The Ghoulishness of Retirement Plans

lotto.jpgI’m sure I’ve said this before, but at the risk of repeating myself (and that risk has never stopped me before), many of my Hates have dissipated as I get older. In keeping with my Renewed Positive Outlook on Life, I’ve tried to whittle down my Hates to the most essential and manageable–i.e., specific things that I can actively change. Everything else should get nothing stronger than a shaking of my fist.

But there are a few Blanket Hates I still carry around with me, and one of them popped up recently. When the Mega Millions jackpot rose to a ridiculously large jackpot, NY1 interviewed hopeful lotto players about what they would do with their winnings. Their answers were nothing infuriating–retire, pay off debt, and so on. And yet when I saw these people spending hypothetical riches, I wanted to throw my remote through the TV. What a buncha jerks, I thought.

Immediately, I questioned the virulence of my own hate. Why get so mad at these people? So they want to play the lotto and dream up imaginary wealth–who cares?

And then I remembered my summer working at a convenience store, dispensing all forms of lotto, and I questioned my hate no more.

After my freshman year at NYU, I returned home for the summer and worked at Stewart’s, a convenience store chain that dots Upstate New York with its maroon huts. To say it was a humbling experience is a gross understatement.

Looking back on it, I’m sure I was no worse than the average kid with a couple of semesters of college under my belt, but that still means I was pretty awful. One year in the city and I thought my poop did not stink. I was not emotionally prepared to return to Orange County, New York and be once again immersed in a way of life I desperately wanted to escape.

I went to school in The City (as everyone near but not in The City calls it) because I thought that’s where I wanted to be. I came home after one year 100,000% convinced I knew that’s where I wanted be. To have to returned to the suburbs, even temporarily, was considered by Sophomore Me to be cruel and unusual punishment.

If my life was a movie, you’d see a scene of me hanging out in Greenwich Village, going to shows, picking up awesome albums and books, seeing things I formerly only dreamed of, thinking I could not possibly be cooler. Then cut to a shot of me in a maroon polo shirt and matching trucker cap in the hot noonday sun, pouring kitty litter on a gasoline spill.

Why didn’t I try to get some kind of hotshot internship in the city? That’s a very good question. It seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it would never have occurred to me to even try. Plus, the cooler the internship, the less likely one gets paid, and I needed to earn money. Not for the last time in my life, when faced with the choice between coolness and a paycheck, the paycheck won by a first-round knockout.

The Upstate New York Stewart’s is not to be confused with the New Jersey/Pennsylvania Stewart’s, although you’d be excused for doing so, since the two franchises have almost identical logos. On a daily basis, someone would come into my store looking for the Other Stewart’s famous orange creamsicle soda. When I informed the customer we were a completely different chain, there was always a 50 percent chance they would refuse to believe me.

What Stewart’s did have was ice cream, sold both at a counter by the scoop or in take-home half-gallons. It was pretty good ice cream, too. Good enough that when a customer-dispensed flavor I liked got down to a hard-to-scoop depth, I would stash the remains in the freezer in the back, then toss it in my car to bring home. I even contemplated swiping one of the huge three-gallon cardboard slabs used to serve ice cream cones to overheated customers, but I realized it would not in my mom’s fridge, and that even I was unlikely to be able to eat it all before it turned into soup. Not that I didn’t think this through thoroughly before giving up hope.

On hot days, kids would line up ten deep to get their cones and sundaes and milkshakes. My manager–a perpetually red-faced, chain-smoking manager type of indeterminate American mutt lineage–thought my ice cream portions were too generous. He showed me a technique for using a scoop to dispense ice cream balls that were nothing but hollow shells–Potemkin villages of refreshment. When I ignored this directive, he demanded I weigh every sundae to make sure it was no more than 8 ounces. I did so dutifully for about one and a half sundaes before abandoning the effort.

The manager did not own this store. He merely managed it. So I don’t know why he was so adamant about doling out as little ice cream as possible. I assume it was to meet some Stewart’s HQ benchmark for ice cream dispensation. But ice cream is such a fungible commodity when dispensed in cone/bowl form, only a total killjoy would insist on these draconian methods. This man did not seem to understand (or care about) the intimate relationship ice cream has with a child in summer.*

* However, he did teach me a bit of subterfuge that became necessary to employ almost every day. Chocolate was our most popular ice cream flavor, and we often ran out of it. If we did, and someone came in wanting a chocolate milk shake, I’d just use vanilla ice cream with a liberal amount of Hershey’s syrup mixed in. No one ever noticed.

