“I Won $8 million in the PA Lottery And I Wish I Could Give It All Back”

vince

I called up a guy who won the PA lottery. He got $8 million in the lump sum, give or take.

A few weeks earlier I was having lunch with the editor of “In Pittsburgh” magazine, the local free paper. He was a new editor. I wanted to write for them to get the experience. I was tired of computers. It was 1992. He was excited but… “we have no money. You’d have to write for free.”

No problem!

First I did an article on a peace activist who was in jail. I had never been to jail before. I got searched from top to bottom. Then I was brought to a waiting area and they brought in Vince E.. He was grateful to see me  – that someone had taken an interest in his story. He had been protesting the war in Iraq (Gulf I) and some nuclear stuff. He was good at getting crowds excited and would organize sleep-ins or whatever you call them.  There were always pretty, young, and filthy girls at his sleep-ins. I didn’t mind hanging out at them but I’d always go home to go to sleep.

(Vince, back in the day)

When they arrested him he had taken off all his clothes and flushed them down the toilet. He was bi-polar and had stopped taking his medication. When I saw him in prison he wanted to talk about all the peace stuff he stood for.

But I had only one question on my mind: was he raped in prison?

Whenever someone is in jail that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Why not be honest about it. I asked him.

Whenever someone gives an answer there’s always the good reason and the real reason. He was honest enough to give me both.

The good reason: He was helping all the inmates with their cases. He would look up trial law in the prison library. He’d teach people how to read. Also, he said, very important. “Don’t work out!” You don’t want to go in the gym and do macho stuff or else you invite competition and potential harassment. “The other prisoners love me here.”

Then he gave me the real reason. “Look at me,” he said, “I’m the ugliest person in prison.”

I forget the rest of the interview. In Pittsburgh never ran the story.

NEVER SAY ANYTHING BAD

The first thing they printed by me was a book review I did of one of Tama Janowitz’s books. I was a big fan of her book “Slaves of New York”. So I reviewed her latest and hated it. I made fun of it. And her. Stupid. I will never do that again no matter what. Someone works for years on what they view as a work of art and some littlie idiot like me thinks he has the guts to trash it just because he has for a brief second the power of the pen. I think that’s bad form. I would never do it again. 20 years later and I still don’t trash people. My rule.

(I loved Tama Janowitz's hair)

 

THE INFALLIBLE WRITING TECHNIQUE

Then the editor gave me good advice. He said, “Go to the library. Read the local Seattle free press, New York free press, San Diego free press, and so on. Find the best stories they’ve done this past year. Then you do them. Copy good ideas as much as you can.”

19 years later this technique still works but you have to be a lot more clever about it. The internet is now one global free press. So you need to look in hidden pockets, archives, ancient blog texts only read by alien sociologists who find time to care. Then you can find the occasional good idea that needs to be repeated.

But back to then: I saw a story in Seattle’s free press about lottery winners. So I called up the PA Lottery and got a list of all recent winners and started going down the list calling them. Almost nobody wanted to talk to me. I wanted to know how drastically the lottery winner’s life changed. But one person said to me, off the record, that so many people called her for money that she couldn’t talk to anyone anymore about that.

Finally, one guy spoke to me. He was 65 years old.

“At first it was great,” he said. He had, after his lump sum, about 8 million dollars, give or take. “My wife and I retired. We traveled a little bit. And I started my son in business. He sells supplies for boats down in Florida. I gave him all the startup money.

“But then I got diagnosed with severe diabetes. They had to cut off both my legs. Now my wife helps me out but every day is miserable. I wish I was dead. If you don’t have you health, you have nothing. I’d give it all back if I could have my legs.”

(Lottery advertising is always misleading)

And then he was silent. I didn’t have any other questions but I didn’t know how to end the call. It felt weird saying, “ok thanks.” But I said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.”

“Yeah. Don’t lose your legs. You can’t ever get them back. There’s nothing good about it. I’d give all the money back if I could get my legs back. My life is over.”

I got off the phone and never wrote the article. The editor called me a few times to see if I had disappeared. I had, in fact, disappeared and never spoke to him again.

Years later, during the Internet boom, I felt like I had won the lottery. Then bad things happened and I wondered if I could ever come back from the bottom. But at least I can still walk.

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  • JB

    strange post :)

  • John

    Reminds me of a story in the New Testament. A guy couldn’t walk and wanted money. They said “silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give to you. Stand up and walk” (or something like that). I wonder if he was disappointed he got his legs back instead of money.  Funny how we always seem to want what we don’t have when what we have is so much nicer.

