Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Tom DeLazier has a gift - an uncanny, sometimes embarrassing gift. And in a moment, he's going to pull his Pontiac Grand Am into the nearest convenience store on South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., and demonstrate.
If he's lucky, no one will be watching. Otherwise, there will be stares, questions, and he might get run off, which happens on occasion.
"I do things in unpredictable ways," he says, giddy at the thought of an audience. "People are fascinated. I don't know why."
DeLazier has a knack for finding money - everywhere. In parking lots, phone booths, car washes, on the interstate, in grocery stores, at drive-through windows, even in the trash.
"My life is a perpetual treasure hunt," he says. "My record year was 2002. I found $2,700."
Not in cash, mind you. It was $2,700 in change: Tens of thousands of nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies, every last one of which was lost or tossed away by someone else.
"We live in a country where people throw away money," he says. "What does that say about our attitude?"
To prove a point, the 60-year-old DeLazier has set a goal today, a Saturday. He's going to drive around and find $8 in discarded money between 9 a.m. and say, noon.
He'll use no metal detector, accept no donations, and he'll avoid any money that clearly belongs to someone else. "If people give you money," he says, "it doesn't count."
At 9:12 a.m., DeLazier makes his first stop, at the Sam's Mart on South Boulevard and Ideal Way. Two steps out of the car, he finds a penny on the concrete and holds it up like a trophy, then another, then another. "Looky here! Looky here! You see that? Just lying here!"
He next walks over to a pay phone and jiggles the coin return handle. No money rolls out, but he's saving the best, a car vacuum beside the building. DeLazier opens the back, takes an ice scraper and begins poking through a mound of lint the size of a basketball.
A penny surfaces, then a nickel, then a dime. Encouraged, he continues digging and a pile forms at his feet: Five dimes, three nickels and 57 pennies. A total of $1.22.
"OK," DeLazier says, "how long did that take? A minute? Now multiply that by 60 minutes. Imagine if I did this on a full-time basis. I bet I could make $20,000 a year."
There are two boxes in the back seat - one for "clean money" and one for "dirty money" - and DeLazier drops the coins into the "dirty" box before pulling his car back onto South Boulevard.
He'll wash them later at home. Right now, he's thinking about where to find another $6.78 by noon: "This is so exciting."
It hasn't always been this easy. In fact, it wasn't until 1995, while DeLazier was living in Richmond, Va., that he noticed just how much money Americans leave lying around.
That year, he happened to see two quarters on the ground at a Wendy's drive-through window. He assumed someone at the store would pick them up, but a week later, they were still there.
What a waste, he thought.
"I used to get up early and go for walks, and I thought I might as well do something meaningful with my time," says DeLazier. "So I began walking down the highway, where they had a Wendy's, KFC, Burger King, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Arby's and Pizza Hut all in a row."
Within 12 months, he had picked up $59.67 in change, most of it at drive-through windows.
Then inspiration struck. "The second year, I got organized and started stopping at convenience stores, gas stations and car washes while I was doing errands. I developed routes."
He also developed tricks, such as buying gas at more than one station, parking far from stores so he could cover more territory by foot, and using "tools" like nail files and ice scrapers to fish coins out of tight places. (He has never used a metal detector, because he considers it cheating.)
The payoff was immediate. DeLazier's findings quadrupled in 1996 (to $277.07), then began to double each year. He broke the $1,000 mark in 1999 and the $2,000 mark in 2002.
He'd surely have hit $3,000 by now, had it not been for a job layoff in 2003 that forced DeLazier and his wife to leave Virginia and move in with relatives in Charlotte, N.C.
Things are looking up, though. Tom DeLazier recently found work with an ink company, and he and his wife, Lynette, have moved to their own place in nearby Gastonia, N.C. He is already mapping new coin-hunting routes. "I'm out of sync right now, but I'll eventually get a system set up."
The thought of him starting the habit all over again embarrasses some in his family, but DeLazier can't help but wonder who looks sillier: Him for picking up a $8,366.74 in change, or everyone else for ignoring it.
Back on South Boulevard, DeLazier is reaching the halfway mark. It's 10:12 a.m. and he's found $3.97, including $1.89 at the Sam's Mart off Woodlawn Road.
The closer he gets to his $8 goal, the happier he is, singing softly ("da-da-DEE, da-da-DUM, da-da-da-DEE") and pondering aloud all the mysteries associated with lost money.
"You know," he says at one point, "I always find a lot of pennies around pay phones. I wonder why?
"And I always find nickels in coin returns for machines that take only quarters. Why are people putting nickels in them?
"And I always find more change in poorer neighborhoods than wealthier neighborhoods. Is that because poorer people are reckless with money or because wealthy people don't bother to carry small change?"
At 11:32 a.m., DeLazier hits a convenience store at Providence Road and Interstate 485, where he digs through lint in a car vacuum and finds $1.66 in coins. The total is now $9.09 - $1.09 over his goal.
Obviously, $8 wasn't much of a challenge, so DeLazier keeps going, turning onto Interstate 485 and heading toward Matthews and Mint Hill, N.C. He stops at a half-dozen more convenience stores, eventually ending up at an Exxon station near Windsor Square Shopping Center.
