I received a small envelope from an old friend in June of this year. It contained a silver dollar in a plastic collector’s case. I collected coins a long time ago and am still surprised at how much I remember, including where mint marks are located (or, in the case of the Philadelphia mint, absent) on each coin. The silver dollar in question, minted in 1885, bore the cryptic inscription ‘O’ on its reverse, or “tails” side, under the, um, tail of the eagle. The ‘O,’ I knew, stood for “New Orleans.” I called my friend, an antique dealer of some local renown, and thanked him for the unexpected gift. He advised that he had come across the item and, after making sure that it wasn’t one of of only two hundred minted, sent it to me with the thought that I could take it with me to New Orleans next time I went. I did that when I returned to New Orleans for business and Bouchercon last week and raised him one. I took that silver dollar back to its birthing room, if you will.
The place where I was born in no longer in existence — that covered wagon, alas, was attacked and set afire by Indians, but I digress — but the United States Mint in New Orleans still is. It is imaginatively and accurately known as “The Old Mint,” and does not refer to that unwrapped peppermint that James Scott Bell found in the pocket of a winter coat he hadn’t worn for a few years. No, The Old Mint is at the very edge of the French Quarter, tucked into a corner by the Mississippi River east of the French Market. It’s not a place that is close to tourist interests, so it is quiet, dim, and cool, the entrance way overseen by a somewhat sleepy-looking guard who seemed secure in the knowledge that there was nothing in the building that no one would be interested in stealing, unless steel coin presses weighing around twenty tons were to suddenly become valuable. There were, interestingly enough, a number of people there, and they weren’t drawn by the cost of admission (free!) or the promise of air conditioning on a New Orleans late summer day where the temperature was flirting with 95 degrees by 11:00 AM. No, they were coin collectors, past and present, and by dipping into conversations here and there I learned that they were serious about their hobby. They ranged in age from pre-adolescent (looking like I probably did back then, only skinny) to geriatric (um, looking like I do now, though not as vigorous and virile) and, one and all ,they were as excited to be there as the members of a bachelor party would be at Temptations on Bourbon Street, only quieter. I waited until the herd passed through and then quietly brought my silver dollar over to a press, reached across the barrier, and laid it down on the surface.
And…something connected. It was almost electric. I had set off to do the errand as a lark, and was still inwardly laughing over my good fortune of having literally run into British publishing giants Ali Karim and Michael Stotter, both of whom were in town for Bouchercon, on Chartres Street, and then being the subject of one of Ali’s recorded street interviews. The trip to The Old Mint at that point was almost an afterthought…that is, until the mission was accomplished. It felt as if a circle had been completed, and I suppose it had.
I put the silver dollar back into my pocket and left the Mint museum, though not The Old Mint building. The building is the location not only for exhibits pertaining to the Mint — which was used by both the United States and the Confederate States (at different times, of course) — but also The New Orleans Jazz Museum, which contains a great deal of memorabilia of musical greats who have come and gone but whose influence is still felt, though unfortunately generally forgotten. When I finally left, everything seemed just a tad different. I am at the age where I am deleting material goods rather than acquiring them, but I will hang on to that silver dollar. And it will come back with me to New Orleans when I return, again and again.
It was my favorite trip to New Orleans — and I had just been there three weeks previously — and my favorite Bouchercon to date. I really want to go again so I’m planning another trip near Christmas. My friend recently stayed at the InterContinental Hotel New Orleans so I will have to ask her what it was like. There were many high points…from seeing Laura Benedict at a publisher’s party and meeting Elaine Viets as she tried to sneak past me at a book signing, to meeting and having dinner with a couple of anonymous TKZ fans who have become my new best friends; from taking author Kelli Stanley and Tana Hall to Meyer the Hatter, to getting detained by security at the host hotel (don’t look like Tony Soprano and carry a shotgun bag into a crowded hotel lobby. It has the potential to ruin your day); and of course, running into Ali and Michael just about everywhere…but that silver dollar still carries a faint bit of electricity as it rests in my pocket.
That’s me. What did you do last week?