But Stewart’s biggest attraction was not ice cream, and it was not gas. It was lotto. I don’t come from Lotto People. Lotto meant nothing to my folk. Abstractly, I knew that some people took it very seriously, but I was not at all prepared for the insanity I was thrust into that summer.

This is how Lotto Dumb I was: One day, a whole crew of teens came up to the counter en masse, with one of them leading the pack and doing all the talking. This should have been a clue that they were up to something, but I didn’t pick up on it until thinking about the incident later. The ringleader asked me if he could buy some scratch-offs. I sold him two, without thinking.

A few moments later, a co-worker spotted a kid scratching away and asked me if I sold the goods to him. I admitted it, and the co-worker freaked. “You can’t do that! You have to be 18 to buy scratchoffs.” You do? I hadn’t the slightest idea, and my ignorance could’ve led to some serious trouble for the store (and me). Luckily, nothing came of it, but for endangering my job, that kid became one of the few who’d get wafer-thin management-approved ice cream scoops for the rest of the summer.

My store was right next to an enormous freight depot. Truckers would pull in with their hauls, dump off their load, and await the next job. Unfortunately, for them. This was not the swinginest place in the world, or even nearby. It was on a strip of road that served as little more than a connector between two towns, neither of which were walkable or even worth walking to if they were.

Stewart’s had to pass for entertainment for a trucker in between long hauls. So they could found inside regardless of the hour, sipping coffee and smoking (you could still do that inside back then). Their only other distraction was lotto, which they played as much as their pockets could allow, in every form imaginable.

It was my first real exposure to the gambling as an addiction. First impression? It was way more depressing than any other kind of addiction, because there was no pleasure in it. The affected seemed to zip straight past the decadent bliss of a high and go right to maintenance.

The truckers did not look happy when playing lotto. They didn’t look unhappy, either. When playing lotto, they just were. They never made any hopeful pronouncements–no proclamations of how soon they’d quit their jobs or what they’d buy or where they’d travel to if they hit it big. Playing lotto was just a way to stave off boredom, however futile the gesture might be, like the hero of a zombie movie shotgun blasting one brain-craving undead monster even though a million more of them were clawing to get into his house.

I had no idea how much Lotto existed, that there was a different game literally every night of the week. In New York, in addition to regular lotto (where the big money is), there’s Take 5, Win 4, and regular old Numbers. And of course, scratchoffs, which really brought home the hopelessness of the whole affair.

A trucker would come in and blow 10-20 bucks on scratchoffs. Out of their pile of games, they’d usually win a few dollars–which were then immediately cashed in for more scratchoffs. If they won more money, that too would be spent on scratchoffs, and so on and so on until there was no return at all on their initial investment, save for the frittering of a few deadly moments in the middle of the day.

Once, a man came in with a winning scratchoff. A big one, in fact. I ran it through our lotto machine (which had a credit-card-style swipe-scanner to verify such things) and it showed that the ticket won its owner $135. Amazingly, he just wanted the cash, with none of his earnings put toward more scratchoffs. He was only person all summer to pocket his winnings. Every single other person would get more scratchoffs until they were busted.

Most lotto games are fairly straightforward–you pick the numbers, and if the numbers come up, you win. But then there’s Numbers, which can be played in a dizzying array of ways. It actually uses the fewest digits–three–but there are literally dozens of methods of playing them. Box. Straight. 50/50. I had no idea what these things meant when I first began working at Stewart’s, but by the end of the summer I was a pro.

One trucker played Numbers religiously. He looked like he was a farmer in a former life, ruddy cheeked and stoic, wrapped in flannel. He also looked like God had taken a taller man and compressed him down a few inches, sturdy but a little squat. Twice a week, he flagged me down to play his numbers. If I was waiting on another customer, he would wait patiently until I was ready. Then, he would pull out a worn post-it with his numbers on it and proceed to recite them, along with the ways they should be played, in a flat Midwestern accent.

“524 box. 524 straight. 542 straight. 617 50/50. 617 straight. 671 straight…”

When he was done, I’d have a huge wad of tickets to hand over him, printouts stacked to the thickness of an emptied checkbook. 50 bucks a pop, twice a week. That put him in the upper percentiles of lotto spenders at this particular Stewart’s, but it wasn’t so much the money he threw away on it that made it so crazy.

