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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.