Dirty, Fun Money

I don't like to touch dollar bills because I believe all currency in circulation is disgusting in some way that is mercifully unknown. I admit that I'm a little extreme with cleanliness due to my severe "germophobia"/hypochondria swings, but I can look at any smudge on a bill and freak myself out over what it could be and what I just contracted from it. Suppose that bill was folded and tucked to incubate in a warm wallet by wet fingers that just wiped a runny nose? Or I might imagine something terribly worse. Don't roll your eyes at me -it happens, and both you and I touch it!

When I saw a guy in a bank repeatedly lick his thumb while counting out a stack of cash my left knee gave out, but I caught myself. I'm to the point where if an item is as little as 30 cents, you'll see me swipe my disinfected check card.

One day last week I was in a hurry for lunch so I stopped at a Burger King drive-thru. After shouting my order into the intercom twice, I pulled forward to pay. I must have been deep in thought because when I came to, my hand was out the window accepting dirty, cash change.

Before I reached for my hand sanitizer, I fanned the bills to verify change and saw the most tattered five dollar bill I've ever seen. Abe Lincoln looked exhausted -his bill's edges were torn and edge-to-edge wrinkles trapped lots of germy grime -a perfect mental prep for my sandwich.

On one edge of the bill I saw the tiny red stamp of a web address that I couldn't make out. Abe's wet/dry cycle of life (don't think about it) had diffused the letters, making them almost illegible. I took the bill home and put it under heavy light and a magnifying glass. The stamp said, wheresgeorge.com.

I logged on and a prompt for the bill's denomination and serial number took me to my bill's page, complete with its mapped journey on the screen. My weary five buck bill began in Salem, Oregon 301 days earlier and statistics about its stops en route to Los Angeles were shown in a chart, logged by other recipients. The info fascinated me.

I registered with the site (free) and soon received an email from Chuck, the bill's originator who thanked me for "hitting" his bill. We swapped some brief info about our lives via email and I learned that he is a veteran of "george," having launched some 1,300 bills for tracking. I was more surprised to hear that there are "Where's George" in-person gatherings and a "Where's Willie" equivalent website for Canadian currency. If you have ever wondered where a dirty dollar has been, now wheresgeorge.com can give you a hint -if you are fortunate enough to land a tracked bill. Or you can enter the serial number of a new bill to begin tracking it.

The Internet gets plenty of press about the dangerous connections it enables: Pedophiles scoping out underage computer users, "phishing" web sites luring people to reveal passwords or bank account information, worms and viruses unleashed to harm unprotected computers, annoying spam and scam after scam. It feels good to once in a while discover an inventive website that whose engine is public participation instead of profit and offers a fun connection without harm. Ironically, wheresgeorge.com uses money to connect interesting people who would never have met -all while requiring no money of them.

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