You could see by the slow way he walked over to the cashier that he was doing arithmetic

By Gregory Clark, February 20, 1932.

The city of Buffalo wishes the Canadian dollar were back at par.1

I stepped up to the news-stand in Buffalo’s finest hotel and picked up a newspaper.

I held out to the clerk a Canadian nickel. “I’m sorry,” said he, hastily, for they are very quick in Buffalo at feeling a coin, “I can’t take this.”

Take three cents out of it, instead of two,” I suggested. “Wouldn’t that look after the exchange?”

“You can’t compute exchange on a nickel,” said he.

So I produced a Canadian dollar. He took it.

First he deducted 17 cents exchange. That was at the rate at the moment. Then he. took two cents for the Times.

And he handed me back 81 cents, U. S.

Which, as change from a dollar in a deal involving a 2-cent newspaper, brings home the exchange problem nice and clearly.

My expression, however, as I stared down at those very high class coins in my palm was not any more pained than the news-stand clerk’s.

“Gees, it’s tough!” said he.

And like everybody else in Buffalo, he meant it. They really are pained by the situation. It is a nuisance every way you or they look at it. Buffalo has plenty of factories and therefore she can feel bad, the way hundreds of manufacturing cities and towns in the States feel bad, over the loss of millions of dollars worth of juicy orders for spring goods from Canada. But as $1,000 Canadian worth only about $800, Canadians can’t see that a $4 hat is worth $5. So while Canadians are patiently waiting for their dollar to rise – and doing a lot of buying at home meanwhile – the Americans are wishing the Canadian dollar would stand up and come walking across the border in millions again in the good old-fashioned way.

But Buffalo has a lot of private grief ever the Canadian dollar that is not shared by the rest of the U. S.

First of all, that all year round parade of amateur Canadian smugglers, of whom there are only about 9,000,000 in the Dominion, has sadly dwindled in the past few months. Every day in the week, including Sunday, there was a procession across all the bridges from Canada of people who think that goods are cheaper and more stylish in Buffalo. Or maybe it is just that they want to buy something in a foreign country to show the gals back home. Or possibly they think they can smuggle a pair of stockings in the hip pocket.

Buffalo has practically lost all that amateur smuggler trade.

“We made a special study of this exchange thing,” said Mr. A. T. Gerstner of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, introducing me to Mr. Percy Fahnstock, the financial editor of the Buffalo Times, with whom he was sadly communing when I called at the chamber. “And we couldn’t make head or tail of it. We had a special committee of selected intellects follow the exchange question as far as they could go. But when it ended in a swamp they came back to us with their tails dragging. In the meantime American industries are suffering for the want of Canadian orders. Every storekeeper and taxi driver in the city has to check up every morning on to-day’s exchange rate. There is bad feeling. We feel very sorry about it, because we like Canadian dollars just as much as you like American dollars. It’s too bad.”

And in the meantime, while the incoming traffic over the Peace bridge has fallen to a trickle, the outgoing traffic of Buffalonians in quest of Canadian goods at the Fort Erie liquor store shows no signs whatever of diminishing.

Buffalo Learns Arithmetic

“The funny part of it is,” said the financial editor, “that those Canadian liquor stores don’t know anything about this exchange thing. A bottle costs $3.75, Canadian. So we put down $3.10, American, which is the equivalent of $3.75, Canadian; but the clerks say they haven’t heard about that.

“‘Over on the American side, maybe,’ says the vendor, ‘but over here $3.75, anybody’s money.’ And there you are.”

“But you could change your money into Canadian before you get there,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said the financial editor, “but nobody thinks of it in time. And, anyway, it’s a nuisance changing it.”

“You should know something about a nuisance!” I exclaimed. “I bought a pair of silk stockings to-day for my wife in one of your big stores. They cost $1.65. When I handed the girl a Canadian $5 bill she asked me if I wanted exchange on the whole $5 bill or just on the sale. I said just on the sale.

“So she gave me back, with my parcel, three Canadian $1 bills and three cents. I asked her how she figured that.

“‘Well’, says she, ‘exchange to-day is 16 cents, isn’t it? On $2 that makes the exchange 32 cents. So $1.65 for the stockings, plus 32 cents exchange, is $1.97. Isn’t that right?’

“‘Yes,’ says I, ‘but all I am buying is the stockings. You should take,’ says I (working it out with a pencil on the paper the stockings were wrapped in), ’16 per cent. of $1.65, which is only 26 point 4 cents. Say 26. And that makes $1.91 and gives me back 9 cents instead of 3.’

“By this time three other sales girls and a department manager were hovering around. The girl was mixed up, but she raised her eyes to the ceiling, bit my pencil with her teeth and figured it out. They are well trained in arithmetic by now in Buffalo.

