Once a month, Howard takes the drive south on the 15, past Sloan, past the aching old Nevada Landing casino sign, which stands in front of nothing but desert now, past the stretch of desert where off-roaders turn up the dust, and exits in Primm. He’s not here for a concert at Buffalo Bill’s, nor a ride on the Desperado roller coaster, nor for outlet shopping—Howard’s kind of an old guy, with white stubble bristling from his chin and a strand of gray hair across his forehead. He drives into the small lot at the mini mart just on the other side of the state line, takes out $20 and stands in line for a Mega Millions ticket.
“I’ve worked in casinos my whole life,” he says, taking the last drag on a Native brand cigarette outside. It’s midday, hot, quiet. “I don’t gamble. Never gamble. This is the only thing I do.” This night’s Mega Millions, a 12-state lottery that’s drawn Tuesdays and Fridays, is up to $84 million.
Howard, who doesn’t want to give his last name, is among a slew of Nevadans in this line—people who live in the gambling capital of the world, but who’ve driven 45 miles away to choose various California and multi-state lottery games rather than belly up to a video poker machine in their corner bar or drop it all on a night of baccarat on the Strip. Why? “This is worth winning,” he says of the big jackpot. Is it the desperate economy that’s driven him out here? “Not really, I’ve been doing this for years.” Has he ever won? “I won $16 once.” What would he do with the money if he ever hits it? “Pay my bills.” Does he have that many bills? He rolls his eyes, crushes the cigarette against the wall and shakes my hand before ambling off.
Inside, two cashiers attend to a line of about 20 people. I’ve seen this line wrapped around the building with more than a hundred people when the jackpot gets big enough—almost all the cars have Nevada tags. A half-dozen vending machines line the walls, self-service for buying scratch-off tickets for $1, $2 or $3. The countertop is covered with the deep silvery shavings that come from scratch tickets. A man squats by the door with his toddler on his knee; she’s holding a stack of scratchers, and he’s plowing through them one by one with a penny. A couple of 20-something kids in plaid bermudas make several trips in and out from their Lexus SUV to the vending machines, taking $40 worth of scratchers back to the car, scratching, returning for more.
I’m a jaded Nevadan with no interest in casino gaming, like Howard. With a row of video poker machines at my 7-Eleven and a casino enveloping my movie theater, there’s not just no allure; I completely ignore it. But I drop $20 on Mega Millions and Super Lotto tickets while I’m at the state line—an investment in California’s economy, of course. I tell myself it’s a protest purchase—if we had a Nevada state lottery, proceeds would benefit education, the way the widely considered “regressive tax” lottery does in most states that have one.
I get the gambler’s rush right away. I would be up for $84 million the first night; then $7 million the next night. My odds are statistically invisible. But still, for the one and a half days preceding the draws, Howard and I could have been wildly rich. Not merely relieved of a few bills, Howard. We would’ve been wildly rich.