August 24, 2018 Scratchoffs
You are 32 and buying two more lottos at the gas station. You tell the middle-aged woman with the ill-fitted deli uniform and coral lipstick that you want the froggie one and the one with the crossword. You stand to win $10,000 a pop. You know you won’t. You know that lotteries are state-sponsored exploitation of the poorest and most hopeless. You know you might almost win; because that’s how gambling gets you, but you won’t actually win. But still: will you lose your Medicaid when you win the ten grand? If so, will you lose more than you’ll win?
But you won’t win anyway, so you buy more. You and the homeless woman without teeth are in line; you can’t help noticing that her lips fall over her gums and that it gives her the appearance of a character from the Simpson’s retirement home. She leans over her cart possessively and she waits for her winnings of two dollars. You tell her good for you! even though you know that to win two she paid three.
You just need the hope. That’s the logic for your embarrassing place among the country’s scratchers and dupes. You sit in your hot car with your impatient dog. He’s panting over you, and he might need water, he might need a cooler place. You imagine that you’ll spend your winning on summer camp for your tween kid. You will stay home; you won’t need to live in the sweltering car while Airbnb Guests inspect the underbelly of your toilet and determine you fit for only four stars on cleanliness. (Five for hospitality though.)
Of course, you won’t rake in the kind of dough that’ll turn everything around; jumpstart you again. But you are not an irrational person. There is logic to the pursuit of sad lottos. You believe the lotteries will fool your mind into anticipating a breakthrough. In other words, using the back of your key to scratch off a second cherry will give you hope. You need hope. You just ran out of your natural supply. When you go months and months and months of working twelve-hour days and still ending with a net loss, still feeling invisible and unappreciated, you start to realize that this might be all there is for you. Some people are just not special, life isn’t fair, and it’s totally possible that this is all there is for you. That knowledge hurts so much. You can’t accept it.
You exude a despair that is off-putting, that can be sniffed out a mile away. People know what you’re thinking; that you’ll forever work a job for someone else, that you’ll never amount to your creative ambitions, that you will one day marry someone you don’t like very much because you will settle for what you’ve come to believe you are worth. So the lottery, the very act of imagining a sudden relief, a sudden ray of ONE MILLION DOLLARS, can jolt your brain back into stupid optimism. Humans need this kind of irrational thinking, or we’d all just give up. So you’re not trying to win the money. You’re trying to win belief in yourself. By spending money that you don’t have. By throwing your last cash at a state that doesn’t need it. You loathe yourself for it.
You have such a deep, heaving, painful sigh on your chest. How could it be that you’re here, living the most banal of failures, not even poor enough for Food Stamps? Not a fabulous tragedy at a park bench; you are just sleeping in tents at lean-to shelters with your kid and dog because you Airbnb your home so you can pay the rent. You usually don’t even enjoy the campfire you got so good at building, because you are always so very tired, so very exhausted, so at the end after washing six beds worth of linen, two bathrooms, and bathtubs and every wall and floor and bit of furniture. You also earn a living in other ways; Airbnb alone would never cover the rising costs of living. You work for a Hasid who treats you like you are a nobody because he still thinks of you as the Hasidic nobody he hired when you were seventeen. You might be able to do far more than you do, but you don’t get the chance; it’s a low glass ceiling. You also run your own business, which requires many hours of traveling to Brooklyn, and many hours of your shoulder muscles shrinking as you stop and go on the FDR Drive. You are so terribly depleted; your fingers and palms are so sore from trying to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. It must be your fingers’ fault.
Not too many years ago a fellow graduate student at your liberal arts college came up to you and said: If anyone in the class will go on to serious success, it’ll be you. That was six years ago. Or a lifetime ago. You never even graduated from that program. Why? Not because you quit learning. Because you couldn’t afford it. It was $3,400 a class. And you were a single mother. And you were already struggling to pay your son’s rising private school tuition. You just realized one day that you couldn’t afford more of this school debt and that you needed to increase your earnings. So you gave up the diploma and became an Airbnb SuperHost.
You want to cry. Oh, the irony. The farkakte term: superhost. Fancy words for slavery. Superhost Ph.D., MD, Etc.
When you first left the Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, you were so sure that your work ethic and idealism will lead you down a comfortable road to success. You believed that you were the kind of person who makes it not only for themselves but also for other struggling Hasidic expats around them. You were going to be that friend in the social circle of struggle souls; the one who pays for the mani-pedis and a lot of kosher food for your friends’ kids.
It didn’t happen.
To which you say: I might still. With ten grand from the $3 Frog Hopper. You will get a chance to recover from burnout. To sleep in your own home, shower in your own home, every night. You will have some energy at the end of the day. You will write. Essays and short stories and opinions; you’ll write fearlessly and powerfully. You won’t be too down on yourself to publish. You’ll get paid. You’ll pass a $150 check for an article on to the nail salon, and your entire social circle will walk around in fancy toes.
You’re done scratching off every bit of black lotto paint. Nope, you didn’t win anything. The Frogger code at the bottom by the UPC is CQX, which means nothing. Of course not. You feel like shit.
But you soon have a new spin; it’s great that you didn’t win! Because you are actually addicted to these pathetic gambles and not winning helps you quit. No dopamine reward will allow you to see it clearly; these are, in sum, net losses, not two-dollar winnings at the price of $3.
You spent money you’d gotten in tips from your tour customers. Someone slipped you two fives. You’d given one of them to the people sleeping on the sidewalk of Broadway — because you’re overflowing with pity for the world, and because if you will be a failure let it be because you were too good for the capitalistic crap. And which fiver was really wasted?
It’s another night, and your feet ache from seven hours of prepping the home and driving to haul air conditions from Craigslist sellers. The previous Airbnb guests found the lack of total artificial coolness to be unfathomable, their review made it clear. Your feet are swollen. What’s up with these feet, you say to your friends, so weird. You show those feets to everyone around, including your son, who gets to be at this freak show instead of at camp. What’s up, your friends and family agree, weird feet. They are eating the popcorn that you propped up in a white basket with a yellow lining and a “Welcome Airbnb Guest” binder. Your friends promise to sweep up after they eat a bit more. You wish you could be the mani friend, not the one with the shmata chasing after their kernels on your knees.
You get an email from Footsteps, the organization that helps people like you who left ultra-orthodoxy. Footsteps has great news. They were featured in the New York Times magazine. Rarara! Isn’t that fabulous! You are supposed to be happy, even though you’ve seen the underbelly of that org and it’s all a sham, no less a performance than your Hasidic neighbor’s marriage. But still, you must be happy so you can look at yourself in the mirror and see someone likable. So hurrah, yattatai! Let’s dance, a rut mit a ringle! The money they raise might go to someone who is qualified, someone who finished college at twenty-three on their secular parent’s college fund, and someone who never sleeps in their car while Airbnb guests check for dust particles with a candle, feather, and wooden spoon.
Okay, now you’re bitter. Clearly, you are very bitter. No one likes bitter, it’s disgusting. Bitter doesn’t deserve better, bitter means you forfeit any right to improvements. Bitter is the antithesis of bootstrapping. You despise how bitter you are. You don’t see why you should ever deserve anything better.
You decide to buy another lotto. The crossword, with the bonus game. To refill on the hope. To be peachy and optimistic. To be palatable enough for others to want to hear you. Ah, there, it can all still turn around. All you need is this ticket to the jackpot. You’re winning, there is no doubt. You’re raking in on the hope. Relish it while it lasts.