It never happens this way on the commercials. Sometimes people answer the door in curlers or a bathrobe; sometimes they look perfectly put together. Sometimes they let loose with an ear-splitting shriek, and sometimes they cry. But they're always home.
"Hello! Hellllllo!" shouts the woman knocking on the door of a home in a quiet Columbia cul-de-sac. "It's the Prize Patrol!"
Yes, that Prize Patrol. From Publishers Clearing House, the magazine-sales company. They've come to Columbia in a shiny red van filled with roses, champagne, balloons and a big cardboard check (not as big as you might think, but we'll get to that in a moment). The problem is, they've come on a Wednesday. At noon. The mystery winner, like just about everyone else, is at work.
The Prize Patrol is undaunted. They've faced bigger problems than this before. So they huddle to plot their next move -- Ellen Marlin and Eric Capulong, the cheerful check presenters in matching crisp blue blazers, and Peter Scheer, the savvy veteran cameraman in a black baseball cap and shades.
Their mission began routinely enough. They checked out of the Baltimore Marriott early in the morning and stopped by the Petal Pusher in Linthicum to pick up a dozen red roses (the florist excitedly snapped their pictures). They surreptitiously drove by the winner's house to make sure they could find it. At 11:15, they pulled into the parking lot of the Safeway on Cloudleap Court -- the designated meeting place -- to await the media.
As reporters arrived, Scheer held court, telling about some of the sweepstakes' more memorable winners: "Yesterday, we had this woman who kept saying, `I believed in you! I knew you'd come!' " Turns out she'd had a lung transplant and was facing big medical bills (she won $10,000). Then there was the $1 million dollar winner who appeared to be stunned speechless -- until the Prize Patrol realized she had a mouthful of chicken. Another time, the Prize Patrol had to camp out overnight in Minnesota -- in January -- while waiting for a $10 million winner to come home.
This week was the Prize Patrol's three-day East Coast tour: Tuesday they surprised the lung-transplant lady in Philadelphia, and yesterday someone in Washington picked up $10,000. The Prize Patrol makes several such excursions a year -- the rest of the time, Scheer runs his own production company, and Marlin and Capulong work in other Publisher's Clearing House departments.
Although big winners are featured in a prime-time commercial during the Super Bowl, little guys such as our Columbia mystery man -- who eventually got his $10,000 Wednesday evening -- can usually only hope for a small ad or a few minutes on the local news. Still, the Prize Patrol wanted to make the moment memorable for him, so just before they drove to his home, Scheer the cameraman miked up Marlin, then carefully straightened her blazer lapel. Marlin pulled out a bottle of Korbel champagne with a label that said "Actual Winning Moment 2000." Capulong gobbled a couple of M&Ms.
As their Pontiac Montana pulled out of the parking lot, a couple of twenty-something guys were walking toward the Safeway. Joe Gonzales shouted: "Give me some of that money!" (An understated reaction, considering that the Prize Patrol has actually had groupies follow them to winners' homes).
At a little after noon, the Prize Patrol pulled into the cul-de-sac, followed by a media caravan. Then came the march to the door: Marlin positioned the check just so, Capulong held the flowers and balloons aloft, and Scheer rolled the camera.
"Well," Scheer said after a moment. "There doesn't seem to be any signs of life."
They decided to canvass the neighborhood for clues.
"We're half Santa Claus," Marlin said, "and half detectives."
They set off toward a neighbor's home -- heeding Scheer's warning to leave their roses and balloons in the van, lest the poor neighbor get all excited.
Surprisingly, the neighbor was home and only too happy to learn of the good fortune that had missed her by a house. "If anybody can use it, he can!" she said of the mystery winner. Apparently, his car is so run-down that he dreads his daily commute to work. Aha! Does she know where he works? Because the Prize Patrol is willing to go anywhere. Once, they surprised a dental hygienist at work.
Polly Hessler, the neighbor, indeed knew where the mystery winner works: At the George Washington University in D.C. He's a chef. She knew other things about him, too: He's divorced, has a young daughter and is a really nice guy. And his name is Stephen Vogle.
The Prize Patrol huddled again. If they drove to D.C., there was always the chance that they'd have trouble finding Vogle. What if he left work early and they passed him on I-95? They'd better wait until he arrived home.