Here’s an interesting way to make yourself lose any faith you had in ever winning the lottery by playing the same numbers every week: Incredibly Depressing Mega Millions Lottery Simulator!. It lets you select five numbers, then plays them against a random drawing, simulating two tickets a week for ten years. I just tried it and it cost me $1040 to win $116, which is better than the average rate of return on most peoples’ 401K these days, but still pretty disappointing.
As a Midwesterner from a lower-middle-class family, I’m all too familiar with the lottery. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the lottery in Indiana, but you could drive across the border to Michigan and buy scratch-off tickets. (Indiana offset the trade imbalance by not having a ten-cent per can deposit, so people from Michigan would drive down to buy their beer and save $2.40 a case.) I think they may have had a pick-three or pick-five drawing then; they didn’t have the actual Lotto until the mid-eighties. But scratch-off tickets were part of the whole Sunday routine: reluctantly attending CCD in the morning, sitting through the 11:15 mass and wondering how much of the liturgy got cribbed by George Lucas in the Star Wars movies (“may the force be with you/and also with you”), then getting a box of donuts and some scratch-off tickets at the Harding’s grocery store and then going to my grandma’s. I recall hitting the occasional free ticket or $1 prize, but mostly remember getting silver dust underneath my fingernails. I was also logically perplexed about those games where you scratch off one thing in each column to match three numbers. Like, say there were nine numbers and you scratched three and did not win, what if you then scratched off all nine and found out you just uncovered the wrong three things, and a winning combination actually existed on the card? And what if I scratched off three and won a million dollars and then my little sister got ahold of the card and blindly scratched off the whole damn thing? Also, couldn’t Superman use his x-ray vision to look through the silver scrapeaway paint material and cash in? I mean, I guess Superman had a lot of other fallback income opportunities that would utilize his superpowers (safecracking, dentistry, express package delivery, etc.) but that’s one that seemed to always come to mind when faced with a new stack of scratch-off tickets.
Indiana finally got a lottery when I was a senior in high school; it was a referendum in the 1988 election (I think), which I was not old enough to vote in. (Probably for the best – I would have most likely voted for Dukakis, and that didn’t work out for anyone, unless you consider drinking rubbing alcohol ala Kitty Dukakis’s alcoholic bottoming-out a good outcome.) I remember at the time I thought a lottery was a no-brainer; if you were dumb enough to invest the money every week in a long shot that never paid out, you essentially gave free money to the schools and roads and whatever else the program would allegedly pay for. But I remember, at least in Elkhart, a ton of conservative backlash that I didn’t fully understand. The moral majority types thought of the lotto as legalized gambling, and this was before the days of an Indian casino every dozen and a half miles across the Midwest, so Vegas and AC were pretty much the only games alive at that point. I thought the whole thing was ludicrous, but I also hated how the median age in Elkhart was something like 87 and pretty much every old, cranky bastard that wrote letters to the editor and put giant stupid signs in their yard about how scratch-off tickets were the devil also ended up at my cash register every weekend at Montgomery Ward’s, yelling at me about how they wanted to talk to my manager because I wouldn’t sell them a distributor cap for their 1927 tractor and it was all my damn fault we didn’t stock parts for every single machine made by every manufacturer from the civil war to present.
If you really want to find yourself some lottery enthusiasts, go visit a factory. The summers I spent working in factories during college, pretty much every coworker I had played the lottery like a fiend. These were people with 19 DUIs and three child support payments to three different women who couldn’t add seven to six without counting on their (remaining, not severed in punch press) fingers, but give them a new scratch-off game and they were Albert Fucking Einstein with their theories on odds and probabilities. If I could have bought a food truck in 1989 and sold cigarettes and lotto tickets in a mobile route that covered all of the major factories in Elkhart’s industrial park, I’d be typing this from my own god damned island right now.
And I’m not just dropping a “poor people are stupid – stop fucking your sister and go learn to read” and leaving it at that, because I realize the situation’s a lot more complicated than it appears. For one thing, these are people with no way out, at least compared to the non-flyover state elite. I mean, they aren’t going to land a book deal or sell their web site to Time-Warner or get rich from a startup that’s on the forefront of some new technology. They’re not getting stock tips from college buddies, and they’re not getting tuition for law school from a trust fund that’s passed through generations going back to the Mayflower. They’d be damn lucky to get a job unloading trucks for Mayflower for ten bucks an hour. The only option was to keep working until they dropped dead, and maybe there was the off-chance that they could turn a dollar into a million dollars. And money can’t buy happiness, but when you have no money, it’s not like you’re infinitely happy. When you’re broke, you constantly think that money magically fallen from the sky that would finally shut up the collection agencies and keep the power from going dark at the end of the money would be a great thing.
There’s also the issue that there’s compulsion and addiction behind gambling, even if the gambling is in the form of a lottery. I used to work with a dude at Monkey Wards who managed us unloading trucks of furniture and electronics at 6 AM every day. He won the Illinois state lottery, some massive prize of something like a couple million, and he took the option where they paid it out every year for 25 years or whatever it was. And he bought a house on a golf course even though he didn’t play golf, and had a bunch of sports cars and trucks and other fun toys. And of course he wasn’t happy. And he would go nuts just sitting at home, so he worked as a receiving manager for $8.25 an hour or whatever the hell we made back in 1993, and drove a Lotus to work every day. And even though he had money coming in, and he had money in the bank from this cleaning company he started and then sold, he was a lottery junkie. He’d play a hundred pick-six tickets at a time, with insane conspiracy theory systems for numbers, and that shit worked for him once, so of course he was a damn expert at it. And he’d go to a 7-Eleven and buy the entire roll of scratch-off tickets in one clip, several times a week. I’d come in at 5:45 and he’d be sitting at the desk back by the loading dock, quarter in hand, scraping away at a giant line of 150 perforated cardboard rectangles, mountains of silver dust shavings everywhere. ”Hey man, look – I won $50 on this one!” Yeah, but you spent $300. And you need to spend $30,000 on a good stretch of in-patient therapy at an addiction center. I’m sure he hit some big cash in small streaks and spurts, and every time probably seemed like a half-step closer to some kind of mental happiness, and of course it wasn’t, just like a little bump of coke or a line of speed is going to make your problems go away… for just a second.
So yeah, I don’t really play the lottery. I think I bought one Indiana ticket in my freshman year of college, just to say I did, and it was about as rewarding as burning a dollar bill (I mean, if you’re not a pyro that doesn’t enjoy burning stuff.) But I do find myself in front of the occasional slot machine on a vacation, so color me stupid there.