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‘Good Luck’ for Sale : Lotteries: What Comes With Them?

Times Staff Writer

In New Jersey, a salesman of decorative stone got stuck in turnpike traffic one evening and began to panic.

It was nearing 7:50 p.m. Rod, the salesman, fidgeted in his station wagon. The minutes ticked by. Finally, he could stand it no longer so he pulled to the side of the road and telephoned Phillip’s Stationery Store in Midland Park, where he was headed to place his state lottery bet.

Sure, the clerk at Phillips said, for a regular customer like Rod they would go ahead and cover the $47 worth of bets he wanted to make in the daily Pick 3 game. Rod heaved a sigh of relief, folded his stocky frame back into the wagon and continued down the turnpike. He hadn’t missed betting on the lottery. The day was not lost.

Down on Chicago’s South Side, Josie Malone, a 47-year-old, $225-per-week hotel desk clerk, plunked her bet down at the Pot ‘o Gold liquor store on dingy Ashland Avenue. “Gimme 3-4-7,” she whispered. Life for Josie has centered on the lottery ever since that night, a few years back, when she dreamed about a loaf of bread.

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Dream’s Interpretation

Malone, a slight woman with tired brown eyes, woke up the next morning and “reached for my dream book.” It told her that visions of bread meant she should bet the 8-2-3 combination, in that order. She did and won $2,700. “I’ve bet every day since,” Malone said. “Doesn’t matter how much I bet, just as long as I bet.”

Then there are the gamblers at NiNi’s newsstand on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., across the street from Harvard University. “I play the lottery on the days my spirits need a boost,” Diane Murray mused before 8 a.m. one warm summer day while on her way to work after making a bet. “The days you play are the days you can fantasize a little.”

Panic on the turnpike, moneymaking bread dreams, $1 fantasies are all signs of America’s fastest growing form of gambling--state lotteries. They have spawned some peculiar behavior that millions of Californians will begin adopting, to one degree or another, as soon as the Golden State begins marketing scratch-off tickets Oct. 3.

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New Experiences to Come

Californians who have never seen a dream book or a flask of lucky rub-on gambling oil can expect to be initiated as the lottery gears up here.

In interviews with lottery players from Seattle to Boston, it is apparent that, for some, playing the lottery is a fanciful adjunct to life. They saunter into stores in the suburbs, with spare cash and jokes about the odds. But for others, playing the lottery is one last hedge against despair. They scrape pennies together to make their bets, sometimes with tears.

Across the street from Harvard, for example, people dart resolutely into NiNi’s newsstand as early as 6 a.m. They scratch off three numbers on a small computer card at the counter, then thrust it at clerk Chris Kotelly with a peculiar dialogue that will become commonplace here when California’s lottery moves from instant tickets to computerized number games sometime next year.

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“Give me 50-50, straight and boxed,” the customers intone, with the seriousness of a Wall Street negotiator on a six-figure deal. “And give me a six-play Megabucks and two instants.” They play the lottery at NiNi’s newspaper stand, then they say good morning or have a cup of coffee or go to work.

In Nyack, N.Y., an affluent Hudson River town northwest of New York City, a film maker named Donna Norris said she was “hooked” on the lottery for 18 months until she quit last year.

‘Never Won a Penny’

“I bought tickets once a week at first, then I went to twice a week. I was interested in winning a million dollars or more. I figured if it was meant to be, I’d get the big one. If I traveled to the West Coast or Europe, I’d have my friends bet for me. Then I realized something. I wasn’t winning anything, so I quit playing. I played for a year and a half, and I never won a penny.”

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Despite the bad luck, Norris--a chic woman of 46, with dark brown hair and fashion eyeglasses--said she relished her lottery habit for as long as it lasted.

“I’d compare notes in the lottery line with Charlie the fish man,” Norris said. “I got acquainted with people I would not normally have anything in common with. We’d wish each other good luck and discuss our numbers. It was a common denominator for the townspeople. Most of my fellow players were down-and-outers, the local drunks or people looking anxiously for a dream. We were all the same, of course, all dreaming, except what we were dreaming about was different. And, they were betting more money.”

In New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, some residents of the black and Latino neighborhoods rub lucky “money-drawing” oil on their fingers or forearms before playing the lottery, a throwback to old Caribbean customs. Some rub “fast luck” floor wash on their linoleum, take baths with “lucky” bath salts, spray “money blessing” room deodorant in the air and burn special “good luck” lottery candles in hopes of beating the odds.

