Waiting for fortunes to fall

Staff WriterJanuary 22, 2006 

Most people can imagine how their lives would change if they won big in the lottery. A few million dollars and they could retire early or, as Chapel Hill resident Cynthia Ruffin dreams, start their own businesses. Some would pay off the house or buy a new one -- Ruffin would like that too. Others muse about charitable giving or long-desired travel.

With 42 states -- including North Carolina, as of April -- running lotteries, fantasizing about instant wealth has become a minor national pastime.

Others are anticipating the games, too: vendors, for a different kind of payoff; law enforcement officers, whose only gain may be an increased workload; volunteer gambling counselors, betting their clients will increase; and winners from lotteries in other states, who have learned it's a different world after you win.

"People around here have been acting foolish," Henderson resident Steve Granger said four months after he won $900,000 in the Virginia Lottery. "They call me up, thinking I know something, but you know it's really just luck. I had people tracking me down, people jumping out of their cars when they saw me.

"I didn't know whether they were going to shoot me or congratulate me."

THE DREAMER: CYNTHIA RUFFIN

CHAPEL HILL -- Cynthia Ruffin has been spending her lottery winnings for the past 10 years -- but only in her mind. In her fantasy, she wins big; a million, maybe, though she could get by with less.

She'd invest in two things: a day-care business, which she would run with her daughter, and a home, which would be the first the 52-year-old has ever owned.

"I've always said, 'If I ever win the lottery, that'd be my dream," she said during a break from her job at the K&W Cafeteria in Chapel Hill. Ruffin started working there 21 years ago, as a cook. She's a cashier now, earning about $10 an hour. She wears the black pants and crisp white shirt of the cafeteria uniform, with a gold name tag that reads "Chi Chi," her nickname.

It's a good job, she says, and she enjoys seeing the young faces of the students from the University of North Carolina who come here for the kind of food they remember at home.

"I've been here so long, the kids have grown up with me," she says.

But she'd leave it in a minute for the AAA Day-care. The name would come from the first letter of the names of three grandchildren. The business would be their inheritance. Winning the lottery is the only way Ruffin can fathom she'd be able to finance its startup.

She's not much of a gambler, she says, but she doesn't consider a lottery gambling.

"I just consider it luck."

THE ENFORCER: MIKE ROBERTSON

RALEIGH -- On a trip to Vegas with his wife once, Mike Robertson went into a casino with a $10 roll of quarters. When the quarters were gone, so was he.

He doesn't expect to be a big player in the North Carolina lottery, either, except in his role as chief of the state's division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, where he has been studying the numbers.

"They've said they'll fund 12 new agents," Robertson says, referring to the state lottery commission, which will pay for the positions with proceeds from the games. "If we end up with 5,000 retailers, and you have 12 agents, that would be 416 [outlets] apiece. That's just not humanly possible."

As it is, Robertson's officers have their hands full trying to discourage the manufacture of illegal liquor, the sale of alcohol and tobacco to children, trading in illegal weapons, the use of outlawed gaming machines and the like. The rules governing the way lottery tickets can be sold -- how the machines will work, where they can be set up -- are still being drafted, and their enforcement will be added to the work load faced daily by Robertson's 117 agents across the state.

Soon, they will begin necessary background checks on the owners of stores, bars and other establishments who want to sell the tickets and reap the 7 percent profits promised by the state.

"My life is going to be a lot different, trying to get this thing working," said Robertson, who took over ALE three years ago after a brief retirement from the State Bureau of Investigation.

"I'm going to add a whole lot of responsibility to agents across the state. We'll do it. They'll accept the challenge and they'll accomplish the job. But it's going to be a learning experience."

THE WINNER: STEVE GRANGER

HENDERSON -- Winning $900,000 in the Virginia Lottery changed Steve Granger's life, but not the way some people might have thought.

You couldn't tell he became an almost-millionaire one afternoon in September, for instance, by looking at the car he drives. It's the same 5-year-old model, with more than 140,000 miles on the odometer. He and his wife still live in the same house, and they work at the same jobs they've had for years.

In fact, when he got the check -- minus 25 percent in taxes, with an additional 10 percent to be paid later -- Granger says he paid off a credit card, gave his wife $50 and put the rest in investments for their retirement.

He went to work the next day, managing real estate for a family company, as always, "Thinking I'd just go on with my life."

But his picture had been in the newspaper and on TV as a big winner in Virginia's Cash 5 game, in which players choose a series of five numbers between 1 and 34. There is one game in the afternoon and another at night.

Granger has been buying lottery tickets in Virginia, about 20 miles from where he lives in Henderson, for years, but not because he had any expectation of winning, he says.

"I just like to drive up there," he said, "and think about what I have to do for the day. That's about the only quiet time I get."

Sometimes, he goes several times a week.

That particular day, Granger says, he was feeling lucky. He bought nine tickets with the same set of numbers on each. So he won nine times, $100,000 per ticket.

