The Pantry Express store right downtown in Chester Friday afternoon was, in this small city, the most popular and important place in Chester County. People bought gasoline, cigarettes, sodas and enough beer to start a brewery.
Assistant Manager Candy Hinton was the most popular woman in the entire city.
People talked about luck and hope and dreams and escape and bought lottery tickets by the handfuls because, at this very same store, somebody bought a $2 Powerball lottery ticket the other day.
The guy, identity officially unknown but the subject of more rumors than any man in Chester maybe ever, won $2 million.
“After taxes, about $1.4 million,” said one guy in the store Friday. “Cash.”
“Right here, this spot!” yelled out a lady. “I’m feeling lucky!”
She bought four beers and a pack of Doral 100 menthols. And a lottery ticket. Her luck was none. Her lottery ticket wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
Her exclamation afterward is not something properly shared amongst Sunday school classes.
A man in soiled work clothes, a working man named Johnny Mack, threw up his hands and said, “And I gotta work the rest of my life. I win nothin’.”
A lady named Gloria Brice, with a huge smile, freely offered to help this unknown guy with his winnings.
“I wish it was me,” Brice said. “But as long he tithes his church, and takes care of his family, nobody should be jealous of this man. Let’s hope he spends his money wisely.”
Chester County is a place rich in characters and spirit and love. The people are hard working, industrious. A day spent there is filled with laughs and dreams. The people are generous to a fault.
Yet it is not a place rich in dollars:
• One in every four persons in Chester County lives in poverty. That rate is about twice as high as the rest of America.
• At least one in every eight people in Chester County is unemployed. The rest of the country, it is about one in 12.
• The average family income in Chester is $32,000 a year. The average family in America makes about $52,000 a year.
The average income in Mississippi, the place joked about by the rest of the country and most times, rightly so, is higher than Chester.
The guy who took home $1.4 million might have become, immediately, the richest person in Chester.
“If the guy needs a brother, I’m it,” said one man in dirty work clothes who spent $4 on lottery tickets.
That man left without any millions and no new sibling, either.
The store gets 1 percent of the prize – $20,000.
“I hope everybody who won with this lottery ticket remembers me,” said Candy Hinton working at the store, hustling all over the place Friday.
A bus driver named Tammy Thompson came in and said she hoped the winner – identified by lottery officials only as a man from Chester whose first act as a millionaire was to change his phone number – does not blow through the money.
“A million dollars isn’t a lot of money if you blow it and everybody you know wants some of it,” Thompson said. “Can’t blame him a bit for not telling the whole world he won. Everybody would want some.”
Chester is a small place where people know each other. In just a few hours, several guys came in who claimed to know who the winner was, and how he was a regular in the store.
“ ’cept now, his regular is driving to the store in his black Audi,” said one guy.
Nobody was in a rush Friday in this store, although convenience stores usually are rushed places. People wanted to talk about the lottery winner and winnings, and the dreams that came true for the lucky guy.
Dreams that every person who bought tickets Friday hoped to match.
About a decade ago, a man from Chester was the first $1 million winner after Powerball started in South Carolina. Nobody talked about how the odds the guy who won a decade ago or this week beat to become instantly wealthy – 1 in 5,000,000.
Marques Carter came to the store and bought gasoline for his car. He talked about the lottery winner, in news that was all over town.
“Maybe I will win,” Carter said.
He bought a scratch-off ticket that advertised how many thousands Carter would win if he spent $2 or $4 on tickets.
And like almost everybody else in Chester who plays the lottery, except this one mystery guy who took home the $1.4 million, Marques Carter lost.
But because it is Chester – a place of big dreams and good people who, despite the closing of textile mills and manufacturing plants – Carter smiled and shook hands.
He left wishing another person good luck and good fortune.