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Merchants Turn a Cold Shoulder to Powerball Fever

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s the street of dreams, a place where fantasies flower every few feet while merchants with empty stores fume.

Under the hot sun, behind the yellow tape, they stood in line for three hours on Greenwich Avenue on Tuesday waiting for their chance to feed the two hungry green Powerball lottery machines inside Zyn’s News and Cigars.

Wary police kept order, making sure no one crashed the line.

A house, a boat, a car, furniture, a chance to quit a job, pay for a college education, help the poor--those were the desires voiced by many who came from out of state.

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“I’d buy the New York Yankees from Steinbrenner,” joked Dave Tillou, a 22-year-old construction worker.

With the biggest U.S. lottery prize ever--$250 million--up for grabs tonight, Powerball fever is sweeping the nation.

Perhaps nowhere is the mania so clear as in Greenwich, just across the border from New York--where tickets aren’t sold.

Greenwich, a place of spacious lawns and incomes higher than the tall hedges, has for now lost its staid demeanor. Police with dogs patrol the main shopping street, parking spaces are filled by out-of-state players. Local merchants just want Powerball, which has eaten into their profits, to disappear.

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“Can the Power be turned down?” asked a front-page headline in the Greenwich Time, the local newspaper.

“It’s a nightmare. My customers are not coming into the store. Regular customers don’t want to come downtown because of the crowds,” moaned Margriet Finnegan, glancing around Irresistibles, her chic but empty clothing and accessories shop.

Looking sheepish, the store’s staff admitted that they had bought a Powerball ticket.

Finnegan’s dream is to travel. Her chance of winning: 1 in 80 million.

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Powerball is played in 20 states (not California) and the District of Columbia. To win, players must pick five numbers from a list of 49 and a sixth from a separate group of 42.

When no one guessed the right numbers for a $183-million jackpot over the weekend, the prize in tonight’s drawing soared to record levels--eclipsing the $194.4-million won May 20 by Frank Capaci, a retired Illinois electrician, and his wife, Shirley.

With a quarter of a billion dollars at stake, Douglas A. Orr, the marketing coordinator of the Multi-State Lottery Assn., which runs the game, can’t sleep.

People wanting to know where to buy tickets call him in the middle of the night at home. So do media representatives from around the world.

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“I’m talking and talking to people. My voice is starting to leave me,” Orr said. “I have my cell phone to one ear and the regular phone to my other.

“Based on sales projections, we anticipate an 85% number coverage, which means that there is an 85% chance of someone winning,” he predicted.

At a convenience store just across the Arizona border, thousands of Californians poured into the tiny town of Ehrenberg to try their luck--so many, in fact, that owner Earl Loyd let a few dozen sleep in his store overnight so they could wait for lottery tickets to go on sale Tuesday at 5:15 a.m.

Loyd’s store sold a staggering 65,000 tickets on Monday and Tuesday alone--up from a few hundred sold on average days. Loyd figured that “95% of [his buyers] are coming over from California.” Customers waited up to three hours, with lines of more than 100 people at a time straggling out of the air-conditioned E-Z Mart and into the 118-degree heat of the parking lot.

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One customer bought $1,500 worth of tickets, while others of more modest means from Los Angeles, Oxnard and San Bernardino streamed over the border at Blythe and into Ehrenberg, population 1,226, Loyd reported. “They’re coming 200, 300 miles for this. It’s the most people who’ve ever been in this little town at one time,” he said.

Loyd bought 12 dozen doughnuts Tuesday morning for the folks who camped out overnight in his 24-hour store, waiting for the tickets to go on sale. And with the heat so relentless, he gave out free Cokes to lottery-crazed customers sweating it out in the parking lot.

“It’s amazing. I’ve seen it on TV before, but never in person,” he said.

As they waited in line, would-be Powerballers downed hot dogs and sodas, laughed it up and traded fantasies about winning the big one.

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On the chance that there is no winner tonight, the thought of an even higher Powerball jackpot has shaken many people who live in Greenwich.

“The local residents are tired of it. They can’t get into this area of town,” said Sgt. Michael Pacewicz, ushering in five more Powerball players from the pool of more than 700 waiting to get into the store.

Once inside Zyn’s, money flowed freely as the machines printed tickets nonstop.

“We’re getting tired,” said Sam Desi as he accepted cash and lottery cards, entering the numbers into one of the terminals.

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“No good, too many numbers,” he told a customer, who quickly filled out another card.

“I have five grandchildren. I’d send them all to college,” said Delores Williams, a nurse’s aide, spending $5 for her family and $35 for friends at work “I’d give a lot of money to the poor. I’d give a lot to the church.”

Those in line outside had other ideas.

“I’d buy a house, get cars. My husband would quit his job in a jiffy,” said Doris Torres. Her husband, Rene, works in a refinery.

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“Don’t forget the yacht,” Rene said.

“How big a yacht?” he was asked.

“How big do they come?” he replied.

Some mental health professionals who have studied lottery winners say that what often happens reinforces the old cliche: Money can’t buy happiness.

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“Studies have shown that people who do win are not that happy after they win,” warned Albert Ellis, a clinical psychologist and the author of more than 60 books, including works on happiness.

“If you follow up on them years later, they don’t have happy lives. They think that life will be different. But they don’t change their personality and ways. They will always find things to worry about. . . . They will have their regular problems and difficulties.”

Try telling that to all those Powerball players waiting hours on line in the hot sun. Fat chance.

Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau in Los Angeles and special correspondent Lisa Meyer in New York contributed to this story.

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