Fri, 26 Mar 2010 03:23:00 +0000

I had a treasure box once.

Unlike most kids, my treasures were legitimately valuable — money, gems and antiques. But there’s always been a huge mystery about this box, something I could never remember.

And I solved it this week.

The whole thing started in first grade, when Mom owned a window tinting shop in California. It was before car manufacturers tinted windows, so everyone from businessmen to gangsters visited the shop.

One summer day, a skinny middle-aged man came to the store. Mom tinted his windows perfectly, as always — no air bubbles or scratches. But then he said he couldn’t pay for it, which angered Mom. So the man said, “Come to my store. I will give you something for free.”

The next day, Mom asked me if I wanted a treasure and I said yes. So we drove to a small store near Knott’s Berry Farm and, in the parking lot, Mom said, “Sungsoo, you can pick out a treasure here. This man will give it for free.”

We walked into the store; it was a tiny 10-by-10 room, which felt smaller because of the rickety shelves along the perimeter. Then the man from yesterday came out of his office wearing overalls and grumbled, “Pick something out, and I’ll tell you if you can have it.”

Mom put her hand on my head. “OK, Sungsoo, go find something.”

There were three rows of shelves and on them were money, stamps and old newspapers — all in plastic sleeves. I carefully analyzed each row and, when I was finished, I returned to the far right corner and pointed at an item.

“This one.”

The skinny man limped over to me. He picked up the item and smirked.

“No. Not this.”

I got mad. “Why?”

“Because this,” he said, “is real.”

My mom started to walk over to see the item I chose, but the man just grumbled and took it to his office.

I looked around some more, but I kept thinking about that item. Finally, I pointed at his office and said, “I still want that one,” but he said, “Pick something else.”

I couldn’t pick, so he asked, “What year were you born?” I told him 1986, and he went back into his office and came back with a proof set of 1986 U.S. coins.

“Good?” he asked.

The man was sneaky; he knew kids liked shiny objects — and these coins glimmered. I could see my reflection in the John F. Kennedy half-dollar. I forgot all about the item in the man’s office. And until this week, I couldn’t recall what I chose before he distracted me with the coins. All I remembered was that I wanted it, and he didn’t want to give it.

But at the time, I thought he gave me something better. I couldn’t stop smiling. On the way home, Mom said I should have a treasure box — for my new coins, of course — and I exploded with joy. At Hobby Lobby, I found a green box, put my coins inside and said, “Perfect.”

Over the next 15 years, I filled that box with valuable coins, antique watches, rare gems and cut-out Valentine’s cards. Then around five years ago, I slowly started giving the items away — some to friends, some to family and some to complete strangers. Then last year, when our family sold our Kansas home, the rest of my treasures were separated into storage. My treasure box was empty.

I didn’t mind because I had no attachments to any of that stuff. Shiny things didn’t impress me anymore. But I always thought about the box because there was still the mystery: What item did I pick?

Then a few days ago, I woke up with an image, maybe a remnant of a dream. It was the item. I immediately wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget and, after breakfast, I did some research.

Now I know why that man wouldn’t give it to me — and why I wanted it.

That day 17 years ago, I chose a U.S. bill with Grover Cleveland’s face on it. The skinny man wouldn’t give it to me because it was the discontinued, extremely rare and immensely valuable $1,000 U.S. bill.

But I just wanted it because I liked Grover from Sesame Street.