At least once a week I see a very sad sight. I’ll stop at a convenience store to grab a coffee, and as I walk into the store I frequently see a person coming out of the store with at least $40 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets. The person is already scratching the tickets frantically before even getting to his car.
Invariably, the person comes up empty. Not even a two-dollar winner on any of those tickets. The useless tickets then get thrown onto the ground in disgust, and as the person drives away, I can clearly see the most heart-wrenching look of hopelessness and despair on his face.
As I wait in line to pay for my coffee, my mind starts to wander. I think about what that guy could have purchased with his $40 instead of lotto tickets. I wonder how often he puts himself through that painful ordeal, and how many hundreds of dollars he wastes in an average month. I wonder if he has kids, and if there’s any food in his house. I wonder if he’s behind in his rent. I wonder if things would have been different if he had paid attention in math class and learned that the Lottery is a total scam, and he has a better chance of being hit by lightning on a sunny day than winning the big prize.
Then I try to think happier thoughts. I tell myself that maybe he is not as desperate as it appears. Maybe he’s an eccentric millionaire who feels comfortable wearing threadbare clothing, sees no need to visit a dentist regularly, and enjoys driving a rusty 1996 Buick Skylark with bald tires. Right. And maybe I’m the Prince of Wales.
Occasionally I have far too much time to let my mind wander because the person in front of me in line is buying $60 worth of lotto tickets, which means he is carefully dictating to the counter clerk exactly which combination of tickets he wishes to purchase, hoping to improve his odds by trying just about every possible option available. (Yeah, improving his odds from zero to five-times-zero.)
Then I start thinking about a different person. This person is not inside a convenience store. He is in a clean, well-appointed office. Since he DID pay attention in math class — and excelled at it — he very well might be a Certified Public Accountant or hold a Master’s degree in Business Marketing. He receives a handsome salary, so his clothes and his car are new, and there’s plenty of food in his suburban home. He has terrific medical and dental benefits, and his teeth and the teeth of his kids are healthy, white, and straight.
This person has a brilliant, creative mind, and he uses that brilliant creativity to think of new ways to convince all the threadbare ’96 Buick folks of the world to keep dumping their scarce $20 bills into a get-rich-quick scheme that is thoroughly stacked against them.
In a bygone era, this person would have been considered a parasitic snake oil salesman and run out of town. But nowadays he is a highly-regarded and highly-compensated state employee. He is highly-regarded and highly-compensated because his marketing skills keep a steady flood of money flowing into the state coffers.
When I finally finish paying for my coffee and walk back to my car, I have one last thought: I wonder if the creative and successful state employee occasionally buys his coffee at a convenience store. I wonder if he ever sees the same sad sight I see. And if so, I wonder if he even gives a damn.