Down at the Marathon the other day I saw a man buying a lottery ticket.
A nondescript fellow he was, middle-aged, appearing neither particularly well-to-do nor poor. He got me to thinking, which is sometimes a dangerous thing to do (as those who gazed upon the contraption I invented for fixing my gutters can attest).
Awhile back I worked with the financial columnist Sylvia Porter. She was sick and needed someone to write her column, which went out to numerous newspapers, until she recovered. She never did and her illness lingered, so I ended up writing that thrice-weekly column for about three years. A couple of times it had to do with the state lotteries, how they were a regressive tax on the poor. In New York and other cities you could tell the days the welfare and relief checks arrived because of the lines at the lottery machines. Sometimes people would spend much of those checks on lottery tickets. The idea that children were probably doing without things they needed while their parents gambled was troubling.
Rich people didn’t buy lottery tickets.
After I moved here, I became involved with the Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp and concert hall, which has “adopted” a stretch of highway in Meigs County. Several times each year, a group of us gathers on Saturday morning to pick up the trash along that mile. You can learn a lot about people by what they throw out of their car windows, though of course the survey is wildly unscientific, in that most people don’t throw things out the window at all. (You also learn to be highly suspicious of yellowish liquids in beer and pop bottles.) One thing everyone has noticed is that litterbugs seem to buy lottery tickets, the scratch-off kind, and that they aren’t very careful sometimes — on one occasion a winning ticket (not for a huge amount, but enough to be worth cashing in) was found. Why would somebody buy a ticket but then pay little attention to whether it was a winner?
I thought about that as I watched the man at the counter at the gas station.
The Ohio Lottery has a catchphrase that it uses in its advertisements: “The odds are, you’ll have fun.” It’s clever, because the odds are also overwhelming that you’ll lose. But I didn’t think that this guy was buying his Mega Millions quick pick to have fun.
Nor the others that I’ve seen buying their chances on drawings, or the scratch-off tickets. Fun doesn’t seem to enter into it. They’re too serious for that.
I think it’s something else. I think that many, maybe most, people who buy a lottery ticket are simply buying a little glimmer of hope. Not that their lives will be transformed from some dismal existence, because the majority of us live lives that are generally not dismal. But there are always day-to-day concerns and annoyances. Who among us wouldn’t like our jobs a lot better if we knew we could quit without it creating a financial burden? Money may not buy happiness, but it eliminates a lot of things that prevent happiness. That’s always sitting in the back of our minds, someplace.
The lottery isn’t much of an investment plan. The person who buys two tickets a week spends — squanders, if the investment value is the only value — $104 a year. A thousand dollars a decade that in even a very conservative account would be worth half again as much at decade’s end. Buying a lottery ticket makes no financial sense.
I don’t think that steady retirement income is what people have in mind when they plunk down their buck for a chance at the jackpot. The fellow at the Marathon looked a little more placid as he left the counter. He’d spent four quarters and renewed his hope. Not for his immortal soul, but for the things he’d like to do in this life. He knew he probably wouldn’t win, but the idea that he might was what he’d bought, and he seemed to think it was a bargain.
How funny, I thought, yet endearing in its way. No matter how annoying things at work get, no matter what the mechanic tells him the car needs, no matter whether the dog needs to go to the vet for an operation, through it all he’ll have that piece of paper that just might be a ticket to freedom from those concerns, or at least their financial aspects. He can face it all a little more cheerfully. We humans are pretty good at the survival aspects of fooling ourselves.
The car wasn’t on empty, but the price of gas was down so I took a twenty from my billfold, now that I was at the counter.
And I bought myself 19 dollars worth of gas, and a dollar’s worth of hope.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.