Free Money (Somebody Has to Win, Right?)

Apparently the Powerball is up to $500 million.

I know this because my wife made me go get a ticket tonight. I protested that if we wanted to throw money away, it would be easier, faster, and in fact cheaper to simply take my cash out on the back porch and burn it. But ours is a typical American patriarchal marriage, so I got in the car and headed around the corner to the gas station.

Did you know you can now buy lottery tickets online? Of course I didn’t, or I wouldn’t have wasted the extra money in gas to drive to the station to throw my money down the gullet of Big Lottery. But when I arrived at home, my wife had pulled up the website to see when the drawing was, and lo and behold, you can buy your lotto tickets online. This shocked me, because I can remember a time not so very long ago when I tried to buy a scratch-off ticket to go with my Snickers bar and Icee (it was a rough time in my life) in a convenience store, and the clerk happily rang up my frozen sugar but told me I couldn’t buy lottery tickets with a card. Cash only, he said. Why, I said. Because you can run out of cash, he said. I asked if that was really a problem; if people would really spend more money than they had for the privilege of rubbing a quarter against a lacquered piece of paper for a dopamine hit. He got a little dead in the eyes and told me I had no idea, then proceeded to tell me about customers — regulars — who would come into the station and buy one scratch-off ticket after another, winning three dollars here, ten dollars there, and using the winnings to buy more tickets, then going to their pockets for more cash when the wins ran out. I know a guy who’ll come in on a Friday and burn through a hundred bucks in fifteen minutes, he said.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. There are entire towns in our more-or-less-great nation built on the broken hopes and dreams of citizens trying to get rich quick, thinking that if they play the odds in just the right way, or at just the right time, a tidal wave of cash will sweep them out of their miserable existence. I’m torn between complete apathy and really soul-crushing sadness over that, because there are individuals out there who have gambled their lives away. On the one hand, you make your own bed by playing a game that’s rigged against you. On the other, the system that rigs the game rigs it by making you think it’s rigged in your favor. You win a little bit here, maybe a lot there, and you don’t notice the steady stream of dollars out of your bank account.

But we’re hardwired to think that way, aren’t we? Somehow each of us thinks, “I’m not like everybody else.” “It’ll never happen to me.” “Somebody has to win, so why not me?” And it takes us by great surprise when the universe reminds us, sometimes in the harshest of ways, that we are, in fact, just like everybody else. We are all unique little snowflakes, but nobody cares about your delicate crystalline structure when they’re shoveling millions of you and your inimitable brethren off their sidewalks or scraping you off their windshields. Everybody thinks they’re different, and maybe they are, but we’re different like all the ingredients in a borscht are different: they all bleed into the same red, gloopy, tomato-ey mass. I’m reminded of this little Gary Larson gem:

The lottery takes advantage of this defect in our thinking, and paradoxically its effect is greater the more people play it. More buyers mean a bigger jackpot, which draws in more buyers, which increases the jackpot, until it’s 9:45 on a Wednesday and my wife is sending me out in my gym shorts and sandals to buy a slip of paper that will be as useless tomorrow morning as the roll of toilet paper sitting on the back of the john. No, wait, sorry — the toilet paper is thick and absorbent and two-ply, and has a very specific and necessary function, while the lotto ticket I bought serves only as a badge of shame that I allowed myself to be taken in, even for a moment, by the thought that maybe, just maybe, my wife and I could be millionaires tomorrow.

We won’t be. Somebody may be, but probably not me, and probably not you, either. And our lives won’t be any different, except that I’m a few dollars poorer.

Unless I win.

*crosses fingers*

*slaps self across face*

Except I won’t win.

*secretly crosses fingers behind own back*

One thought on “Free Money (Somebody Has to Win, Right?)

  1. My smart high school kid told me the other day that to make your chances of winning anywhere close to decent you’d have to spend over a million dollars on lotto tickets. He used real statistic words & concepts to explain but…it’s statistics. I can’t repeat that stuff.


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