She raised her eyes to the ceiling bit her pencil with her teeth, and figured it out

“Suddenly she saw it! ‘Yes,’ she cried,’ but I would have to give you back your 9 cents change in Canadian money.’

“‘Then,’ said I, ‘do you mean to say that 3 cents American is as good as 9 cents Canadian?’

“And at that the manager stepped forward and said, ‘Excuse me, mister, but if you will come up to the office we will get the accountant to go over this with you.’ But I beat it. I took the 3 cents American, be- cause I wanted to buy another newspaper and I didn’t want to spend 19 cents out of my Canadian dollar to get one.”

The Chamber of Commerce man listened to my story.

“‘Well,’ said one, “there were five Americans in that mix-up and only one Canadian. You see how it adds up.”

Yes, Buffalo is very distressed, but very patient.

The hotel I stayed at is so good-natured about the exchange question that they take our Canadian money at par.

When I paid my room bill they took $4 Canadian. I got a $4 room for $3.32. At dinner, when I offered Canadian money to the waiter, he said:

“If you sign the cheque and charge it to your room you will get the meal at par, but if I go and get it changed at the desk they will take exchange out of it.”

So I charged it.

But I had my experience with a waiter all the same.

I am one of those plain country fellows that is friendly with waiters. This one I made great friends with. By the time lunch was over he figured I was just as nice as any waiter even. We talked about the meal, Germany, German food, German beer, how long he had been with this hotel and canaries.

But with a craftiness this good Dutchman of a waiter would never dream me capable of, I carefully schemed my lunch to cost exactly 80 cents!

Exchange that day was 17 cents.

When the table was cleared and the finger-bowl dibbled, my good fat friend laid down the cheque – 80 cents.

He figured, happy man, that a nice friendly customer could not do less than lay down a dollar bill and leave him the change.

But I laid down a Canadian one-dollar bill!

And then, in the mirror on the wall beside me, I watched the waiter’s face.

Computing is the New Sport

Slowly he reached out a dazed hand and picked up the cheque and the dollar. Slowly he turned and walked away. He walked with bent head. You could see by the slow way he walked over to the cashier that he was doing arithmetics.

My dollar was worth 83 cents over at that desk.

With a shamed look he walked slowly back to me, with bowed head, looking with distended eyes at a spectacle he had perhaps never before seen in all his years in that handsome and noble dining room.

It was 3 cents.

On a silver tray.

Speechless, he laid the offensive objects before me.

I looked at them.

Then I looked up at him.

Slowly he shrugged his shoulder, up, out.

So I dipped down and laid beside the three U. S. coppers a Canadian nickel and a Canadian dime.

And when I looked back from the dining room door at him he was standing with a pencil and a piece of paper translating his tip into terms he could understand.

Computing is the great Buffalo sport these days. It is like cross word puzzles.

I spent the evening at a movie. Admission was 65 cents and on the glass of the ticket booth was a card reading, “Canadian exchange to-day 17.”

I handed the girl a Canadian $1. She handed me promptly back 18 cents.

She was a pretty girl and I supposed therefore dumb.

“Just a minute,” said I, spreading out my change on my palm. “But how do you figure 17 per cent. of 65 cents?”

As quick as a flash she replied:

“I changed your dollar into American money, 83 cents, and then deducted the price of admission, 65 cents. Change, 18 cents.”

I was shoved from behind in the line-up or I might have attempted a feeble argument. But even the pretty girls in Buffalo can do arithmetic. I guess it is the practice they get.

The next adventure was in a taxicab.

I drove forty cents worth and then handed the driver two Canadian quarters.

“Hey,” he said; “that’s Canadian money!”

“It certainly is,” said I. “Note the King’s head on it. His name is George.”

“That’s only 40 cents, just the same,” said the driver, with a pleasant smile. “We count 20 cents for two bits, just to make it handy.”

“Well,” I retorted, “how much do I owe you?”

“That’s right,” said the driver, “forty cents.”

He didn’t want to let me get away with the idea that I was tipping him.

And I didn’t. This is why.

Outside the hotel, after nightfall, where the wind howls and whoops off Lake Erie around corners that must surely be the windiest in a windy land, I was held up by a panhandler.

“How about a cuppa coffee?” mumbled this member of a free and equal nation where even the panhandlers don’t know how to be beggarly.

“Aren’t you participating in the President’s Relief Fund2?” I asked, rejoicing in this chance to take a dig at the people who think my nickels aren’t worth taking.

“Huh?” said the startled bum.

“It’s presidential year,” I assured him. “Things ought to be booming now.”

