Monthly Essays

The Signature

“Do you have any folding money on you?” I recently asked a friend.

She looked aghast by my request as if I were going to hit her up for a loan. We were sitting in my penthouse office, otherwise known as a converted corner upstairs bedroom, and I was not hard up for cash, but doing a little research for a character.

For my work-in-progress, a novel with the working title AROUND THAT BEND, I’m building a character who was a former secretary of the treasury. I’m inventing him, but I wanted to know the age of the currency we carry in these parts, so I can know if any of the people in the novel with this guy will be carrying bills with his signature.

Turns out I had only Jacob J. Lew’s signature on the 2013 currency series. My friend had a Timothy F. Geithner signature. And at the time we were comparing dollar bills and fives and tens and one twenty, I hadn’t researched our former treasury secretaries, and I read Lew’s signature as “Paul Jeffers.” I mean the guy has poor penmanship. I later learned that it is really bad. I know some folks have stylized signatures so crooks can’t easily forge their names, but Lew wrote his name as a series of loops. The president asked him to fix that, and he signed in a script I still couldn’t read.

Our current secretary of the treasury is Steven T. Mnuchin. I don’t have his signature, but I’m sure there are newer bills out there that he signed. Turns out his signature is as bad as Lew’s, so he had to clean it up before signing for the engraving department.

We really should know who holds this secretary post since he’s fifth in line for the presidency behind the vice president, the speaker of the house, the president pro temp of the senate, the secretary of state, and then it’s the treasury secretary. (I could only name a couple, starting with the first one, Alexander Hamilton, and then I remembered only Henry Paulson. I was surprised to learn that former Texas governor John Connally, who was also shot in that limo with JFK in Dallas, was later treasury secretary in 1971-2. Isn’t history amazing?)

My invented character, Lester T. Lewis, will have a legible signature. I am not going to pinpoint his tenure as treasury secretary since I don’t want to get into politics in this novel. I’ll just let him reflect on power as he writes about his life.

For two weeks he’ll be at a writers’ colony with seven other writers, each with a suite comprised of bedroom, bathroom, and writing room. He’s one of four viewpoint characters, and he will be writing his memoir.

One of my pet peeves is that readers think memoirs are true. They are ‘based on fact,’ maybe. They are based on one person’s perception and memory of past events as they emotionally impacted this person. That does not make them true stories as in ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’

Memoir is called ‘creative nonfiction’ for a reason. It gets a number in the Dewey Decimal system like how-to gardening books or books about your state, but trust me, it’s more fiction than fact. Nobody can remember verbatim dialogue, and yet dialogue from a person’s teenaged years is front and center in a memoir. Remember that next time you read one.

And why not check and see whose autograph you have on your dollar bills?

P.S. The other signature on our currency is the Treasurer of the United States. It’s an appointed position, and since the day Harry S Truman appointed a woman to the job, it’s always been held by a woman. And seven of the past eleven have been Hispanic.

2019 essays:

2018 essays:

2017 essays:

2016 essays:

2015 essays:

2014 essays:

2013 essays:

2012 essays: