The newspaper said they just got the lottery in South Carolina, so I decide to drive on down. Pay my money and take my chances. On account of I’ve never gambled before, a friend hooks me up with her aunt Nancy. Nancy lives at the very bottom of Richmond County, in Hamlet, where you can practically spit across the state line. She knows the territory, is what I’m saying–all the textile towns and two-mule crossroads where there might be a Stop-n-Go or a Circle K waiting to sell us some tickets. Plus which, Nancy is a veteran gambler. She’s a waitress in Hamlet, but she spends so much time in Atlantic City the casinos send a limousine for her at the airport and deliver her to her slot host like a virgin to the mouth of the volcano. Playing the South Carolina lottery is no sweat for a woman who tempts fate at the blackjack tables and the Triple Double Diamond slot machines of New Jersey. When I get her on the phone Nancy says she’s happy to drive me south of the border, to squander a little change, to spin the wheel of fortune at the Stop-n-Go.
And I am anxious to try my luck, but really I have this other little agenda, which I’ll try to explain. North Carolina is pretty much surrounded by lottery states now–Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina. Depending on who you ask, that makes us either the biggest chumps on the eastern seaboard, or an island of moral rectitude in a sea of sin. The debate is pretty simple: Lottery supporters in North Carolina say it’s a means of holding down taxes and pumping cash into education. Since North Carolinians are already spending $150 million a year gambling in neighboring states, they argue, we might as well pump that money into our own lottery. Opponents say the lottery is bad fiscal policy–a gamble within a gamble, without long-term payoffs. Legislators, they say, should budget appropriately for education without relying on gimmicks like the lottery.
Furthermore, they argue, small-time gambling preys on the poor. “Lotteries,” a News & Observer editorial reads, “take a bigger bite from the wallets of the poor, and lead states to promote a get-rich-quick mentality instead of the traditional virtues of getting ahead through study and hard work.”
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about getting the lottery in North Carolina, but I distrust most attempts to save people from themselves. It makes me think of a Pamlico County woman I interviewed once who told me that her teenage son, who had dreams of playing pro ball, had been encouraged by one of his teachers to hang up his helmet and “pave his way with good grades.” Football, the boy’s mother admitted, was a long shot. But the teacher–who was from a middle-class family–was unacquainted with circumstances that make such gambles so appealing. Worse, the woman said, the whole family had felt “stooped to.” They didn’t have much money, she said, but they didn’t need to be protected from themselves.
So like I say, I tell people I want to try my luck in the lottery, but what I’m really wondering is whether people think they’re played for fools by the state. And whether, even if they are, it’s a game they’re willing to play.
I pick a pretty Thursday in mid-January to drive down to Hamlet. It’s a nice drive under the big winter sky. What you feel in the sandhills, in January, is not so much the cold as the absence of heat. It makes you lightheaded and happy, like the lifting of a fever. So it is that I arrive in Hamlet feeling a little giddy. At the Hardee’s, before going on to Nancy’s house, I buy a Coke and ask another customer if he’d driven down yet to play the lottery. He said nope, he didn’t go in for it. So I asked him if he thought the lottery was unfair to poor people. “Nope,” he said, “it’s unfair to stupid people.”
Nancy meets me in her driveway and waves He-ey. We get into her big Buick and drive out of town, across the state line into Marlboro County. Across the Pee Dee River, in Cheraw, we hit our first stop, a Sav-Way with a big green PLAY HERE sign in the window.
Business is brisk. South Carolina doesn’t yet have million-dollar prizes, or Powerball, though a numbers-picking game with bigger payoffs is scheduled for the spring. Instead, for now, customers buy scratch-n-win tickets for $1 or $2 apiece, with the potential to win up to $10,000. The tickets have little games on them where you try to get three numbers in a row, or three of a kind for mostly small prizes under $20. Nancy and I both buy about $5 worth of tickets and we each win back enough to cover our costs. Over by the hot dog stand a young man named Rodney is scratching his tickets with a quarter. In the half-month since the lottery began, Rodney has spent $60 in tickets. He is soft-voiced and shy, solemnly scratching at his tickets with a quarter. We stand together at the mustard dispenser.
Me: So, what’ve you spent so far?
