Disregarding frequent sermons on the perils of greed delivered at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Brooklyn, my mother’s admonition never to put oneself before another (immediately surrender your subway seat to any adult left standing) and a suspicion, based on overwhelming evidence, that money really is the root of all evil, I bought a ticket for the billion-dollar lottery.
“Busy?” I asked the teenager handing me a Mega Millions coupon at the local drugstore.
“Yes,” she sighed.
“Waste of two dollars,” I admitted. “But here I am, buying one like everyone else.”
A well-dressed woman moved up.
“Four, please,” she said.
Next came a middle-aged man — tanned and spiffy in summer shorts — who politely asked for seven.
We were a comfortable clientele — fortunate suburbanites driving respectable cars and wearing decent clothes and shopping in a small pharmacy where discount prices on mouthwash might not be expected — but unable to resist the lure of a billion-dollar payoff.
Experts cite all sorts of reasons people ignore the ridiculous odds against a payoff — cheap thrill, habit, fantasy and, in some cases, great need — but researcher George Loewenstein offers the most obvious:
“Our pleasure of living is not only based on our current situation, but what could be, what we can imagine our situation could become,” Loewenstein told CNN a few years ago.
So, at best — very best, let’s admit — this is not a matter of avarice but imagination. Lucky winners suddenly are inspired novelists rewriting the story of their lives, one opulent, pleasure-filled chapter at a time. Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Atwood with platinum credit cards and an endless supply of happy endings.
“What would you do if you won?” came the question from my daughter, also a Mega Millions hopeful.
Easier to say what I wouldn’t do.
Once I thought I wanted to learn to fly and own a little airplane but abruptly abandoned the notion after taking a demonstration lesson.
Troubles began on the ground when I could not get the knack even of taxiing — pedals, not steering wheel, insisted the instructor — and multiplied quickly when aloft. Airborne, you are obliged to keep the plane from standing on its end or plunging toward Earth. I could not reliably manage either.
“Er, I’ll take it,” said the instructor, ashen.
Neither am I drawn to the bounding main.
We are fortunate to have a modest view of the water from our small home.
In summer, boats go by, each more sleek and beautiful than the next.
“Pretty,” I say to Wink, my wife.
“Yes,” she says.
“Not for me, though,” I say.
“No,” says Wink, drawing on perspective gained over nearly 60 years. “Not for you.”
What else? Travel?
Friends just got back from Brussels and Paris. Some trip.
They ate well, visited museums, walked miles, slept only as sightseeing allowed. Also, of course, they flew — a daring act in pandemic times if, like me, you are still trying not to “get it.”
By the time our friends finished recalling their vacation, I was beat. That night, we happened to watch a TV movie shot in France.
“Oh, good,” I said, as I often do when foreign scenes appear. “Another place we don’t have to go. Cross it off the list.”
Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if I’d scored the winning ticket — the one sold at a Speedway gas station in Des Plaines, Illinois, a Chicago suburb previously famous for being the site of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s franchise.
What quickly comes to mind is maybe acquiring the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup factory so I never run short of late-night treats or maybe reserving in perpetuity my favorite upper-deck seat at Citi Field or closing on a family place in Greenport so the children can one day ease back in lawn chairs and say, “Sure glad the old man didn’t take a chance on cryptocurrency.”
I hope, too, the better angels would prevail, and I’d give a load away — keep the shelves of the food banks full and maybe send kids to college who might not otherwise have a chance.
Oh, sure it would be swell to hit a billion-dollar jackpot. I just wouldn’t want folks back in Brooklyn to think I forgot those cautionary sermons at St. John’s.