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.


A Skin Bag for Jesus! said...

OOps!!! I hit 'publish your comment' when I meant to hit 'preview.' I wasn't finished yet. So, I'm deleting my unfinished note... and reposting when I've properly said all I meant to.


A Skin Bag for Jesus! said...

Aw... I didn't plan to comment. And for some crazy reason, at first didn't want to. Refusal, I guess? Rebellion, maybe? Too intimate possibly? Fearful of being too vulnerable? Or.. afraid to commit?

My guess would be that it's probably the latter.

But. Here I am... commenting anyway. :)

I love this new adventure you've chosen. This new path that God has obviously led you to take. So. Not only do I want to follow it, see where it'll take you, trek your steps.... but I want my own adventure myself. I hate to appear a 'copy-cat,' but I do want to touch and be touched by others this year in a way that I normally wouldn't if not consciously deciding to open my eyes to. One thing that haunts me most is all those for some reason or another I "walk on by" in my path, instead of seeing the man beaten, and robbed, and left for dead like the Good Samaritan did and so stopping to help him.

Your post has inspired me. I'm going to start looking, noticing, keeping an eye out for those that God wants me to see! And then stop to touch, to tell, to share, to give, to love, to hug, to smile at the ones that God has put me there for.

Thanks for your heart... and it's bleeding so preciously into mine to make me want to live different.


Kim said...

I'm so excited for another year full of mystery by Steve Fuller. Thank you so much for sharing your life with us, and taking the brave step to approach random people. I think more of us should do that, and hopefully we will find it easier once you pave the way for us.

Jen - Mom of 4 said...


What a great first beginning! I wouldn't be surprised if she calls you in a few weeks - when God nudges us to go back to a person it's for a reason.

I do believe that He will lead very interesting people to you. I realized this weekend at Church that He does it all the time as long as we are open to the experience (two separate women told me their life stories within a 15 minutes on Saturday after Church- both had hard lives and made me open my eyes to how truly blessed we are).

I'm looking forward to next Monday's story!

Julie in Colorado said...

Led to your blog from REverb and loved reading some of the church experiment. Just moved you to the top of my daily blog list to follow your new adventure.Caused me to pause and reflect on the life stories around me and what I would say to you. Hmmmmmm.

splendid said...

Congrats on your engagement!
Happy New Year!
Yee Haw!
for another adventure with Steve!

Jon said...

You're a gifted writer. I can't wait to read your books.

I went to school with a girl whose dad hit the Super Lotto for $3 million. He paid off his house, game $400K to his church, paid for his daughter's school in advance (back before 529 plans they had that prepaid tuition deal), and put the remaining $2+ million with a very reputable investment firm.

Then, he went back to his job at the Ford plant in Sharonville making transmissions...third shift.

He did make one other purchase...a customized F-350 Super Duty...with the transmission that he built. His daughter told me that he never drove it to work because he didn't tell his coworkers that he won the lottery.

Anonymous said...

I love the concept. This is similar to Treasure Hunt I've done with friends. Ask God for clues or "words" as identifiers of someone He wants to touch..... Listen carefully, look expectantly and be ready to have a "divine encounter" of stepping into someone's story. It's really an amazing experience and sometimes we even get to pray for them.

DanThoms said...

I always manage to meet new people at St. Vincent De Paul thrift store. Don't ask me why but some of the most interesting people shop there (not excluding myself of course) Contrary to popular belief, talking to strangers is fun.

Christina said...

It looks like I'm late to these posts, but I'm glad I gave your link another click today. I enjoy reading your posts, and your observations are always interesting.