When they found my uncle, his body was purple and puckered floating facedown in Clear Lake, 120 miles north of San Francisco. Decaying bills poked out of his swim trunks and the black handle of a pistol rested at his hip. There were no exit wounds, just as they expected — only a featureless gaze and lungs full of water.
No one in my family was surprised. They’d never find out what happened to him, but they could guess. Alan was in the “fast lane.” He’d “built Las Vegas.” He was maybe in the mafia, maybe. To be a Levinson is to dabble in destruction, and Uncle Alan had elevated it to an art form.
As Jews do, my father paid respect with three syllables. It didn’t matter that my uncle was murdered and probably a bad man. This was tradition: I would be Alan-a. The three syllables of my name (A-lan-a) would carry my uncle’s myth — the ominous hum of the speed boat’s engine that was found abandoned a few miles away; the knowing screams of Alan’s wife, who as she picked up the beige hotel room phone, already knew what the person on the other side of the line was about to tell her; and the legacy of thousands of dollars made as useless as fish food.
Like his brother, my father has always been big on bills. Maybe it ran in the (mob) family. Dad worked at a bank before my parents got divorced, and though my mother raised us, the random times I’d see him throughout my childhood, I’d be christened by crisp $20 bills. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say, a stack of bills uncoiling from his money clip like the blossom of a green flower. “It’s important to always have a little walking-around money — in case of emergencies.”
The term “walking-around money” originates in politics, referring to the bipartisan strategy common in poor parts of cities like Philly, Chicago and Baltimore. On election day, a sum of cash is allocated to help get out the vote and influence people last minute, buying volunteers coffee, donuts and gas. It’s money you use in the final hour to try and influence people you couldn’t with Big Donor Money. (If you’re wondering if this can lead to voter suppression, too, or straight-up vote buying, you’d be correct.)
This origin story, though I didn’t know it then, is similar to how I saw cash functioning on an interpersonal level. I came of age in the early aughts, when credit cards were well on their way to making physical money almost obsolete — today, only one in four Americans say they carry cash regularly. And even back then, there weren’t really any emergencies a Visa or Mastercard couldn’t handle. But cash was king to me despite the dawn of plastic, probably because it was only men I knew who liked to flash it around, regardless of where it came from or how much they actually had.
Men had the “street money” to a make a woman feel like they had all the “stuff” handled. Tips. Valets. Flowers. A balloon for a random kid on the street??? Who the hell knows what you need cash for — it doesn’t really matter. It’s about being the kinda guy who says one needs cash and then has cash. It’s about being the kinda guy who identifies with Frank Sinatra, a man who carried around thousands in cash at all times, is said to have never owned a credit card and was legendary for being a generous tipper. He famously once asked a valet (according to various retellings in various different ways), “What’s the biggest tip you’ve ever gotten?” The valet responded $100, and Sinatra handed him two C-notes. “By the way, who tipped you $100?”
“It was you, sir,” the valet replied. “Last night.”
For me, men had the bucks for the outward pleasantries: roll after roll of quarters for the arcade; enough Barbie dolls that it was a fire hazard for her Dream House; and bottomless popcorn and candy at the movies. Cash was instant gratification. Entirely off-the-grid and under-the-table. Where’d the cash in my uncle’s bathing suit come from? Where did my dad’s? Who knows? It’s not polite to ask about cash.
That’s probably why men are still obsessed with telling other men that they should carry cash at all times, because there’s something masculine about it. Gone are the days when the majority of women relied entirely on men for their livelihood, but it’s still nice to remind ladies of those good ol’ days. In 2018, chivalry isn’t telegraphing “I can take care of you,” but rather, “I could if you wanted me to.”
For GQ, writer Griffin Funk says he carries cash “not just because it’s good manners, but because there is a particular kind of entitlement about choosing not to. A presumptuousness. I carry $100. Five twenties. Have it: to split the bill after dinner. Have it: to tip your barber, your barista, your delivery person. (You can’t beat cash for that.) Have it: for emergency situations. Have it: for small purchases. Have it: because cash is untraceable and not all drug dealers take Venmo.” How dare you not have some green on hand for a spontaneous purchase of an 8-ball of cocaine? God forbid you’re on a date with a corporate lawyer who makes more than you and tip on your card instead of in cash — YOU FUCKING ANIMAL.
Of course, women carry cash too, but it’s never described as a duty of ours. Even though more than 70 percent of mothers now work, the prevailing stereotype is that wives rack up credit-card debt that their husbands begrudgingly pay down. Women spend the money — they be shoppin’ — and you provide the bacon.
Personally, I’ve never been big on cash, perhaps as a form of rebellion against my namesake, which equated it with murder. Plus, there was something gauche about the flashing of actual dollar bills. If you had a ton of money, would you really need to physically show it? My mother taught me to save money diligently but always in a bank account where it’s safe. “Never walk around with too much money on you,” she’d say, the fear of being robbed outweighing that of not having enough to tip a cabbie. And so, I see change and paper money primarily as vehicles for doing laundry and getting a new bacterial infection.
My Boomer father is now in his 70s, but his love of cash only seems to be intensifying with age. Holidays still mean I’ll be furtively slipped a wad of twenties under the dinner table or better yet receive a crisp white envelope afterwards with a couple of fresh benjamins tucked neatly inside. Recently, he got a hip replacement, and told me he couldn’t walk to the bank to take money out for my Christmas present — revealing that perhaps the cash I’m gifted isn’t as shady as I’d assumed. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I’ll give you cash next time.”