Lottery Paraphernalia

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Brenda Bell at the Bombay Candle Shop in South-Central Los Angeles said there will be lucky lottery candles for sale in her store soon, along with a wide selection of “dream books” and other lottery-related paraphernalia. Several other local candle and specialty outlets plan to stock lottery “luck” items, as well, area wholesalers say.

Dream books, the most popular of the lottery paraphernalia, are marketed by a variety of spiritual and occult publishers around the nation. The books translate nighttime images into numbers to play in the morning. They have long been used by illegal “policy” or numbers game players in big Eastern cities.

For example, dream about rhubarb, and you are instructed by one dream book to bet the numbers 1, 11 and 41. Dream about the governor and you are told to bet 10, 49 and 50.

The list of dream subjects and their interpretations fill 100 pages in one volume called “Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book: A Study of Harmony in Numbers,” published by Lama Temple of Chicago. Another dream volume, published by the Lottery Bible Publishing Co. of Shaker Heights, Ohio, lists 2,000 dream subjects and corresponding number combinations.

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The Pot ‘o Gold liquor store in Chicago offers 36 different dream books, lottery horoscopes, almanacs and numerology guides. In tonier lottery outlets on Chicago’s North Side, mainly middle-class, white patrons are invited to buy items such as “lottery fortune cookies,” complete with lucky numbers inside.

But such peculiarities are often just the surface signs of more important changes and arguments stirred up by lotteries.

‘Has Changed Us’

“It’s a very big moneymaker (for the state) . . . but it has changed us,” said Ben Cardin, speaker of the House of Delegates in Maryland, which operates one of the nation’s most successful lotteries. “It has increased the appetite for gambling (by) holding out to people the American dream of instant success. . . . We’ve encouraged a whole new generation of gamblers, which I think is wrong. Our state is hooked.”

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Lottery officials around the nation are in an almost daily debate with various social critics who say the poor spend more of their income, proportionately, on the lottery than the middle and upper classes.

No one disagrees that the middle class is the chief money source for lotteries or that middle-class players win most of the prizes. The rub is that the poor, who can stand to lose it least, lose a healthy chunk of income every day in lottery bets.

“The poor spend about 20 times as much per dollar of family income on the lottery tickets than the wealthy . . . and about twice as much as average-income families,” according to Daniel Suits, a Michigan State University economics professor who analyzed lottery economics for the U.S. Commission for the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling.

Critics Rebutted

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But New York State Lottery Director John D. Quinn said he is tired of the argument. “It’s a free country, right? What it boils down to is this: Is there any benefit in giving someone who doesn’t have anything a little hope? Wasn’t it Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation?’ ” (Actually, it was Henry David Thoreau.)

In a dimly lighted room off the Sim’s Auto Parts showroom on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago hope seems an unlikely byproduct. Here, in this poor neighborhood, the lottery is firmly established. Players file in and out of Sims, the neighborhood lottery outlet, in a steady stream, some spending welfare money, some spending part of their wages. Old people hobble through the door; youngsters come and illegally bet for their relatives.

“The lottery wouldn’t be nothing without poor folks playing,” said Henry Donegan, a plain-spoken, off-duty Chicago police officer who sits around Sims some afternoons with his friends. “Around here, the state’s giving it out in welfare with one hand and taking it back through the lottery with the other. The state takes more money to the bank on poor people’s dreams than anything else.”

As Donegan spoke, Gloria Bennett showed up to make a $7 bet from her general assistance check. Bennett, 26 and unemployed, plays the Pick 3 numbers game every day.

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“If I win, I wanna’ buy me a house,” Bennett giggled shyly.

Game Preferences

Studies show that the instant ticket and six-number Lotto games are preferred by younger, better educated and more affluent players, while the three-digit and four-digit games--those designed by lottery officials to most closely resemble the illegal numbers games--are favored by lower-income, less educated lottery customers.

Research by University of Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, a longtime consultant on state lotteries, shows that residents of poor black and Latino neighborhoods favor games offering smaller awards on a daily basis over larger-prize games that pay off less frequently. The poor want a get-rich-quick scheme, Blakey said, while the rich can afford to savor their dreams.

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Dreamers and just plain gamblers turn out by the millions when a lottery first comes into a state, experience shows. The crowd then dwindles to a steady stream of habitual bettors, except when really phenomenal jackpots, like the $41 million that recently built up in New York’s Lotto game, spur extra-heavy turnouts. California lottery officials expect the same reaction here in a few weeks.


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