It was the fact that he never won anything. Not a single dime. Statistically, he should have at least won a free quick pick (which happens when you get just enough numbers right to not win anything of value). But he never enjoyed even that ironic level of success. It astounded me, to the point where I was almost tempted to talk him out of spending his cash. But it seemed like he could afford it, and the poor guy had nothing else to do with his afternoons. Plus, the likelihood of a longhaul trucker listening to advice from a 19-year-old English major was not high.

I didn’t dislike any of these people. I wouldn’t say I admired them, either, but they fit firmly into my Live And Let Live category. They were just working stiffs who needed something to pass the time, and it didn’t seem to me like they were spending money they couldn’t afford to part with. Who I hated, lotto-wise, were the Amateurs. The people who emerged whenever a jackpot ratcheted up to insane proportions.

The thought of these people horning in on the territory of Professionals offended me. As if the truckers had loosened a jar lid, and the Amateurs came along to give it that final twist and get all the glory.

I was also bothered by the fact that they played the game just to win money. I’m sure that sounds strange–what the hell else is the lotto for? Well, it didn’t seem like it was about the money to the truckers. Plus, the Amateurs’ unfamiliarity with exactly how lotto was played inevitably made my job harder, as they asked me all the options and the explanation for each, or filled in too many or too few circles on their scannable entry cards.

Plus, there just seemed to be something gross about how they approached the whole thing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, exactly, until something awful happened.

The awful event was the crash of TWA Flight 800, a plane bound for Rome that went down off the coast of Long Island. I remember NBC-4 reporter Ti-Hua Chang literally spent days in a helicopter hovering over the floating wreckage hoping to send back footage of survivors, to no avail.*

* Thus began Chang’s stint as the station’s resident whipping boy of the late 1990s/early 2000s. If there was some punishing assignment in extreme conditions, Chang was inevitably sent to the scene to be needlessly abused for hours on end.

This was only a few years after the first World Trade Center attack (which my dad narrowly escaped). The immediate thought–particularly in a still-nervous New York–was that this was a terrorist act. Some folks assumed there was some sort of terrorist connection, that the plane had been shot down by a missile.

This turned out to not be true–it was a depressingly ordinary plane crash–but that wasn’t known the very next day when I went to work. It was unsettling, in the pre-internet age, to work in such a place where customers would spread rumors this way and that (“I know a guy who saw a rocket shoot up from the Hamptons!”) and have no immediate means to reassure yourself.

But not everyone who came into the store wanted to scare me to death. Some of them wanted to play lotto. Shortly after 6am, when my shift started, my very first customer–in addition to a tank of gas and Marlboro Reds–wanted to play Numbers.

In the litany of lotto games one could choose, Numbers were not popular. Not among Professionals like the truckers (save the aforementioned zealot) and definitely not among the Amateurs. It was a niche market for the hardcore, the heroin of lottery. But as I would soon find out, when a certain number made the news, certain people felt compelled to play it.

What numbers did this man want? 800.

I didn’t want to give this guy a withering look, but I must have done so involuntarily. He looked a little nervous, avoided my gaze, and played with his watch. I fulfilled his request and said nothing else to him before he scurried out.

My next customer: A mother with two small kids in tow. She looked tired and distracted like any mother would at that time in the morning. But she had enough presence to play the numbers. She too wanted 800.

For the rest of the morning, an unprecedented amount of people wanted to play Numbers. Most barely knew about the different ways they could bet their picks (box, straight, etc.). They just wanted to play That Number.

Around 10 am, as I tried to accommodate another Numbers player’s request, the lotto machine wouldn’t let me. SOLD OUT, the little LCD screen said. I’d never seen that happen before.

All across the state, people were going to their local lotto dealer, asking for 800. So many people had done so, the lotto commission decided they couldn’t afford the potential payout and stopped selling That Number.

I couldn’t imagine what kind of person would do this. Let’s say you won. Wouldn’t you feel like the biggest ghoul who ever lived? “I got the idea to play these numbers when I saw it was connected with an unspeakable tragedy. I thought about going with 230, the number of senseless deaths that occurred, but I’m glad I chose 800! Woo-hoo, I’m rich!” And the crazy thing is, Numbers didn’t even have a huge payout. So you would be profiting from devastating loss to the tune of enough money to maybe–maybe–but a new economy-level sedan.

Since that day, I can’t help but feel there is a sociopathic streak in the soul of the casual lotto player. Something that would convince them the absolute definition of bad luck for several hundred people would mean a slim amount of good luck for them. Now I look at people telling news cameras they’re going to buy yachts with their winnings, and I see something vile in their eyes.

That’s unfair, I suppose, but the same could be said of life.