Rodney: Since the beginning of the lottery? Maybe, I don’t know, $60 give or take.
Me: And what have you lost?
Rodney: I can’t remember. ‘Bout $36.
Me: Will you keep playing?
Rodney: Long as I can; ain’t got but $20 to my name as of today.
Me: And you’ll spend it on lottery tickets?
Rodney: Mmm hmmm. Might get lucky. Shish! Lookahere (shows his card). I just won $4.
I know these women, Bobbie and Tara, who drive up all the time to play the Virginia lottery. Bobbie is a single mother with two little girls; Tara is engaged to marry a roofer who lives in West Virginia. The women have been friends ever since grade school and for every trip to Virginia they buy a king-sized bag of ranch-flavored potato chips and a six pack of diet Coke. Bobbie takes along her lucky class ring she was wearing the time she won a door prize at the home and garden show.
Neither woman has ever won anything in the Virginia lottery, but they keep trying. Tara says a psychic once told her she was going to “win big” one day, and she “wants to keep all the doors of opportunity open.” Bobbie says she keeps playing because of her daughters. “I want them to have everything,” she says, “clothes and college education and that kind of stuff.”
When I ask what they made of the opinion that gambling vic-timizes low-income people, Bobbie gives me a cool look. “Nobody is victimizing me,” she says. “That sounds like something a rich politician would say.”
“I don’t notice the government worrying about taking my taxes and giving me nothing for it,” Tara says. “Isn’t that the same as a lottery ticket?”
Nancy and I stop in at the Texaco, get our tickets, scratch. Nancy buys $5 or $6 at a time and always wins back a little something to keep her losses down. I have a short-lived winning streak, but when it goes cold I stop buying tickets. Back in the car, Nancy chides me; she says I’ll never win big if I let a little bad luck stop me. I tell her my family has a history of ugly and tenacious addiction and I’m taking no chances.
We hunt for our next stop. Nancy drives us down long county roads and through border towns with grand old houses tilting off their foundations. We drive by the Kreme Kastle dairy bar and the Wishy Washy Washerette. These are the semi-rural backwoods of the Carolinas, decaying towns populated by a lot of people without money or education or hope. This is what worries Nancy about the lottery. She’s a seasoned gambler, but she’s smart about it, knows when to stop. Her daddy worked in the mills and she’s seen enough hard times in her neck of the woods to know they aren’t cured by a roll of the dice. Nancy has no particular beef with the South Carolina lottery but she says it’s a for-sure thing that people are going to be spending money they don’t have on tickets.
“You drop $5 on a handful of lottery tickets,” she says, “and that’s $5 you don’t have for bread and milk.” Just look, she says, at the people playing the lottery. “You can tell by looking at them they’re not top class or high class,” she says. “And that’s going to be the truth of the lottery: The ones who are going to play it are the ones who can’t afford to spend the money.” Nancy frowns over the steering wheel. “Still,” she says, “you can’t keep people from hurting themselves. They’re not children.”
At Missy’s One-Stop in Dillon, Nancy buys her ticket then goes to browse in the craft shop that’s attached to the back of the building. I stand in the parking lot talking with Mick, a construction worker who drove down from Fayetteville to buy some tickets. Mick’s face is smirched with something–coal? Dirt? And wood shavings cling to his sweater. Still, his wallet when he pulls it out to buy food and lottery tickets is fat with cash. “Pay day,” Mick grins, raising his voice to compete with the nearby interstate.
Mick is the only person I talk to who says he has been a victim of the lottery, though he refers to a time past, when he was unemployed and driving up to Virginia or over to Georgia with every chance he got and every dollar he borrowed. “I had it in my head that fate or destiny–whatever you call it–owed me. That it was my turn to catch a break. I though of the lottery as my salvation.” Then he’d lose, over and over. “I wound up getting angry at whoever it was set those games up. It made me feel like a jackass.”
Mick finally got his break, not from the lottery, but from a friend who found him a good job. Now he plays the lottery only rarely–and always for fun, not salvation. “I do think,” he says, “that when you are down on your luck the last thing you need is something that’s going to dig you in deeper. I don’t want nobody in my business, that’s the truth. But it’s hard to hold your ground when they’re dangling your own hope in front of you.”