One of my “Mom” memories was her routine insistence on playing some form of the Pennsylvania lottery every day. Just writing the words “Pennsylvania lottery” – I can hear the little jingle that used those words as the tag line. I thought the lottery was ludicrous and poked fun at her for playing it, but she was only thinking, “What if I’m one of those people who lock in, and I can provide for my kids in ways beyond my wildest dreams?”
Well, the worm turns, and I find myself playing Powerball once a week. Every Friday after work, usually after my long walk back to Queens, I’ll hit a corner bodega and pick up one ticket. Doesn’t make sense to buy 10. Or pick numbers that bear some personal significance (as Mom did). The odds against winning are so astronomically high that it makes more sense to me to be purely random. But people do win: normal people. When you read their life stories in brief newspaper articles, people just like anyone, working hard, barely getting by, not going to go crazy with the money, get the kids through college in style, maybe buy a new house and car, then take it from there.
It doesn’t make sense to go berserk and start acting like a celebrity. For one thing, if you’re working or middle class, you’ll be inserting yourself into a socio-economic class that bears little to no resemblance to your world. You won’t like these folks, and they’ll look down on you. Think about that should you decide to take your winnings and buy a mansion in one of the pricier zip codes in the country. Whether it’s old money or people who are insane about making money, all of them will consider you a buffoon who stumbled into tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Their lives are predicated on a profound love of money, which controls every aspect of their lives: yours is never having all that much and getting lucky once. Your wealth is almost an after-thought: their wealth is the reason to live.
All I’ve just written in encapsulated in the 60’s TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies.
Why do I play? Simply for the infinitesimal possibility of escaping this lousy system we have in place. That’s probably why I made fun of Mom all those years ago: I was much younger and didn’t quite grasp how foul our socio-economic system is. Not quite a caste system, but pretty damn near. And there’s nothing wrong with going about your life, whatever your station may be, and riding it out. But I’m looking down the road, even with very healthy savings, and realizing that large sum of money, which I couldn’t have imagined myself having when I was 25, would last me maybe five years the way I’m living now, let’s say 10 years if I really clamped down on expenses. It’s frightening to ponder … thus the concept of stumbling into tens of millions of dollars just for having a slip of paper in my pocket that I bought for $2.00 at the corner bodega doesn’t seem like such a bad concept. Highly unlikely … but people win all the time.
I’ve heard people expound on the good they could do with that kind of money: the charitable organizations, the socially-responsible business opportunities, etc. Nice, but I don’t dwell on those concepts at all. I dwell on ensuring that immediate family members and myself could live well for the rest of our days. And I could throw a few hundred grand towards friends who deserve and could use that sort of financial boost. I’m not playing Powerball for the benefit of the world: I’m playing for the potential benefit of my world. Not in a greedy way either. In a way that would allow me a better residence, the ability to, say, have a real apartment in New York City instead of living here by the seat of my pants, the ability to travel and rent nice locations for weeks or months in other countries … all sorts of things that people with a lot of money most likely take for granted, or think is perfectly normal. I’d imagine we all think we’re “normal” based on whatever socio-economic world we dwell in, and there are plenty of people around us to justify that belief. It would be nice to live in a world with that sort of freedom rich folks have, without doing some of the heinous, soul-destroying, time-consuming people do to obtain that much money. Or to live on the assumption of continuous, assured wealth the way people living off old money do.
The ironic thing is that I’ve never been overly concerned with money, based on my working-class upbringing, not pining for things I don’t necessarily want or need. But living in New York now, coming up on 30 years, all I’ve seen here is the cost of living sky-rocket while wages remain flat, and it’s both spooking and bugging the shit out of me. It’s a genuinely disturbing experience to live through gentrification, to want no part of it, and to have no understanding of why people would want to live so foolishly, dumping a majority of their pay into their rent, or living like college kids in a dorm just so they could surround themselves with what they perceive as a veneer of coolness. There have been articles recently about the disappearance of the middle class from cities, and I see it happening every day. I see it happening to myself, the push to make more money simply to live here. It seems like a slow-moving but never-ending upward spiral. I can’t stand it but can see it shows no signs of letting up, at least around here. Move? I’ve seen what happens in places where this isn’t happening. The cost of living is considerably lower, but the shitty cost of living vs. wages ratio is just as debilitating as it is here.
So, with all that in mind, it seems like more of a WTF moment to buy a lottery ticket these days. It’s not the same world Mom was living in when she was making sure she got the TV set on WNEP TV 16 every week night, right before Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, to see if tonight was her night. (It was never her night, although I think she once won $100 or so with a scratch-off ticket.) I usually check the Powerball numbers the next morning, no rush. Even if by some obscene chance I won, I’d spend the next week contacting the handful of people I know who know or are financial planners and map out a path for me to enter this fray and make immediate sense of the winnings. The concept would be constructing an annual spending grid for the next 30 years after carving out a few large lump sums up front (new house, a car or two, taxes and health insurance going forward, various funding projects to distribute wealth among friends and families). Figure out ways to make interest on large savings accounts provide for cost-of-living expenses. All sorts of things that wouldn’t have occurred to me years ago! If there’s one thing I’ve learned in offices, it’s that you’re not going anywhere without a sound business plan. And pulling down an eight or nine-digit lottery winning would entail a large, detailed business plan.
It’s fun to imagine this, but in some strange way, it also helps solidify my reality, which isn’t all that bad. Although, again, I do fret over retirement, about another 20 years from now, and have seen that Social Security in and of itself is pocket money, and that we’ll all need substantial savings to last for two decades, if we’re lucky. I guess the lottery, ultimately, is a game of mortality, recognizing that it would be wonderful to at least have the knowledge that financial concerns would not be an issue to fear with the aging process. I can understand why people want to be rich, but suspect their concerns are far more immediate and grandiose. If anything, I’d try to make myself less visible with that kind of money. I’ve seen people with a lot of money, and the smart ones ease themselves into background, let the celebrities and business success stories have the limelight. The real money, that vague 1% we’re all so acutely aware of, most of those people, we don’t have a clue who or where they are.
These are the kind of things I think about when I lay out that money every Friday for the Powerball ticket. I never put down exactly $2.00. Usually $5.00. I want to have singles so I can tip whichever girl is working the counter at the bubble-tea place I frequent before picking up my usual Thai food after the seven-mile walk to Queens. I think it says something that I’m just as concerned with having tip money as getting that ticket. Nothing particularly good or bad about my character, just an indication of how I’ve always handled money.