Afterward, people approached him asking for "donations." One fellow asked if Granger wanted to invest in a gold mine.

The weirdest thing, he says, is being treated like a human talisman, a giant rabbit's foot, just because he beat the 1 in 278,256 odds.

"People want to touch you. They were putting their hands all over me, trying to rub off good luck."

Just last week, a lady went to the convenience store off Interstate 85 where Granger bought his winning tickets and waited for two hours hoping he would show up, just so she could touch him.

"A bunch of nonsense," said Granger, 53.

Last year, he says, somebody swiped a hubcap off his car.

"When I went to the Oldsmobile place to get another one, they told me somebody probably put it on a necklace and was wearing it around their neck like a charm."

Granger still plays the lottery in Virginia, though he never expects to win. It wouldn't be the same playing the game in North Carolina, he says; buying a ticket in town would eliminate his contemplative 20-minute drive each way across the Virginia border.

Anyway, he says, in one way, you just can't win.

"I called to tell my wife I had won," he said. He told her he'd hit the numbers on the $100,000 game. "That's great," she said. "Yeah, but I won it nine times, so that's $900,000," he boasted.

Her response: "Why didn't you buy 10 and make it an even million?"

THE COUNSELOR: TOM SPAMPINATO

CARY -- If hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina play the lottery once the games start in the spring, odds are, some of them are going to become addicted to it, a gambling counselor says.

It'll take about a year, says Tom Spampinato, coordinator of the National Council for Problem Gambling of North Carolina. That's when the people who have let the lottery take over their lives will begin to show up in the 15 meetings Gamblers Anonymous holds across the state. There, if they're ready, they can admit they are compulsive players; talk about the debt they've incurred and the problems they've caused for their loved ones; ask for advice on how to repay the money they owe; seek therapy for their addiction and find ways to avoid playing the games anymore.

About 200 people attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings in the state. Since Spampinato started the first one more than 17 years ago, he says, about 1,000 have sought help through the group.

Before moving to North Carolina, Spampinato lived in New York, which along with a lottery has a lively racing industry, with several races a day. Some days, he says, gamblers leave work five times to go to the local betting office. When they aren't out placing bets, they're thinking about betting, and figuring ways to get the money to keep playing.

The debt racks up fast. Soon, compulsive gamblers owe money to finance companies. They owe their spouses. They take money from their own kids.

That's the way it will be with some people who play the lottery, Spampinato says. Though it may cost only $1 to play many of the games, some players will go several times a day, several times a week, and spend every dollar they get to buy that one ticket, the one that wins it all.

"I saw it in New York," he said. Something else he saw there really worries him, he says: high school kids buying lottery tickets, though North Carolina's games will be age-restricted.

"The most important factor in all this is the human factor, and it's always put at the back of the paper or the bottom of the column," Spampinato said. "It's the biggest issues of this lottery. They can talk about the money it will make, but three to five years down the road, the problem is going to be compulsive gamblers, and the crime that comes along with that. And all the money they're going to make, they're going to spend on that."

THE VENDOR: CHAKA KHAN FOGG

RALEIGH -- There is room in Chaka Khan Fogg's life for a new business venture, such as selling scratch-off cards and Powerball tickets in the North Carolina lottery. The question is, Is there enough room in her store?

"I think we could squeeze it in," Fogg said near the end of a recent 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at Huff's Neighborhood Store on Capital Boulevard, the crowded convenience store she manages.

Depending on which vendors get the contracts to run which games, shop owners, barkeeps and others who plan to sell tickets may have to make room for machines as small as cash registers or as large as automated teller machines.

If the machine can sit on top of the counter, Fogg figures she can find a new place for that bucket of apple-flavored Super Bubble and relocate that case of pre-packaged ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The container of long-stemmed, single-wrapped roses, which go for $3.15 each, will stay where it is. Those are big sellers, along with cigarettes, beer and soft drinks.

Already, some of her customers have been asking if the store will be among the lottery outlets. Fogg and the owners will decide soon; in order to be among the first to sell the tickets when the games begin in April, they will have to apply by Feb. 3.

Fogg would like to buy the store where she has worked for five years. If she does, the monthly commissions from lottery ticket sales will come in handy.

"I think we could find a way to use those funds here."

THE SCHOOLS: NORTH CAROLINA

Administrators of North Carolina's public schools are looking forward to their own windfalls from the lottery, hoping to receive millions of dollars a year for school construction and expansion, programs for at-risk kids and college scholarships.

"Any help that we can get from outside sources will help," said Dan Jones, associate superintendent for finance of the Johnston County Schools, who says his is the fastest-growing school system in the state, in terms of the number of students coming in.

Each year, he says, Johnston County needs to build two new schools just to stay even. Each one can cost $12 million to $36 million. Preliminary forecasts suggested that Johnston might stand to receive $3 million to $3.4 million a year in lottery profits.

"If you're a growing county, as we are, the lottery money will not, by itself, meet your construction needs. But it sure will help," Jones said.

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