Not long ago, a lingering summer cold chased me to a neighborhood pharmacy. As miserable as I was, I felt even sorrier for a young woman who had just handed a prescription to the pharmacist. She cradled an infant who was flushed and cried incessantly.
As I watched, she placed the child on a chair and moved a few feet down the counter. The pharmacy, it seemed, dispensed more than medicine. Pulling a tattered notebook from her purse, the woman began reading numbers to a waiting clerk. As the lottery machine spewed forth printed tickets, she turned yet another page in her notebook and asked the clerk what she had already spent.
The answer was $43.
''Don't run the last three,'' said the woman. ''I've only got $40.''
Minutes later, she had picked up her child and was leaving.
''You've forgotten your medicine!'' cried the clerk.
''Don't worry,'' replied the mother. ''I'll be back tomorrow to get it. I feel lucky.''
Closer to home, an elderly neighbor tries to decide if he wants to pay the extra premium required to add ''major medical'' to his health-insurance coverage. ''We can afford it,'' says his wife, ''but his pension check only goes so far and he likes to play Lotto. Besides, we had major med last year and didn't get as much back as we paid in.''
No mention of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars he spends on Lotto each year and minuscule winnings fed right back into the lottery machine. No thought of the economic havoc an extended illness or injury might bring.
Playing the Maryland lottery is living a dream. There's nothing wrong with dreaming, of course, unless we never waken to reality.
What is reality? For most players, it's knowing you don't bet the grocery or rent money when there's only one chance in 6,991,908 that your selected numbers will match those on six numbered ping pong balls. It's enjoying the fantasy while still being able to face the facts.
But for others, especially for families of compulsive players, the game takes a far more insidious toll.
This cost includes health-care needs that remain unmet, food that never reaches the table, extra clothes for the kids, books, educational toys -- the promise of a brighter tomorrow -- squandered, say Lotto critics, on a pick-your-pockets game where the only sure winners are legislators in love with camouflaged revenue enhancers.
The other reality is that the Maryland lottery has become our state's third-largest revenue source, generating a seemingly recession-proof stream of money to fund critically important programs in counties and cities across the state.
No one is suggesting that the Maryland lottery is at the root of corrosive societal problems like drug use, crime and unemployment. Or even that Lotto revenues do not find their way back into needed social programs. In fact, asking if the good accomplished through the lottery outweighs the cost to the many who can least afford to play has almost become a rhetorical exercise.
If selling dreams is a socially and morally acceptable way of funding governmental programs, I can only wonder why our legislators haven't taken the idea to its logical conclusion. Perhaps they can't fully grasp what a good thing they have going.
Surely, if Mr. Linowes and his colleagues had coupled their new taxes and tax increases with a tax-linked lottery that would generate some six- and seven-figure lotto-type awards, we'd all be too busy dreaming to complain about our tax bills and the state would be awash in new revenues.
Mayor Schmoke, for example, could solve a lot of our city's problems by setting up a million-dollar lottery and giving all city property owners one chance for every thousand dollars of assessed valuation. It wouldn't be long before people started calling the assessors complaining about too-low valuations.
To Governor Schaefer, I offer Tax Lotto as an imaginative centerpiece of a presidential platform that cuts across party lines and could propel him into the White House. (In return, I ask no more than a small ambassadorship.)
As for you lotto players, take heart. Even though you gotta pay to play, the dreaming is still free. Or so they tell us.
Gary L. Hornbacher is a local marketing consultant.