My grandfather bought a scratch-off lottery ticket every day for 24 years.
My mother, disgusted at the thousands he spent for what amounted to be a massive metaphor sitting in his basement, hated it. He argued that the money could have been spent on a drug habit. Or bottles of gin. Or retirement cruises in the Bahamas. He didn’t. Every morning, he would go to David Sampson’s convenience store and buy a cup of coffee and a scratch-off. He lived comfortably. He enjoyed his routine.
He had no favorites or preferences about the scratch offs. Seductive titles like Pinball Payoff, Cash Whirlwind, Power 9S, or Joker’s Jackpot were entirely irrelevant to the process of buying each morning’s ticket. His method was simple. Depending on how he was feeling that day, he would buy a ticket costing a different amount. If he was feeling bad, he would buy a ten dollar ticket. If he was feeling good, one for dollar. Today could be my day!
He discovered lottery tickets randomly. He participated in a church sponsored Secret Santa in 1987. He was solidly Christian, in an American sort of way. Neither zealot or apostate. Religion was an appreciated element of what made life comfortable in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was there, sipping on ginger ale spiked fruit punch that his friend, Edward, gave him an envelope of ten dollars’ worth of scratch off lottery tickets. As parties though, these church affairs were simple affairs.
Which is why this Secret Santa gift was different. No one in the Calvary Baptist Church would have ever bought lottery tickets themselves. Of course, the Apostle Paul never said anything about not buying lottery tickets explicitly. But thanks to an expert application of a few unrelated verses about working hard, simply and being frugal with money, Christians concluded that the lottery was not a legitimate thing Christians ought to do. My grandfather, a modest disciple of Jesus Christ and Reaganomics, mostly agreed with this approach to life and finances. Except the Bible never said that you could not buy it for someone else. And if someone did, there was no harm in scratching it.
The congregation, weirdly excited to witness a vice at the church, wanted to see him scratch it then. My grandfather refused. Ed, an overweight deacon who let his kids watch PG13 movies, was furious. The only thing more controversial than the stunt that he pulled was the fact that my grandfather wouldn’t take the bait. But he did give my grandfather an idea.
My grandfather never scratched his tickets. He would buy them, smile and say, “Today could be my day!” Everyone knew what that meant. Today could be my day. It started as a slogan and became a mantra. As he explained, with every ticket, there was a believable chance that he possessed actual money. But he didn’t want it.
He kept the tickets in an army fatigue green drawer. After he’d retired, he took with a postal filing cabinet. It was green, with 37 drawers.
My grandfather found, in his own way, a chance to be bigger than fate. The world, he’d argue, was obsessed with finding their big break. That we’d stumble upon their golden goose. His, he created, was five feet from him as he read his Bible every morning.
After awhile, it became a town legend. Every birthday, every Christmas was just a chance to give my grandfather more scratch-offs that we all knew he wouldn’t scratch.
Once, I got him a box of fortune cookies. They, I figured, are only the equivalent of lottery tickets. Upon opening them, he swiftly cracked one open and started reading the Chinese. We all laughed. “Never trust a fortune cookie that doesn’t have your lucky number! No 16, no fortune!” We laughed again.
“You have a good heart and a willing soul. This is a fortune? Goodness. Fortune cookie need to grow a pair.” I laughed.
I asked him later why he didn’t have a problem reading fortune cookies.
“They’re not real, Alex. They’re manufactured in a factory in Chicago by product management interns. Don’t make something matter that by definition doesn’t. Fortune cookies don’t matter. Money doesn’t even matter. A fortune cookie’s real value is that we’re telling them as a family, having eaten a meal together. And I like learning things. Like the Chinese word for ‘panda’. Xiong mao. I like that a lot.”