It's 12:25 p.m. and he's at $10.99 for the day, but is determined to make it an even $11. He knows exactly where to find that last coin: not at a phone booth or vacuum cleaner, but between lanes at the intersection of Windsor Square Drive and East Independence Boulevard, one of the busiest highways in North Carolina.
"I've been thinking about it since I first saw it there," he says.
When was that?
"Two weeks ago."
Cars threaten him from at least two directions, but DeLazier has already worked out a plan. He parks his Pontiac at Windsor Square Shopping Center, walks to the curb and watches the traffic light. At the exact moment it turns red, he dashes in front of waiting cars, snatches up the coin and bolts back to the curb.
"I thought it might be a dime," he says, oblivious to the looks of passing motorists, "but it's only a penny."
Eleven dollars even.
"I can keep going if you want."
It's not the first time DeLazier has dodged cars for money. He was once ordered off Interstate 295 in Virginia by state troopers, who caught him walking the median for coins. And two years ago, the same thing nearly got him flattened by a pickup in Richmond.
Family and friends worry, not just about his safety, but about the possibility that he'll be arrested prowling around convenience stores after dark. However, they've given up trying to intervene. Lynette DeLazier, his wife of 33 years, figures this is his hobby, no different from golf, NASCAR or football.
Well a little different.
"You can't get on the New Jersey parkway with him, because he'll get out every chance he gets to pick up change," she says. "But this is his thing, and I figure let him go, as long as he's not hurting anyone."
Same with his other quirks, which include cruising around post offices for discarded one-cent stamps and regularly visiting auto dealerships that advertise free food for car shoppers. "It says free hot dogs, right?" he asks. "It doesn't say you have to buy anything. I've gotten free hot dogs, pizza, stuffed potatoes and a watermelon. After a while, they knew me by name and left me alone."
One might assume that DeLazier, a college educated chemist, does such things because he was raised in poverty back in Bloomingdale, N.J. "But we were never poor," says Sally Sayle, his younger sister and only sibling. "We were middle class."
A better explanation, she says, is that he takes after their 84-year-old mother, who taught herself to pinch pennies during the Great Depression of the `30s.
Geraldine DeLazier was 10 years old when a $500 debt forced her parents to give up a home they built themselves. The family of eight then went on government relief and became accustomed to frequent evictions.
"I think we lived in nine different homes. Talk about embarrassing," says Geraldine DeLazier. "We got free food at the American Legion Hall. We picked coal out of ashes for the stove. We learned about what's important in life and what's not."
She remains notoriously thrifty and has told her children on more than one occasion that another Great Depression might set this country straight again.
Tom DeLazier is not so sure, but he thinks "it couldn't hurt."
Tom DeLazier is proud to say that his wife and his mother now pick up lost change, though Lynette DeLazier cites a major difference. "I find lost change," she says. "He hunts it."
Their four grown children probably won't be joining in. Tom DeLazier is convinced that he failed to endow them with his zealous sense of thrift.
"I don't think I've passed on any of my values. I'm an embarrassment to my kids," Tom DeLazier says. "When they would see me digging under a vending machine for change, they'd say things like, `Mom, look what he's doing. Make him stop!'"
The youngest, 25-year-old Jay, admits that was true, particularly when he worked at a Wendy's that became part of his father's nightly route.
"I was mortified," says Jay DeLazier, who lives in Richmond. "It was humbling to be 16 and have your dad walking around in the parking lot in front of your friends, picking up change."
He realizes now that his father was simply trying to teach a lesson about wastefulness to anyone who'd listen: "You have to admire him for that, but I'm still not at all like my father."
That's what he says, but familiarity can be a great deceiver, particularly between fathers and sons.
Does Jay think that people waste too much money?
"Yeah, I have friends who go out to eat every day and go to movies twice a week. That's like flushing money down the toilet."
Does he use coupons?
"Yeah. That money adds up. But again, my dad is a little more over the top."
"If I get a rebate offer, I send it in and get the money back."
Does he pick up change?
"If I see it lying there, I will. Penny, nickel, dime, I don't care what it is. But I don't go hunting it."
Yep, sounds like Tom DeLazier failed, all right.
His kids are nothing like him.
FIVE BEST PLACES
To find discarded change, according to Tom DeLazier:
1. Digging through vacuum cleaner lint at the car wash.
2. The coin returns at pay phones and vending machines.
3. Around gas pumps at convenience stores.
4. On the ground outside restaurant drive-through windows.
5. At your feet in the checkout line at the grocery store.
If you dress like a maintenance worker, people typically leave you alone.
Early morning is the best time to look for change, because there's less traffic.
Parking far away from stores allows you to cover more area by foot.
Always press the coin return on machines before checking the return slot.
WHAT'S HE DO WITH IT ALL?
Since starting his hobby in 1995, Tom DeLazier has picked up over $8,000 in change, most of which he used for charitable causes and random acts of kindness. He also collects aluminum cans and coupons off cigarette packs, which can be exchanged for prizes.
HIS BIGGEST FINDS
DeLazier has found two valuable coins during his hunts, an 1864 U.S. penny and an 1861 English coin made of silver.
In 2000, he found a record 26,650 pennies, about 75 pennies per day.
His biggest one-day find was a wallet containing more than $1,100, which he returned to the owner. DeLazier's second biggest payday was a plastic bag containing close to $400 in cash, which he found in the garbage.
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