Just the possibility of winning the jackpot — any jackpot — in the slog of work and school — provides a thrill.
Never mind the astronomical odds of winning, that I am more likely to be killed by an asteroid strike during an earthquake while giving birth to quadruplets. When the Powerball jackpot tipped $1 billion, I bought my first lottery ticket
Someone has to win it.
At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
In the slow-moving line at the South Carolina convenience store where I find myself, no one complains about the wait. There are no pessimists here. There is an air of excitement, friendly bantering about paying bills, about buying a Benz. A few people fill out forms to select numbers meticulously derived from formulas of birthdates and anniversaries. Others, like me, choose the Quick Pick and let the machine do the work for us.
My grandparents would never have stood in line to buy a lottery ticket. As Southern Baptists, they believed lotteries were a tax on the poor. Besides, gambling was a sin that usually involved alcohol and dancing, activities that led many a fun-seeking youth straight to hellfire. No wonder education lotteries came late to the Bible belt. South Carolina voters barely approved a state lottery in November 2000 with a 54 percent majority.
For years, I have watched many community college students I teach arrive in class with Powerball tickets and Big Gulps, their poetry textbooks marked with the stubs of daily scratch-off cards. Just the possibility of winning the jackpot — any jackpot — in the slog of work and school — provides a thrill.
So now I’ve decided to join them. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but yearning for it can ignite dreams, and even that fantasizing is a kind of happiness, leaving behind, just for a time, the car payments, the child support, overdue rent, the bill collectors. Waking up a billionaire would change your life, the lives of those you love, and even those you hate. Quit your job, move out, leave a lover, or find one. You could buy a mansion or two, take a cruise with dozens of your new adoring friends.
For anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck, or without a paycheck at all, millions of dollars seems an infinite sum. But it’s not. According to a 2012 Vanderbilt University study, 70 percent of lottery winners end up bankrupt. The money goes fast. The newly rich are targets for conmen and conniving relatives. The first thing to do when you win the lottery, the experts say, is don’t tell anyone.
Fortunately, South Carolina is one of a handful of states that allow lottery winners to remain anonymous.
That makes it easier. Should we hit the Powerball jackpot, my husband and I won’t tell anyone but our accountant. We’ll provide money — anonymously — to loved ones. We’ll make life easier, secretly, like benevolent gods. Pay off our children’s student loans, provide mysterious gifts of cash, nothing too large, nothing to dampen their ambitions. Only when we’re on our deathbeds, will our children and relatives and friends find out they’ve come into some serious money. That will turn any funeral into a cause of celebration.
And charity! With millions of dollars to donate, couldn’t I save entire herds of elephants from poachers? Make the local over-run animal shelter no kill? Every newborn in my state could go home with a library of children’s books. I could buy up all the bucolic tree-filled vacant lots I pass everyday, save them from clear-cutting developers.
Yes, by the time I stand at the cashier’s window, and hand over three dollars, my own ecstatic plans are humming, and I feel a warm camaraderie with the crowd waiting behind me, all of us linked with desperate anticipation.
A line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass floats up to me, “the shape of the gambling-board with its devilish winnings and losing’s.”
Then the cashier hands me my first lottery ticket, a curled, slight slip. Too flimsy to hold the weight of dreams.