  • Chris

    Michael Lewis: “You don’t write about the person; you write about the person’s effect.”

  • http://736hundred.tumblr.com/ 736hundred

    I have to say something here, because it has always bother me my entire life.  The saying: “If you don’t have you health, you have nothing.” I heard that non-stop all the time I was growing up.

    Well guess what? People get ill all the time, and hearing that saying hurts like sword callously being forced into your heart.  When you are ill you have to work even harder to believe in yourself, harder then anything else, and to hear “you have nothing” hurts.
    ______
    I know people don’t think about this because health is important. And I know people do not intend to harm when they repeat that saying.  But when saying it a person assumes that everyone they are speaking to is healthy.  ( I don’t think that is a good assumption)

    • http://silverlineddreams.wordpress.com The Heasman

      This is true.

      But the moral of the story still shouldn’t be ignored. Money doesn’t buy happiness

      • Anonymous

        Buy it does RENT it!

      • Still laughing

        Mark Twain tells the story of being invited to a rich industrialist’s home for dinner.  The best of everything at the meal followed by brandy and cigars in the library.  The host starts to wax eloquent and says, “You know, money cannot buy happiness.  It cannot buy the love of a good woman, or health, or peace of mind…”.

        Mark Twain says he could no longer contain himself and broke in to say, “You refer, of course, to Confederate money.”

  • Msstrong24

    Hearing one of these “be grateful for what you have stories” always makes me do exactly that…for a while.  But after a short time I always forget.  Any tips on keeping that thought in perpetual consciousness? Perhaps a post.

    • Momchev_m

      Why don’t you try carrying something in your pocket, and every time you put your hand into the pocket, you’d notice this thing (an object) and remember you have to be grateful.

      • Fisker

        because I would forget about it and it would go thru the wash and mess up my washing machine.

  • ErrolWayne

    I had an older fellow once come into my business and I commented on his wealth, he said,”I’ll trade my wealth for your age”.

  • Cindyluwho

    There is a show no longer on the air called Malcolm In The Middle. In the pilot episode the mom tells Malcolm that she made a play date for him with a boy in wheelchair. Malcolm being 10; of course starts to belly ache about having to hang out with a boy in a wheelchair. His mother then tells him that he needs to be nice to the boy and a little more grateful for his blessings. He argues some more and she shouts ” You know everyday is a lottery and first prize is you don’t end up pushing yourself down the street on a skateboard”. Too True. 

    Thank you for the post.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dennisgorelik Dennis Gorelik

    But at least I can still walk.

    You are not 65 yet.

  • modernmind

    It’s okay to have a dud, makes the rest all that much shinier. But, this one sounds like it was phoned in. Was it?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DQWKZY53SGAVES6VA2RBVFMFRE n

    I made a good sum of money in my mid 20’s, I wasn’t a millionaire but it was definitely on my way to being one. I was constantly around similar types of guys one upping each other, throwing money around, banging gold diggers, strippers, and other floozies. Then 2008 happened and the money stopped coming in. A chain of ill timed investments and a couple of years later a lot of the money was gone.

    Here I am in my early 30’s though rebuilding but this time with greater appreciation for money and a disdain for my past self of being so wasteful. I even found the love of my life whom I never would have considered seriously just several years ago.

    We esteem too lightly what we achieve to easily. This time around Jim, I’m working my ass off for what I got and I’m sure you’ve had to do the same. Some of my best friends now have barely a thousand dollars in their bank account but they would stop a bullet for me, whereas I haven’t even heard from my old moneyed drinking buddies for a couple of years.

    • Anonymous

      That’s a beautiful quote you have in there, and it’s a great piece of advice.  The direct quote by Thomas Paine is: “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”

  • http://twitter.com/lonnie_scott Lonnie Scott

    Money doesn’t buy happiness, but being poor sure stands in the way sometimes. The man is right when he says health matters. That’s how being poor can stand in the way of happiness. The man is also a coward. He lost both his legs to diabetes, and he just wants to die? My best friend lost his life to diabetes. It’s a horrible disease to be sure. However, as a life long Cub Fan, I was privileged to hear Ron Santo speak 165 days a year. Ron lost both his legs to diabetes. He kept plugging away doing good deeds and making people smile.

    There’s the hidden gem of this tale. It’s in our actions for others, our gratitude for them and just being alive that makes the difference. Still have his contact information? Is he still alive? Send him a copy of This Old Cub. 

