ST. PETERSBURG — For the vast majority of ticket buyers, the best part of the eye-popping, world-record-setting, absolutely ludicrous $1.9 billion Powerball jackpot came before any winning numbers were drawn. After all, the moment that first foam ball would roll down the metal track Monday night, nearly all of us would become losers.
More than 279 million Powerball tickets were sold nationwide for Saturday’s drawing, and still nobody won. That meant on Monday, we were all back in the game if we chose to pony up $2, thinking, dreaming, hoping, What if? It was a day ever so slightly tinted with possibility. The odds were miniscule, impossible, nearly — essentially — zero.
But not zero.
At the Lucky 9 Food Mart on Ninth Street, where the narrow aisles are stuffed with salty snacks lit by the glow of beer coolers, the players trickled in.
A Black & Mild, a four-pack of Steel Reserve tallboys and a single Powerball quick pick for the sun-baked guy in the neon safety vest and dust-caked boots.
An Aspire vape cartridge and three quick picks for the tall guy in the “Paris, London, Tokyo, St. Pete” T-shirt.
Thirty quick picks and nothing else for the woman in scrubs and a glittering necklace who stuffed them into a manila envelope. “Oh, I’d go to Disney World, of course,” she said as she hurried toward her car, trying to avoid the question of how she’d spend the winnings.
Carlos Saavedra, in a plain white V-neck, stood behind the plexiglass barrier, genially serving his regulars. Scotch-taped to the glass was a display of $500-winning scratch-off tickets. He accepted customers’ soft, disintegrating singles and their crisp $20s.
“305s, right?,” he said when a bearded man entered wearing sunglasses. “No Powerball today, bro?” The man waved it off. “I played Saturday, didn’t hit a single number.”
The next guy in line, 33-year-old Isaac Symington, bought 15 chances. He usually doesn’t bother with Powerball because the odds are too low. He sticks with Fantasy 5.
“But hey,” he said, “when a gambler sees something like a billion, close to two billion, of course you’re going to try.”
Most winners choose the lump sum payout, pegged at more than $900 million, or around $500 to $600 million after taxes.
What would Symington do?
“I’d open a substance abuse treatment center, a big one,” he said. “You’d have NA on one side, AA on the other side, and a big coffee and fellowship meeting room in the middle. Too often it’s like those two groups are rivals, almost, in their opinions about recovery, so we’d get them together.”
Saavedra noted that the “Lucky” in the store’s name was occasionally accurate. He motioned to a sign noting that a $20,000 ticket had been sold there a couple months back.
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“I sold that one,” he said, sounding wistful as he tapped a roll of $50 scratch-offs. “It was crazy, because that ticket was right here, right in front of me all morning. It was right here.” Saavedra’s game is Pick 3, but he was considering Powerball.
“Every single person in my family would be good,” he said. “Houses, cars. After that, I’m traveling the world. Every different country.”
He described another near-daily regular, a retired gentleman, who scratches hundreds of dollars’ worth of tickets next to the coffee maker until the table is dusty with shavings.
“He wins a lot, actually,” Saavedra said. “But he told me he doesn’t care either way, because he’s just bored and he can’t take his money with him.”
Many customers walked — worn sneakers, flip flops, barefoot. Others came in Scions with crushed-in fenders, or gleaming new Audis, like a silver-haired man in a Titleist golf polo. Like many, he demurred when a reporter approached.
“Oh, I don’t want to give my name. I don’t normally do this, but, uh, my wife and my daughter, they wanted me to.” He bought $20 worth.
At Old Northeast Market, a red-haired woman cashed in a scratch-off ticket worth $20 and put $10 back to buy Powerball quick picks. “I only do this when it gets outrageous,” she said. “The worst time, I guess, because your odds go down.”
In truth, the odds are no different when the jackpot swells and more people play: 1 in 292.2 million.
Meagan Mikkelsen, 26, in line with her son and her dog, did not hesitate: “We’d buy the house that we’re renting.”
After that, a nice trust fund for Albert, in the stroller she was pushing, and relief from her current financial crunch due to a recent car accident.
Others had dreams, similarly modest.
Boris Sampson, a 69-year St. Petersburg resident, took the bus to a downtown Publix. “I’d get a car. I’d donate to a foundation for kids. And I’d pay the city back. I did some things back in my younger days, breaking into houses, stealing, those things. I’d like to have the money to give back, make that right.”
“Lots of donating, and a damn big boat,” said Jan Akerberg, 76, adding that he felt like he already won the lottery by buying a Beach Drive condo in 2015.
Publix stores had set up retractable barriers near their lottery counters. There were about nine people queued up at the 37th Avenue N location around lunchtime. The vibe was optimistic.
“Woah, OK!,” a guy exclaimed when he learned a scratch-off he’d bought had won $20. He put it all back on Powerball.
“That’s a good sign for things to come,” said a woman behind him, holding a stack of pre-selected number cards. The man walked off, and she continued, talking to no one in particular. “A bird pooped on my car. I heard that’s good luck.”