The history of Argentina in the last 100 years is a story of great potential overwhelmed by a genius for acts of pointless economic self-destruction, but even for the Argentines, this is an exasperating state of affairs. The economy is still growing at a robust clip of around 8 percent year over year, but out-of-control inflation, estimated by independent analysts to be around 25 percent, has effectively devalued the currency, making it ironic that coins have become such an obsession. But an obsession they are, worthy of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Zahir," about a man driven mad by contemplating a single coin.
Nowadays, without exact change, porteñosalso spend their days haunted by the specter of metal money. They are casually shortchanged by waiters or pushed to buy more produce in order to bring the total closer to a figure that won't require the vendor to provide change. People with a keen strategic sense maintain a well-diversified hoard of coins and painstakingly build alliances with local shopkeepers or bank tellers, conspicuously proffering coins for one purchase or deposit in the hopes of being indulged when they're short of change at some point in the future. Street musicians, like one we talked to in the San Telmo neighborhood, have to preface their performances by announcing that they have change, or they risk starving to death. Subway employees are occasionally forced to wave commuters through because they are out of coins.
Stranger still, change mania doesn't end at coins. The moneda shortage has produced a rising disinclination to provide change at all, even in bill form, at least not without histrionic sighs and eye-rolling. Last night, for instance, in a very crowded bar, I handed the waitress a 100-peso note to pay a 20-peso bill, and I was made to wait 30 minutes for change. The 2-peso note is thrown around with a contemptuous disregard usually reserved for metal money, at least in countries where less money isn't occasionally worth more than more money. But 5s and 10s are harder to come by, because they're actually worth something. In many cases, they're more worth more than 20s, because you can buy things with them, which isn't always true with a 20. In some cases, 5s and 10s are effectively worth more than 100s—which, unless you want to take out the equivalent of $20 at a time, are pretty much the only bills ATMs here dispense. Save for large purchases, 100-peso notes are functionally useless—imagine trying to trade a bar of platinum bullion for a sandwich and a coffee. In several instances, I've found myself buying an expensive lunch, costing, say, 60 pesos, just to break a 100 into more useful constituent parts so I can buy something I need, like beer.
Until someone figures out how to solve the crisis, money, at least money of a certain form, will remain like the painted lanes on the grand chaotic avenues of Buenos Aires: merely a set of loose guidelines to be interpreted by the individual, depending on the circumstances. It's exasperating, but there are signs of hope. Every once in a while, something happens that suggests the cosmos has decided to intervene and even things out. Last week, at the ferry terminal, I handed a cashier a 10-peso note for a 10.50 tab. He just shrugged and took it without a word of complaint. Not without a twinge of guilt, I wordlessly returned a precious 50-centavo coin to my hoard. A hoard I plan to release, in one spectacular all-moneda purchase, the day I leave the country. Perhaps from a balcony, like Eva Perón.