Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Graham Reid: Chance encounter with a lucky man

The streets of midtown Manhattan were melting in the late summer heat. I'd already walked three blocks too far in search of something which obviously didn't exist: an internet cafe.

Being used to travelling in Asia where such places are on every corner, I hadn't even considered New York might not have them. But after tramping down Sixth Avenue for half a dozen blocks I was ready to acknowledge the obvious: people in this city didn't need internet cafes, they all had laptops.

I was frustrated, hot and weary, and in need of something cool to drink. A Dos Equis sign above a battered wooden door told me I'd found what I was looking for. Not an internet cafe but something better, an air-conditioned oasis.

I pushed the door open and peered into the dark bar and read the place quickly. It was an Hispanic bar and behind the counter was a willowy young woman whose dark eyes and bare midriff conformed to every cliche of sultry Spanish passion.

Three old men in one corner were hunched silently over beers as she rattled off at them. A jukebox was playing what I took to be South American folkloric music; lots of quivering and passionate singing over the top of busy acoustic guitars.

I sat on a stool a few seats away from the old men and ordered a beer. When it arrived I asked the young woman where I might find an internet cafe.

With a shrug of indifference she walked away and I thought that would be the end of the matter and I would have to drink my beer in an uncomfortable silence. She hip-swayed back to the old men and resumed what sounded like a non-stop Hispanic harangue while they listened either engrossed or in a state of fear.

Then, amid the barrage of Spanish, I heard the word internet.

There was some animation from the old boys and in fractured English one of them asked me if I had a telephone line. I said I didn't and they all spoke among themselves again.

Over the next 15 minutes things became very confusing: the woman obviously had to explain to the old guys what the internet was - hence the confusion about the telephone line - and then somehow in Spanglish they tried to tell me there was no such thing. Then they argued among themselves and with the girl about it.

The situation was absurdly funny so I ordered another beer and sat back to see what might happen next. But it was utterly unexpected.

From the darkness off to my left in the long bar there was a movement in my peripheral vision. A man I hadn't noticed approached me and said there were free internet computers at the public library a few blocks down and across town.

The young woman said I should believe him; he was lucky.

And he was. This middle-aged Indian man with a slight belly and appalling taste in shirts had won a New York State Lottery. I asked to shake his hand in case the luck would wear off - but then some scepticism kicked in.

But no, he really had won something like US$60 million ($90 million) and from his wallet produced a newspaper clipping of him shaking the hand of a middle-aged man in a suit and accepting a cheque.

He hadn't taken the money in a lump sum but had opted to take it as however many millions a year for the rest of his life, and it would roll over to his wife for the rest of her life in the event of his death.

He'd been a jeweller - still was, still went to work - and had been cautious with his winnings: he'd bought a bigger house, given money to his kids for their university education, taken them all back to India to see family, brought his parents over from India and put them in a house near his own ...

It seemed the sensible, ordinary stuff - and he still had the occasional beer in this slightly seedy bar because that's where he was used to coming.

But I had to ask, "Are you still married to the same woman?"

"Oh yes," he replied with a great guffaw. "I have to be; it was her who made me buy the ticket. I was leaving the house and she called me back and made me take the numbers down and buy the ticket. She tells me she was really the one who won it."

"And she doesn't let you forget it?"

"Never," he laughed, and we clinked bottles.

I shook his hand one more time for luck, tipped the young woman, thanked the old men for their help, opened the door on to the afternoon heat and headed for the internet.

For your information, luck in lotteries isn't contagious.

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