At $540 million, a truly Mega jackpot

Lifestyle and LeisureServices and ShoppingMega Millions LotteryLexington MarketStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Even a lottery official, a woman who spends her days dealing in hundreds, thousands and, yes, millions, was having a hard time Thursday getting her head around this monstrous number: $540 million.

"It's hard to even fathom this kind of money," said Maryland Lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett as the jackpot for Friday's Mega Millions drawing, already high, soared yet higher, breaking records.

"It's insane. It's all that anyone is talking about. Everywhere," she says.

It's true.

The words "Mega" and "Millions," together of course, have been trending on Twitter all week — and prompting some good lines. "BREAKING," comedian Andy Borowitz tweeted. "Greece Buys Mega Millions Ticket."

Even with the odds of winning at 176 million-to-1, productivity levels no doubt dipped yesterday. In the 44 jurisdictions where the game is played, office workers huddled to pool their money and joked about how fast they'd quit.

As lunchtime wound down Thursday afternoon, $1,147,847 worth of tickets had been sold in Maryland. That's nearly $5,000 in sales every minute. Or about $80 being dropped on tickets every second.

At the Lexington Liquor Shop at Lexington Market, people had been lining up since the store opened at 6:30 a.m., said manager Stacie Houck. Usually, the store sells $100 a day in lottery tickets; this week, she's been averaging five times that.

She flitted between two cash registers at the cramped kiosk, attempting to satisfy the unrelenting lines. Of course, she'd found a little time to buy tickets for herself — and dream about the places she could go if she won.

While waiting in that long line at Lexington Market, Craig Benson thought about how he'd take the jackpot if he won. All in a lump? Portioned out over years?

Either way, pretty sweet.

Even Benson, a pragmatic real estate manager who almost never gambles and says he doesn't believe in the lottery, put his beliefs on hold for a crack at $540 million.

"It's just a dream factory, but if you don't play you're not there at all," the 65-year-old said, plunking down $2 for two tickets, his second time this week. "I bought one the other day, my wife bought one, and when I get off the light rail at the end of the day I'll buy one more."

Mega Millions madness started when nobody had the winning ticket in Tuesday's drawing. There were winners — more than 4 million people won something. Four people won $1 million, and dozens more had tickets worth a quarter of a million. But that was pocket change. No one had the big kahuna.

On Wednesday, lottery officials announced that Friday's jackpot could be as high as $476 million. And people started dreaming — and buying more tickets.

That $476 million became $500 million and then — as jaws dropped even further — $540 million.

So much for the previous Mega Millions record of $390 million.

With the jackpot an estimated $540 million, someone could haul home just over $389 million cash, more than one person has ever won in a lottery anywhere in the world. Even after taxes, that's more than $259 million.

Enough to, as Borowitz joked, help out a struggling government. In Baltimore, that's nearly enough to pay for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan to fix up city schools ($300 million) and far more than needed to make sure all the city pools and recreation centers stay open for the summer and still have plenty in your wallet to buy the most expensive home now for sale within city limits. That's a waterfront palace in the HarborView complex with an $8.5 million price tag.

Mamie Parker of West Baltimore bought two tickets Thursday afternoon — her first in years. With the winning ticket, she'd give to her church, she'd attempt to help the homeless and then she'd head out and buy every single person in her family a new home.

"You see the money building and you think, 'Hey! This is a good time to play,'" she said. "It could be my lucky day."

Workers at countless companies have banded together in ticket pools. "Let's face it," Everett said, "even in a big office pool, with this there's plenty to go around."

Corey Tinsley, 37, a data specialist working for the state, is in four office pools. And just to be on the safe side, he bought more tickets Thursday just for himself.

"It's a chance to be a millionaire," he said.

Who isn't trying for those magic, life-changing numbers? Even those who supposedly have the power to know such things are having a tough time conjuring those six elusive numbers.

Over at Psychic Insight by Sabrina on East Belvedere Avenue in Baltimore, the psychic of the house only wished she could do it. She played Mega Millions earlier this week and her ticket was just as much a dud as the rest of ours.

"I'm not able to see the numbers," she said. "But I got three out of six."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

erik.maza@baltsun.com

By the numbers

Estimated jackpot: $540 million

Estimated cash payout: $389 million

Estimated payout after taxes: $259 million

Amount spent on tickets in Maryland as of Thursday afternoon: $1,147,847

Odds of winning: 176 million-to-1

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