Some Like It Rich

Some Like It Rich

Fantasies of a yacht and crew in the Caribbean seep into notions of the former voice of the California lottery.

Let me be clear: I have never won the lottery. (Well, maybe $3 about as often as the Raiders have won the Super Bowl.) The fact that I live in a house in Albany and not on a yacht in the Caribbean means the lottery fix isn’t in, and in a minute or so, I’ll tell you why I say that. For now, just know I don’t have a yacht crew in crisp whites handing me frozen daiquiris on the bridge. Just like you—or at least like everyone I know—I squint at the cable bill and try to figure out whether our household really needs five HBO channels.

In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s won a big lottery prize. But thousands of people I don’t know have called me up to find out if they’ve won. That’s because I used to run the telephone number they called to get the winning numbers. Yep, it was my recorded voice that told people, “Thank you for calling the official California State Lottery Results Hotline! Super Lotto Plus winning numbers drawn Wednesday are . . . .” I announced the winning numbers, but that was it—I was, as they say, just the messenger. I never saw people slam down the phone in disgust because they hadn’t won. I never saw them tear up their Caribbean yacht brochures.

The company I worked for had not only lottery results but all kinds of information on a nationwide telephone network, and I was responsible for putting it there: sports results, stock market quotes, soap opera updates, horoscopes. You name it, and if people wanted it, we’d put it on the phone. And people would call—it was like Alexander Graham Bell’s Field of Dreams. Why the phone? Because in those days, the Internet was just a rumor, or something run only by the Defense Department to make sure Communists weren’t infiltrating the 7-Eleven over on Solano Avenue in Berkeley.

The lottery program wasn’t our biggest attraction. That was the Michael Jackson Hotline. Inexplicably, millions of people across the country wanted to know about the latest version of his nose, so we’d tell them. But the California lottery results program was plenty popular, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. By the time we launched lottery results on the phone, the Internet had emerged from the government closet, and you could get the winning numbers on the lottery’s website. You could get them in the newspaper. You could get them at the 7-Eleven over on Solano, where you had bought your ticket. All free. The phone call to the lottery line cost 50 cents, and the ticket itself cost a dollar, so people were paying fully half as much to find out they hadn’t won as they had paid for the ticket with the nonwinning numbers. After recording the winning numbers on the phone each night, I felt like adding, “By the way, why are you paying to get these numbers? What’s the matter with you?” But I didn’t, because I had bosses, it would have been bad for business, and, after all, I had a family to feed, and I hadn’t won the lottery.

Eventually, the Internet swallowed up the information-by-phone biz and our company shrank. The partners were all off making money somewhere else, and I was pretty much the only one left. Every phone program withered away except one: lottery results. People kept calling. The program was like Donald Trump—it just wouldn’t go away. But over time, there were fewer calls, and eventually it dawned on me why. I didn’t have hundreds of thousands of customers, calling every once in a while. I had a few thousand customers, calling every day. They were probably elderly, not on the Internet bandwagon, and they were dying off I shut down the company office in San Francisco and began running the program out of my home office off our family room in Albany. Then one day, the cost to run the program exceeded the revenue from the calls, and I pulled the plug. That night, I announced my last lottery results on the phone. At the end, I thanked my callers for their loyalty over the years, and I meant it.

So how does all this prove the lottery fix isn’t in? Well, maybe it doesn’t. I mean, there must be lots of ways to skin that cat, and, in the shenanigans game, I’m not as clever as, say, Donald Trump. But if I knew in advance what the winning lottery numbers were going to be, I wouldn’t spend my time feeding them into the phone from the office off our family room in Albany. Instead, I’d clam up. I’d head over to the 7-Eleven on Solano and buy a ticket. Then I’d wait for the game draw. Then I’d drive to the lottery office in Sacramento and act all delighted (genuine) and surprised (fake). Then I’d move to the Caribbean and buy a yacht. (Memo to my wife: It would be plenty big for two.) Then I’d invite you to come down, hang out in the sun, and accept frozen daiquiris from my white-jacketed crewmembers, whom I would pay so extravagantly they could buy their own yachts. Maybe not quite as big as mine, but, you know, nice. After all, I’m not Donald Trump.

Robert Menzimer is a freelance writer and English and writing tutor who lives with his wife not far from the Berkeley 7-Eleven on Solano Avenue, where he buys an occasional lottery ticket, although there are now so many games he has trouble keeping them straight.

Faces of the East Bay