TV news flashes across a screen mounted in a corner near the ceiling, punctuating the quiet room with stories of campaign speeches and neighborhood crime. Most of the chairs that line the narrow, bright office are filled by people staring up or across the room, occasionally chatting with strangers nearby before settling back into silence to wait. The neon sign on the front of the office flickers, flashing blue and red shadows across an almost still room.
This is a roomful of lottery winners?
As anyone who has won more than $600 from the D.C. Lottery knows, before riches, dream vacations or paying overdue bills comes a more practical first step: a visit to the D.C. Lottery Claims Center, a quiet room at the back of the Reeves Center in Northwest Washington. And the frequent winners, who have become regulars there, know that usually means a visit with Cheryl Malone, the Claims Center teller. She has greeted lottery winners with paperwork, requests for ID and, if they're lucky, their winnings since the lottery began in 1982.
In that time, she's handed out thousands of checks, heard tales of joy from people now able to pay their bills and faced the wrath of those learning that the federal government will be taking 25 percent of any prize over $5,000. To those lucky enough to visit her office, Malone is the face of the lottery.
Malone's supervisor, Claims Center Manager Ann McPherson, has been there nearly as long, since 1983. She works in an office adjacent to the counter where Malone is stationed and is familiar enough with the customers that regular winners address her by her first name and let her in on the stories of their winnings.
Malone and McPherson smile as they recount tales of particularly memorable winners. They include those who flaunt their winnings and those who preoccupy themselves with secrecy.
Then there's Percy Ray Pridgen, who fainted when he came to the Claims Center in 1993 to show his winning Powerball ticket for $45 million. Pridgen received his winnings in $2.2 million installments each year. After he died in 1995, his survivors received the rest in a lump sum.
One of their regulars, a minister, always says he's using the money to build up his church, McPherson said. "I say, 'Reverend, you should have built five churches by now,' " she said.
McPherson and Malone pride themselves on keeping a close-knit office -- part of an agency of about 100 people -- and caring for their customers. Two years ago, another lottery employee, Maylin Stephens, picked up an unsigned ticket he found on the floor while delivering interoffice mail. He showed Malone, who remembered a customer earlier that day who presented her with three tickets worth $5,000 each but swore he had a fourth somewhere. The customer, Charles Smith, had left no phone number, so McPherson called information. McPherson explained the situation to a supervisor at the phone company, who agreed to contact Smith, who was unlisted. By the time Smith learned what had happened, a check was ready for him.
Lottery rules prohibit employees from entering the D.C. Lottery. Malone said that's fine by her because she doesn't gamble much, although she does sometimes play the slots when traveling in other states.
McPherson said she plays the Maryland and Virginia lotteries when the jackpots are big. She said she's not a big gambler, though, a legacy of growing up in a Baptist home with a mother who was a minister.
"Gambling was not a part of growing up," she said.
Religion is sometimes a reason people who win try to keep a low profile, said Bob Hainey, the lottery's director of communications. Some people don't want their pastors to know they gamble. There are many other reasons, though. Some say they are afraid they will get robbed if anyone finds out they won. And others say keeping it secret is easier.
"You have more friends than you ever thought you had" when you win, a 58-year-old woman named Doris said, explaining why she refused to give her last name.
Then there are those who want to keep their newfound wealth a secret for other reasons. "You're not working for my children's mother, are you?" one man said when asked for his name, which he wouldn't give.
As he might have noted from a sign above the counter, the D.C. Lottery automatically checks whether winners owe child support. If they do, it gets taken out of their check.
The office dispenses only checks that have to be signed by the winner to be cashed, but the D.C. Lottery takes security precautions nonetheless. If elderly winners are going to be picked up, for instance, a security guard escorts them to their rides. McPherson said some people were concerned about the Claims Center's location, near a methadone clinic and at a busy intersection of 14th and U streets NW, when they first moved there. She said there's no danger; people in the neighborhood are protective of her when she goes outside.
But it doesn't stop them from hitting her up for lottery tips.
"They think you know what the numbers are," McPherson said. "Customers say, 'Tell me the numbers for the day.' I say, 'If I knew that, I wouldn't be working here.' "