WHAT else could be had for a nickel? A pack of Wrigley's chewing gum. A pair of shoelaces. A telephone call. A cherry Coke at the pharmacy. Half an hour's parking alongside a Main Street meter. Most of the rides at an amusement park. The Sunday News out of New York, blaring half-page sports headlines and tales of political shenanigans. Stamps are still escalating in price, but at one time you could mail a letter anywhere in the United States for a nickel or less. And a delicious leftover at day's end from ``Sam, Sam the Hot dog Man'' could be bought for a nickel, too.

Lest we get carried away, let's realize they weren't all the ``good old days'' by a long shot. Who had nickels to throw around, let alone leave by the curb when exiting a car? That Depression was universal. We were all in the same boat, and there was no lasting shame in being ``short.'' The shame was in staying down, when you could sell apples on a street corner, deliver groceries, or sell Hershey Bars in front of a busy bank entrance.

But didn't a nickel found, given, or spent loom large in those days? I'm dating myself, certainly. Maybe I'm comparing apples and oranges or nickel-and-diming the issue. Would I care to go back?

Of course not. I happen to be quite content with my lifestyle these days, even though I'm paying over a dollar for a hamburger at Burger King. Yet I've never tasted one that even remotely compares with those five- centers we used to get at the White Tower. And it really was wonderful to be able to take the New York subway and ride across the city all day for one magical nickel.

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