January 4, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Lottery Winner

Last week, I had a bunch of change that I needed to turn into cash, so I went to Kroger in St. Bernard to use its coin machine. While standing in the customer service line with my cash voucher, I noticed the woman in front of me was taking a long time to complete her transaction. That's when she recognized two people in the store and turned to talk to them. I overheard her explain she had just won $2,600 in the lottery. She was cashing in her ticket. Even crazier, she had won $5,000 earlier in the month. Lucky woman.

After her friends left, she turned to me and apologized for taking so long. I jokingly said she could make it up to me by splitting her winnings. Instead of following my advice, she gave me something much more valuable—her story.

Carol (all names will be changed to protect the innocent) is married. Her husband was diagnosed with bone cancer a few years ago. Although Carol has a good job at Cincinnati Water Works (the municipally owned agency that supplies Cincinnati's clean water), her insurance doesn't cover all of her husband's medical bills. Since he can't work, that leaves Carol financially responsible. They get billed $8,000 every week for his chemotherapy treatments. Mondays and Thursdays each bring separate $4,000 bills.

I don't believe the lottery is good for our culture. Sure, a handful of people strike it rich, but most lottery players throw away their money on the nearly impossible dream of winning millions. Of course, writers, musicians, artists, and actors do the same thing, but at least they work for it. Lottery players want something for nothing. And usually, the system takes advantage of the poor and oppressed with empty promises of easy wealth.

But ...

Carol hit the lottery twice in December for a total of $7,600. That money allowed her to pay off credit cards, provide her family with a joyous Christmas, and ease some of the burden of her husband's medical bills.

Carol told me she consistently plays the lottery, and overall, wins more than she loses. She couldn't give any specific numbers, but I took her word for it. As we talked, I realized there is a whole other world to the lottery that most people don't hear much about. The million dollar jackpots get all the publicity, but millions of people play the Pick 3 and Pick 4 (Carol won her money from these) the way they punch in for work.

Or, think about the way people gamble on horses or football. Not many people are making millions at the track, but if you know what you're doing and have a little luck, you can easily make a few thousand dollars in a weekend. I know people who have done it, including my dad. I asked Carol if she thought her winnings were just random luck, or if it was somehow "meant to be."

She didn't seem to believe in fate, but she also considered the winnings a blessing.

About that time, I got my $19.81 (a little less than Carol's $2,600) and noticed the line was growing behind me. Carol and I had a nice conversation, but I wanted to continue talking about her life. Unfortunately, as I was about to pass her my name and phone number, she received a phone call. I thought it would be awkward to interrupt her, so I walked away to do my grocery shopping.

As I shopped, I had a nagging feeling that I was supposed to connect with Carol in a deeper way, so I circled back around and waited for her call to end. Then, I passed her my information, told her I was a writer, and asked her to call me if she wanted to talk more about her story.

I was nervous the cop standing a few feet away from us thought I was stalking my prey (after all, this woman just cashed a lottery ticket for $2,600). I was nervous Carol thought I was pulling a scam. I couldn't help that, of course. People are going to think what they are going to think. Honestly, I wouldn't have blamed Carol for not calling me.

And she didn't.

That was disappointing, but it made me realize something about this new experiment. There is no formula; amateur ethnographies will always be messy. I wish I would have been able to chat with Carol more, but either way, I know we were supposed to connect. Even if we only had a brief encounter, it was ten minutes more than I would have had if I wasn't purposeful in my actions.

This experiment is like a muscle. There may be slow weeks, but the more I step out of my comfort zone to connect with others, the more that muscle will grow.