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Rubles To Dollars

And Back Again

Image by william.neuheisel and used under a Creative Commons lisence.

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A Trip Out With His Son To Exchange A Russian Note For U.S. Dollars Turns Into A Lesson About Currency That Renders The Author Pondering The True Value Of Monetary Systems


By Gentry Braswell
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 12, 2013 — I have a Russian Federation 1,000 Rubles note, which about two weeks ago was purportedly valued at about USD $32.80. I thought it might be nice to exchange this note while teaching my 7-year-old son about the value of currency.

So, I searched the listings for nearby currency exchange locations, and the listing for such a physical location nearest my residence was a “Goldwiser” precious metals dealer in the “H.E.B.” shopping center at the corner of Bunker Hill and Interstate 10/Katy Freeway westbound in Houston.

Arriving at that location in the early afternoon, the sign read “Texas Gold and Silver Exchange,” not “Goldwiser,” but I tried anyway. The answer was no, the store does not exchange foreign currency for United States Dollars, the young woman said. It smelled kind of like burning cocaine in there, but no surprise, as this is frequently the telltale odor of street whores, and as such, the odor about point-of-sale facades for prostitution although I couldn’t say for sure. There was no one else visible in the store except myself, my son, and the woman behind the desk.

Maybe all of the other staffers were awaiting a Spanish Galleon loaded with the golden spoils of antiquity to sink any minute in the Houston Ship Channel. I cannot know for certain. Anyway, barring perhaps its forensic value for burglary and theft in a community, I am uncertain of what fundamental value is served by exchanging intrinsically valueless “cash” for customers' precious metals, which is what the store purports to do. It does not represent ideals of goods, services, or labor, rather it supports the idea that exchanging paper for metal is an ends unto itself. What could be a worse advertisement for the currency system?

Along the same indoor shopping strip a few doors down is an “International Bank of Commerce (IBC)” franchise, so, in light of the store's name, I inquired there as well. The answer was no, the store does not exchange any international currencies for U.S. Dollars, but that its franchise location down in Houston's Galleria District does. Incidentally, none of the half-dozen staff, including the young woman who was identified to me as the “bank manager,” looked any older than early 20s. It did not smell like crack cocaine in this one, but the people looked sort of surprised and psychologically defensive with respect to my inquiry. I was peppered with apologies as I was shooed out of the store.

For the record, I do not know who they are transacting with, for what, and with what currency(ies) or value systems, but I do not see any reason to underwrite the institution or its staffers, as I am not convinced that it is an operation in good faith. It certainly is not doing what its name implies that it does. This location is probably kind of like the Sprint store incident that engendered a recent complaint being filed with the Texas Attorney General's Office Commercial Fraud Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's White Collar Crime Unit (urging you readers to do much of the same) — e.g., where everyone is an “assistant” manager, and the “manager” is an imaginary person who does not exist except in name whose entity serves as a shell for liquidity that is conjured at fiat in the absence of systemic oversight or enforcement. Never mind that, for all of its grand survival instinct, the business will not provide simple accounting or financial services such as currency exchange. It would be one thing for the conspirators to cheat and steal while disguised as a bank if they were actually providing the usual array of accounting services that are expected of banks, and it certainly would make them less obviously suspicious.

At this point, we left the building and went back to the vehicle. Next, we stopped at a nearby “Bank of America” franchise, located in the same business commercial zone at the northwest corner of Bunker Hill and Interstate 10. The woman working the door indicated that, yes, the store did exchange foreign currencies for U.S. Dollars, but only if I had a Bank of America account. I told her that I do not have a Bank of America account, and asked, “why must a currency exchange customer have a Bank of America account? For access to liquidity?” and her answer, very clearly in plain spoken English language, was “yes.” It seems that, institutionally speaking, a bank, by definition is in the business of being put upon to carry its liquidity as that is the main service it can offer in a money market, which is what allows it to make loans and profit from its clients' patronage through interest. Perhaps she did not understand the question or the implications of the answer that she gave me, but her answer nonetheless would explain the semantical disconnect between what banks are supposed to do, and what most if not all actually seem to be doing.

From there, we headed on to the Interstate 10 eastbound feeder road, where a few blocks east of our previous location we stopped at a business called “U.S. Coins.” Supposing that it might provide currency exchange services, I parked and went in. The building’s security was evidently more pronounced than the previous locations. The woman governing the front egress said the business only buys and sells rare or otherwise collectible money and the like, and that it does not provide accounting or financial services such as exchanging foreign currency notes for U.S. Dollars. But, she did suggest that I go in and have one of her men look at the bill. Remotely, she unlocked the egress to the business area, a room full of glass-encased displays of various kinds of monetary artifacts to include what was an apparently antique script press. I explained my task at hand to a gentleman behind the counter, who looked at the bill, and agreed that since it was printed in 1993 (20 years ago) and is not very old, it was not really any sort of collectors' item. The gentleman behind the counter took the normal, condescending if not combative social posture and disagreeable, almost childlike disposition which I encounter frequently during such inquiries and information exchanges. It reflects the sort of inability to effectively communicate that is typically encountered in people who are continuously concentrating on the fact that they are lethally armed rather than the content of the conversation at hand.

From there, a few blocks farther east on the I-10 feeder road and before the relatively nearby intersection of the I-610 loop, I noted a sign that read “Goldwiser,” which as mentioned above, was the name of the original franchise that I had intended to visit. We stopped and tried the door, but it was locked and the “open” sign was turned off.  We left, U-turned at the next underpass, and headed back toward our neighborhood.

En route home, at the southeast corner of Blalock and Westview, there is a “Wells Fargo” franchise. I have used Wells Fargo since it bought the institution which housed my checking account back in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The location seemed to be quite crowded and bustling; it was probably nearly 3 p.m., and I put the question to one of its staff. Yes, she said, the location does exchange foreign currencies for U.S. Dollars, and she prompted me to go to the teller. The teller asked me what kind of currency it was, as the print on the Russian note is Cyrillic, and he did not seem to recognize it. After several minutes of his referencing an international currency identifier handbook, the teller informed me that he would not exchange the bill because there was not an identifying picture of the 1993 version in the reference book. I was politely and passively escorted to the door with another volley of apologies.

When we got home I almost just gave my son the 1,000 Ruble note, but upon further consideration, I decided not to let go of it yet.

Gentry Braswell is the Nation/World editor of Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at
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