Half a Billion Reasons to Go Crazy

mega  millionsAt the beauty salon, the cashier comes in excitedly, waving a fistful of lottery tickets. “I had to go all the way to the donut shop to buy these,” she huffs, “I don’t want the liquor store to make the commission. I don’t like liquor stores.”

For an event whose probability of happening is one in 176 million, there sure seems to be a feeling of sweet possibility in the air.

“I’ll pay off your mortgage, Jimmy,” the cashier says expansively. “And I’ll buy you a house.” The last is directed at the lady who is busy scraping my heels. She laughs and chatters in Vietnamese. “Everybody is going crazy,” she tells me.

Don’t I know it! Till this morning I knew, vaguely, that that there was a lottery going around with a half a billion payout. Since I was sure that the chances of winning were lower than being struck by lightning (1 million to one) I had put the idea out of my mind. But when a friend called about her plans with her winnings (!) I couldn’t resist.

At the liquor store in a quiet location in Fremont there are no crowds, but there is a steady stream of buyers flowing to the counter. At a station set up with for Mega Million hopefuls, an elderly gentleman scratches his head at the form. “I really don’t know how to do this,” he mutters. With his gender’s disdain for asking for directions he continues to struggle while I march up to the store owner and ask for instructions. Eventually we both figure it out and I return to the station to pick out my numbers. As I fill in the numbers in an action vaguely reminiscent of a multiple choice exam, there is a soothing drone of “Good luck, good luck, good luck,” from behind the counter.

Mega Millions is a US multi-jurisdictional $1 lottery game. It replaced another lottery called the Big Game in May 2002. According to Wikipedia, the jackpot is advertised as a nominal value of annual installments. A cash value option pays the approximate present value of the installments. Mega Millions currently uses a 1/56 (white balls) + 1/46 (the Mega Ball) double matrix to select its winning numbers. The drawing is done in Atlanta, Georgia. You pick 5 numbers from the top half of the sheet and one from the bottom. Then you pray!

The TV in the salon shows a long line, stretching around the block, at Kavanaugh Liquor in San Lorenzo, CA which, according to California Lottery, is the luckiest retailer in the state, having sold 4 winning tickets before. The Lottery also helpfully lists a list of other lucky retailers. Clicking through to this list takes an inordinate amount of time..if it is ad-supported, today would be a good day for the site.

Pity the poor souls in Alaska, who don’t have a pipeline into this fantasy; the state, along with 7 others, does not participate in the drawings. Though Hawaii’s omission seems only fitting; why dream of paradise when you can live in it every day?

At work a friend waves her ticket at her boss. “I bought one, just so you know,” she informs her. “I bought 5,” says the boss.

At the salon, the distribution of the winnings is still occupying everyone’s attention. After all, it is not easy to allocate the 640 million dollars the payout has risen to during my pedicure. In an infinite loop, the impossibly large number feeds the hope and greed of millions, and if the Friday drawing is inconclusive, that number ( which today equals the GDP of Maldives) can keep exploding, fueling even more lottery mania.

A study on the behavior and characteristics of  players suggests the typical subject is likely to have less income and be less educated that the average person. But this current fever has consumed every age and demographic. Kids dream of going to Disneyland, their parents dream of buying it even though, in a study done in 1978, researchers arrived at the conclusion that non-winners ended up happier than winners because of 2 factors – 1) Winning the lottery set a new baseline for happiness, so winners were not able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life anymore, and 2) They just got used to having the money after a while. Winning the lottery has been used as a cautionary moral tale in several films like It could Happen to You and Waking Ned Devine, and is the subject of the creepiest short story I ever read, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

The stream of hypothetical generosity is finally drying up at the salon. “I’ve marked my ticket with a star,” says the cashier. “So nobody think of cashing it.” When I leave I turn around to wish everyone good luck. The owner, who has been silent thus far, pipes up. “If you see a closed sign on the door tomorrow, you know what happened.”

1 thought on “Half a Billion Reasons to Go Crazy

  1. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Absolutely brilliant writing! Captures the essence of this lottery mania! Why isn’t this being published everywhere?



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