Money on either side of the poverty line

Johannes Lenhard
July 22, 2014

For the past couple of weeks I have been tutoring every day. I am in  fact just now sitting on the train back from the far north of London,  where one of ‘my families’[1] lives. Resides  is perhaps more precise. Mum, dad and the daughters inhabit a mansion:  nine bedrooms, a pool-house, a separate garden apartment for staff, five  cars (for two people with driving licenses) and a dog. They are a  lovely family as far as I can tell – just very rich. The money comes  from hard work in the marketing industry; for decades, Daddy has put up  with number-filled excel sheets, hour-long telephone conferences, and  endless client meetings discussing how to best sell needless and  nonsensical inventions. Now life is a bit more relaxed: at 54, he  founded his own firm, and since then working days have become shorter,  family life a little higher up the agenda.

Over the past year, I have got to know the family quite well,  tutoring two of their four daughters. It wasn’t the sometimes humble,  often snotty behaviour of the children, but that of their mother that  really made me think recently. Like all mums, this one was always  concerned about her kids. She held everything together, both in her  calendar and in her strict hands. Her life revolved around managing  graduation balls, rowing events and the army of tutors, household  helpers and gardeners. Underneath the luxury – which in itself was often  quite plain, plentiful but not garishly opulent – I observed something  very curious: how somebody who didn’t have to worry about money actually  dealt with it, with cash.

Recently, the mother and I decided to alter the way we handled the  payment for my tutoring. While the money was originally transferred to  and from an agency – very conveniently for both sides – some hiccups  with their system made us change the arrangement. It was suddenly bare  cash, rather than some numbers on the screen, that would have to swap  hands, literally. Every time the mother paid me she did so with disgust.  Whenever I saw her coming towards me holding the pack of notes in her  hand, I could sense her unease.

In no way was she worried about wasting the money – tutoring was seen  as a necessity, just another small brick in the wall of securitisation  to help the daughters live an easy life. The disgust came from the cash  itself. She didn’t like where it might have been: ‘It is dirty’, she  kept saying, ‘you just washed your hands. Do you want me to put it in  your wallet directly?’ Many people have touched these same notes before,  left their marks on them. Some notes do indeed feel dirty; they feel  used, old and exhausted, almost dead. The way the mother looked at the  notes evoked exactly these feelings in me – but I stopped myself: how  could I think of money as something dead, something horrible and  polluting, if we are all striving endlessly to get more and more of it?  Wasn’t I actually only here for the money that kept me alive (rather  than dead)? Is that part of the paradox of money?


On the other side of the poverty line, I was sitting on the street  with Martin last Saturday. And he just couldn’t stop playing: a  one-pound coin constantly flew from one hand to the other. In fluid  movements, Martin entertained the cash; he flipped, dropped, rolled,  threw it from one side to the other and couldn’t take his eyes from it  even while talking. I have known Martin for three years now and he  hasn’t changed his way of life as far as I’ve observed from when I first  met him. Every day at 5pm he starts work. He doesn’t do ordinary work  though: Martin begs for a living. I always meet him standing right next  to the entrance of Shoreditch High Street Station. He is quiet and  doesn’t address people. Often only the money speaks for him as it  jingles in his hands.

I have observed him – and others – polishing pieces, feeling them,  rubbing them against their palm, looking at them very closely, almost  examining them. Money seemed to have an exhilarating quality for Martin –  it makes him wonder. He doesn’t think about the history of the money as  such, but he thinks about the history of people who have touched it  before him. A pound coin means a lot for Martin; it is roughly a twelfth  of his daily income.

Most of the money Martin makes is given to him. It often comes from  people Martin only sees once in a lifetime, but very frequently people  give to Martin regularly. Martin knows the stories of people that helped  him out; he knows their names, jobs and sometimes even their families.  The money they give to him means something to Martin that goes  beyond the material gift; it takes Martin into other people’s lives  through its connection to talking, sitting down and spending time  together.

How Martin deals with money, with cash, made me curious when I first noticed it. I was and still am amazed by what he does with  it. For me – as for many other people – money is negligible in its  material form, almost a nuisance (sometimes even too dirty to actually  touch). It is in my wallet and, if not, there are always cards. For  Martin, there is no way around cash. He doesn’t have a bank account and  depends on ‘real’ money – money that people give to him. It seems that  this has also influenced his relationship with money. Evidently, money  is simply and straightforwardly precious to Martin. It means ‘life’,  another day on the street that means the world to him. Through money  Martin takes part in something bigger – a society – but one that in many  ways he is not connected to, as he doesn’t have a job, only a temporary  home, and not many friends and acquaintances. He feels connected partly  through the physical coin in his hand, exactly the history that the  concerned mother found so daunting.


The luxury of money – as with many other luxuries – is defined by  exclusivity. One can never really own cash; the notes and coins can  never be only yours. They belong to the state (and it can recall them if  it pleases) and to the people of the country. There’s something  inherently collective about coins and notes, which let us not forget  accounts for less than 3% of all the money, real and electronic, in the  UK. But a credit card, on the other hand, is yours; it has your  name on it, it is only employed by you, and you don’t have to part with  it to use it. Cash can never be any of these things. It can do something  else, however: fiat currency is a sign of community. It connects a  chain of people through time. It goes beyond the individual, and it  bears the marks and traces (of coffee, felt-tip, cocaine…) of the people  who have used it. Cash most probably is dirty – but is ‘dirty’ always bad?

The people I encounter on the street are connected to an –admittedly  romantic – community through their intimate relation to money, their  genuine care for it. The mother of the children I tutor doesn’t have  this connection. Like her mansion, she prefers the safety ring of an  intermediary bank, an electronically-manipulated piece of plastic.  Credit cards are just another sign of what has actually turned the  ‘real’ into the ‘dirty’: individualism.


[1]  The Names And Circumstances Of The People I Talk About In This Essay  Are Made-up. I Modelled The People On People I Met In Real Life But  Changed Important Details – Such As Names, Place Of Living, Occupation  Etc – To Make Them Completely Anonymous And Protect My Informants.

All by
Johannes Lenhard