  • Anon

    Hi Lonnie, isn’t it a tad sanctimonious to call someone coward for wanting to live or end his life according to his personal choice? We all have different tolerance level for what we deem to be a minimum standard of living.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nils.meyer3 Nils Meyer

    “But at least I can still walk” – Way to rub it in James ;)

    These seems to be some kind of fallacy at work here: I presume he didn’t buy heaps of candy with his millions, so his diabetes wasn’t likely caused by his winning the lottery. One unlikely event in your favor doesn’t mean that in turn some other unlikely event will happen. If he didn’t win the lottery he might still have lost his legs. And probably his job and health insurance. So yeah, it could always be worse. 

    There is no such thing as Karma. 

    • http://www.brigittelyons.com Brigitte

      I’m pretty certain James isn’t saying that karma took this guy’s legs.

      One of my PR clients was a state lottery. I’m totally accustomed to hearing stories of how people are miserable after winning. But James took this in an entirely different direction. That’s the power of the story. It’s not I won the lottery, thus I bought candy and lost my legs.

      But rather. I won the lottery. I was rich. And I lost my legs. That mattered more. 

  • Gavin Griffiths

    with all that money he could have had some of those space age “blade” legs made that the athletes wear.  perhaps its paucity of imagination that is the problem.  it seems to me that the lottery always seems to be won by people who work in factories and live in bungalows.  they go on a cruise or two, extend the bungalow, boredom reigns, then go back to the assembly line packing biscuits.  rarely do people win the lottery who have vibrant imaginations with which to divert their wealth into something truly life changing, like starting a canine cricket league  (i’ve thought about this a lot recently, there are all those dogs in rehoming centres that would love to regularly play cricket). lottery winners try and crow bar the cash into their existing life rather than using the fortune to let their life change.  and so nothing changes and they say stupid things like “gosh i wish i had never won all those millions”.  i do actually love your writing James.  its superbly uplifting.  you say its going to be ok. and most people don’t say that anymore.

    • Newt Gingrich’s Fat Twin

      Dude, you are a trip. Most lottery winners go back to the assembly line because they’re bored, but because they spent/loaned/invested (idiotically – another restaurant… REALLY???) their money and they are broke. The numbers are stupifying. Something like 95% of lottery winners file for bankruptcy within 10 years. (Still researching the veracity, but this is a comment on a blog post so It’s not completely non-made-up-ish).

      Point in all of that is that found money is treated differently than earned money. “But I would do it differently and not be like those other losers (winners?)” Sure you would.

  • http://736hundred.tumblr.com/ 736hundred

    Obviously money doesn’t buy happiness.

    Some people will never be happy no matter what, money or no money, legs or no legs, health or poor health.

  • http://twitter.com/socialhotchoco Priscilla Wood

    I’ve never dreamed of winning anything, not even the ugly stuffed animals at the country fairs, I’m just grateful for what I have.

  • Onebornfree

    “(Lottery advertising is always misleading)” . _All_ advertising is always misleading!

  • JohnnyOptions

    I won the lottery once – the Vietnam draft lottery. Number ONE! Good damn thing I went to a military academy or I would have had to go within days. Only other thing I won was $250K in a Powerball lottery. After taxes, about $132K. Invested it and set up a trust fund for my kids. Everything else in my life I earned. I think it was either Socrates or Euripides who said, “Those who acquire a fortune are doomed to deplete it.”

  • Raoul Allegre

    On July 1, 2011 $10,981,385 was deposited in my Schwab account when sold my company. I am happy as a clam, happier having the money than I would be if I didn’t.

  • Ahblack57

    Thanks for the post.  I like your twisted perspective.  I think that I would rather lose my legs than my mind.  Then again if I lost my legs, I just might lose my mind…

  • Four Dog Night

    To quote the new poets (rappers):

    “Having money’s not everything; not having it is.”

    Kanye West

  • Mike

    A post without links? WTF I am disappointed…

  • Altpubs

    “Don’t lose your legs. You can’t ever get them back. There’s nothing good about it.”

    So true. My legs ran off with a monkey’s tail. Never saw them again.

    Put up MISSING posters and everything. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Not even a postcard.

    Bastard legs!

    …and don’t get me started on ARMS!!!

  • Anonymous

    hah he said “internet boom”… probably a mac user… and tricks are for kids silly rabbit.

  • Lou Menatti

    Envy is a flower that needs no water to grow

  • madscribe

    what a whiner the lottery winner was. Lots of people lose a limb, are paralyzed and do not have the money to make life easier. With 8 million, this whining numpty could afford the very best prosthetics and medical care. His life is over coz he lost his legs. He would have lost them anyway but the money made it easier. Clearly, this man is not even remotely grateful for the blessings in his life. Does he have any idea how many people live every day with so much less? Whiner.