“Well, they ain’t,” said the bum. “I was over to the American Legion for a suit of underwear and they was fresh out of them.”

I went over to a lighted window and drew forth my change. I selected the brightest Canadian quarter I could find.

“Here,” said I.

He looked down at it eagerly. Then a look of disappointment. And he half-handed it back to me. But I was looking as dignified as possible, with my stomach out and a kind of three rousing British cheers and a tiger sort of look. At least that’s what it felt like from the inside. You never know what these things look like from the outside.

“Well?” I demanded.

“You haven’t a – you wouldn’t happen to have a -” he said, holding the quarter out, but gripping its edge firmly.

“No,” said I, “they’re too expensive.”

“Well,” said he, taking another half-warm, half-cold look at the shining King’s head, “thanks very much anyway.”

And while I stood resenting that “anyway” right down to my boot heels the bum faded into the night.

I suppose he was at the Ar-gawn!3

Embarrassing a Customs Man

The only person I really gypped in Buffalo, outside of the telephone company, whose telephone booths take Canadian dimes as readily as American, was the little cigarette girl at the hotel, who walks around the dining rooms and corridors carrying a tray of cigarettes. I can’t smoke those American cigarettes. They taste to me as if the cigarette industry was trying to help out the American farmer.

But I beckoned the girl and took a package of those well-known cigarettes that are basted, sunburned and fricasseed.

And I handed her a Canadian quarter. Her highly burnished fingers at once detected the fraud.

“I can’t take this!” said she. “It’s on’y worth tway-unty say-unts!”

“Well,” said I, “here’s a Canadian nickel. That makes it even, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir; thank you, sir,” said she and went innocently on her way.

But I had done her wrong.

“I can’t take this!” said she. “It’s only twa-unty say-unts!”

The exchange rate that day, broadcast by the banks throughout the city of Buffalo, was 17 per cent., and 17 per cent. of 30 cents is 5 point 1 cents. So I had really only given. her 24 point 9 cents for a 25-cent package of cigarettes.

I felt bad for a little while. But later I gave the smokes away to a bellboy who had a very bad cough, so I figured I was even with my conscience.

It remained for Canada, however, to do the job to a royal and ancient finish.

I had a pair of stockings, $1.65, and a little baby girl’s padded pink kimono, $2.95, with me when I drove back over to the Canadian side.

The customs man asked if I had anything to declare, so out of my hip pocket where I had so carefully hidden them I drew the stockings and out of the inner lining of the car cushion I drew the kimono.

“Yes, sir,” said I to the shocked and embarrassed customs man.

And what do you think that arithmetician did?

First he added the two bills together, to $4.60.

Then he added the exchange, 17 per cent., to bring the amount I had spent to Canadian money, total $5.38.

And then he proceeded to figure the duty on that amount.

“Don’t you birds allow a man to bring home a couple of little gifts like this?” I demanded in a hurt tone. “That pink thing is for a dear little girl that would be just heart broken if I didn’t bring her home something. And anyway, after being gypped all over Buffalo, now you go adding what I was gypped on to what you are going to collect. Gee, you birds are trying to run yourselves out of a job. Pretty soon there won’t be any Canadians crossing over the border and then you will have to go back to the gas station.”

I think my act of pulling those two items of contraband out of their hiding places really softened this hard guy’s heart.

“Are they gifts?” he asked, with tears in his voice.

“Are they gifts?” asked the customs officer with tears in his voice

“One for my wife and the other for my dear little daughter, who would just -“

“Away you go!” commanded the customs man. Anyway, it was a pretty cold day to do figuring with a little stump of pencil with numb fingers.

Maybe you thought when I started this story that I was going to explain in some sort of Queen and Yonge street way the mystery of exchange. But that isn’t the idea. It is just a day in Buffalo, with the little things that happen to a Canadian’s pride and an American’s patience.

And while the lords of finance stir their mystic witches’ cauldron – out of which the lords of finance doubtless take something nice and juicy – the Yanks and the Canucks break about even.

Anyway, next summer when the little American shinplasters start rolling into these parts once more, let’s be good sports.

Let’s accept them at par.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Economics was complicated during the Great Depression, as politicians tried all sorts of solutions. A History of the Canadian Dollar, indicates some of the challenges. The Canada-U.S. exchange rate was basically at par for years (except for briefly after World War 1), so having to deal with exchange rates was something new. ↩︎
  2. This was one of President Herbert Hoover’s attempts at relief in 1931. ↩︎
  3. This is a slang term for Argonne, a reference to the Meuse–Argonne offensive at the end of World War 1. Unemployed former soldiers were a symbol of the times, so Greg is implying that he was a veteran. ↩︎