FORT MILL -- So, this big, tall sandy-haired guy walks into Red Rocket Fireworks, and he asks for a pack of Newports.
A huge sign on one wall shows this is the place where a guy won $88 million. It does not say that happened more than five years ago.
The change is a dollar and a few coins. Bread and gas and rice and more are through the roof, but so many of us still have the money for cigarettes.
And lottery tickets.
"Gimme one Powerball ticket, quick pick," he tells the cashier. There goes the dollar bill.
He claims he doesn't like gambling, doesn't play the lottery.
But he had a buck, and he spent it hoping to win millions when the odds are in the millions that he won't.
How can anybody be surprised that in hard economic times, people in South Carolina spend more money on lottery tickets? People who play the lottery know the odds are against them, that they have less money left over after groceries and the rest, yet they have spent more in York County and the state in the past few months than in the same period last year.
I am proud to live in South Carolina and write about the mostly great and few not-so-great people, but it is no secret that people in this state smoke more, are fatter, and do as poorly in school as any state in America. How can anyone, including me -- as guilty as anybody at sloth and throwing money away -- be shocked we are spending more on lottery tickets when our wallets are close to barren?
I'll tell you why.
Lottery players -- and I am one, religiously, fanatically and always ending up a loser -- expect the world for a dollar. We expect our troubles to be fixed by luck.
A guy named Trey Lutz said he makes a good living, comfortable, yet had four quarters in his ashtray of his car so decided to blow it on one ticket.
"Could be $5,000 in that ashtray," Lutz said.
Yes, or could have been a dollar toward gas or groceries or just plain saved.
It is illogical, stupid, and they and I do it without fail. I save money at the grocery store on specials and run like an Olympic sprinter to spend that on lottery tickets that turn to dust. I have left family functions and even a gospel singing at the speed of light on a Wednesday or Saturday night when realizing I had just minutes to deadline to buy my Powerball tickets.
I don't win. I lose, and so does almost everybody eventually. Even winners often dump winnings back into more tickets.
A guy named Maurice Ardrey spent $4 on Pick 4 and is in a $5 per person per week Powerball pool at work -- another $10 a week. He said the lottery money is "my money." Any guy knows that means "my money" is what he's hidden from his wife or family.
"I won $550 one time, but I was probably just breaking even," Ardrey said.
"Chasing the dream," one clerk told me.
I, like them, hope to win so much in the lottery I can tell the boss the old Johnny Paycheck country song, "Take this job and shove it." But I never win that much. I want a lifetime of money to come in a few seconds. I expect something for nothing.
I once cashed a $200 Powerball ticket and never have so much sniffed another dime.
People are in jobs that haven't seen raises or much of one as the economic hammer continues to fall. Still, the tickets get scratched, punched, the losses mount.
Investment people would be in trouble if they told clients to buy stocks that had almost no chance of going up. Advice to spend money on something almost certain to lose is not advice, it is a felony. Smart millionaires buy financial products with saved dollars that appreciate over time and turn into nest eggs and college educations. Lottery players invest the gasoline money on something with odds listed on the back as one in thousands or millions, when a few bucks that could have gone in the college fund never makes it out of the store.
Red Rocket clerk Heather Klara said a guy just before I came in bought a $300 book of scratch-off tickets.
"Wow, I won," the guy exclaimed.
He won $205 back.
He never stated he was down $95, Klara said.
"People are greedy," she said.
She knows people who have bought lottery tickets with pennies and nickels. Another guy dropped an entire paycheck of $400.
We want something for almost nothing.
Sure, it is undeniable that refrain "It is only a dollar or two" works if that is all you spend. You might be a millionaire.
You might not have the $4 and change for a gallon of milk, either.
And here are a few coins in my own pocket after the milk. Does that make a buck? Yessir. Gimme a quick pick, will ya?