As We See It

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Billion-dollar doughnut: The dreams and downfalls of the gonzo lottery rush

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Illustration: Jon Estrada
Stacy J. Willis

A few hundred specific people have been on my mind since the Great Powerball Rush of early 2016. We met one afternoon in the middle of nowhere and shared our deepest hopes and dreams, along with roughly two hours and a few dollars we’ll never get back.

If he’d won the zillion dollars, Las Vegan Jimmy Watson was going to retire and buy a new car—a fairly modest plan that made him adorable. “I’m going to try not to splurge too much,” he said. His 7-year-old boy, also named Jimmy Watson, gave me a toothy grin and said, “If I win, I’m going to get a doughnut.” They were so genuinely nice, I crossed my fingers and wished extra-hard that they would win.

Later, when I saw the world begin to devour the doe-eyed couple from Tennessee who asked to be on national TV even before claiming their third of the $1.5 billion jackpot, I was kind of glad the Watsons didn’t win. Instead of fame and fortune—a combination that most states make inseparable with a law requiring lottery winners to go public—the Watsons got a pleasant day-trip to Littlefield, Arizona. And they got to keep that underrated appreciation for a single doughnut.

*****

The day we met was sunny and cold, though heat rose from thousands of ticket-buyers launching a festive attack on the quiet enclave of 300-ish people on Old Highway 91, in a patch of northwestern Arizona squished by Utah and Nevada. Two lines of daydreamers snaked across the parking lot of the Beaver Dam Station & Bar, and another line formed down the road in front of the Beaver Dam Lodge. Cars were parked everywhere—on the curbs, in the dirt, in the pothole-filled lot.

A cowboy with a guitar and an amp stood outside and belted Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” People smiled and laughed—surely at this ludicrous moment that all of our lives had somehow come to—and a few tapped a foot and sang along.

Inside the bar, which was arted-up with dollar bills stapled to the walls, a crowd of regulars squeezed into the smoky back room to kinda watch football, but mostly to peek out at the mob of encroachers. I imagined the influx of new miners to tiny towns during the California Gold Rush, and would-be oilers flooding into Williston, North Dakota, more recently.

Lottery rushers are a tad different. They bring no particular skills to the table, no promise to dig or drill or get dirty, just a smiley willingness to stand patiently and fork over a little cash in exchange for a billion dollars, thank you very much.

While eyeballing the peculiar economic logic of line-standers, locals drank bottles of Bud Light and stacked shot glasses on the table and, what the hell, shared in the dream: “I’ll have another beer and two Quick Picks,” said a stout, gray-headed guy to the bartender, who doubled as the lottery clerk. Other residents didn’t partake in the draw, instead sizing up line-standers as particularly prime consumers. A few entrepreneurial jewelry makers set up shop on a table between the two lines outside, and down the road, Littlefield resident Kimberly Cazier hosted a curbside yard sale.

She wore a floppy sun hat and the irrepressible smile of one who’d just come into some cash. “I live up the road a ways, but I saw all these people and thought, let’s move the sale down here, right?” Within minutes of unpacking her clothes and furniture, she sold an automatic-lift lounge chair and ottoman. Ca-ching. “It’s against my religion to gamble,” she said as she straightened two Books of Mormon on her table, each tagged for $2. “I’m not really even tempted ... What’s the jackpot up to now, anyway?”

A man who was perusing her selection of $1 vases said, “$900 million.”

Cazier’s smile trembled just a teensy bit. She adjusted her hat and said, “Okay, so yeah, I get a little tempted,” and laughed.

*****

The Today show cameras followed the small-town Tennessee winners through their first exuberant, exhausting days of fame and fortune and loss of innocence. John and Lisa Robinson fulfilled one lifelong dream right away: They took a private tour of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis home.

I remember visiting Graceland many years ago, and being a little disappointed, because I had imagined it to be bigger, fancier and even more fascinatingly garish, but also somehow private. His home. It was interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. The remnants of Elvis’ personal life disappeared amid the over-consumerization of the experience—the trams, the gift shops, the contrived displays. I longed for the image of it I’d had in my mind.

After the Robinsons collected their money, met celebrities and toured Elvis’ theme park of a house, NBC cameras captured them returning to their own modest living room. A shell-shocked Lisa Robinson shrieked with joy and said, “I love my home!” as if it were new, or a fancy mansion, or private. But when you can buy all the doughnuts in the world, they end up tasting different.

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