Jock is a totally unassuming, highly unmemorable, quiet and peaceful man, the last man you would suspect of running a profitable and truly global business empire, or of being a smuggler or currency manipulator. I met him by accident in Singapore, where he was the only occupant of the last otherwise-available table in my favorite outdoor satay restaurant. When I asked if I could share the table he spared me the normal suspicious glower, waved me to a seat and made some innocuous remark about the weather. We chatted, discovered we had similar tastes in food and drink, parted with no expectation of ever meeting again. But we did, in Manila and then in Surabaya and yet again in Phnom Penh, and over the years got to know each other quite well. At least well enough for each of us to know the other was not a business competitor, so we could talk freely.
Jock made himself a comfortable and agreeable living from peanuts, the name the trade gives to small-denomination coins. At most international airports there are collection buckets in the terminal, convenient places for travelers to drop off the clutter of small change that has made the one-way trip to the traveler’s pocket or purse. Foreigners never can decipher the value of these mysteriously varied coins, so they never spend them, always use paper money and accumulate the coins. Then at the airport the things, doomed to become worthless immediately after take-off, are liabilities that have to be emptied into bins at security, scraped out of the bins and returned to pocket or purse, scatter embarrassingly on the floor whenever something else is taken from the pocket, weigh you down and wear out your clothes and probably spread noisome diseases when you get home. Thoughtful charities are willing to take them off your hands, and provide those collection buckets. Never enough, never well enough placed, so in practise the international traveler passes through two or three countries before stumbling upon one bucket. Jingle, jingle, US cents and dimes, Philippine pesos, Chinese ren, perhaps a Euro or two, in they all go. The charity takes them all; but the charity can only use the local ones, the rest are a minor problem.
Enter Jock. He likes to travel. He has been around the block, knows the charity organizers everywhere in the world. Twice a year he leaves his home in a little tax-sheltered island in Europe and embarks on a prolonged round-the-world trip to visit all his airports, all his charities. He pays them by weight, averaging pennies on the dollar of face value of the mass of coins. He takes his buckets of ‘foreign’ coins to a storage unit or a girlfriend’s house, leaves them there and catches his next flight. Whenever he has accumulated about a ton in one place, he boxes it up and ships it as scrap metal on the slowest, cheapest boat home. He always has tons of cash sitting around the world, and it all finds its way home to him in due course.
The second phase of the operation is to sort the money by nationality. He has plenty of time to do this between trips. He fills up his shipping boxes with coins, one nation at a time, and ships it cheaply to its ancestral home. On his next trip he recovers the box from his shipping agent at the seaport, takes a rental truck to a bank, cashes the coinage for real, spendable money. In the quantities he handles, that last part is not always entirely legal; but then, every business has some overheads and inconveniences.
Jock lives well. He has a host of friends around the world, more frequent flier miles than a migrating bird, a suntan in midwinter, a smile of welcome to the whole world. But he never leaves an airport with even a single coin in his pocket.
Copyright 2017 Flight of Eagles