The annual get-together for New York State Lottery millionaires occurred the other day, and because she's been missing her friends, and because she's a New Yorker at heart, Marie Leuck, a former skyscraper-cleaning lady, came in from her new place in Pennsylvania to say hello.
Leuck was wearing a big diamond ring -- though she says right off, "I could've done without it" -- and a new knit dinner dress and didn't mind, when pressed, talking about the lottery ticket that won the Leucks their million back in April. Her husband was about to quit his job as a bus driver and retire anyway, Leuck said, and though she was only 61 and worked all her life, she decided also to take off. "You're lucky, Marie," her friends said. "You can afford anything now."
But the funny thing is, Leuck says, it's not what you might figure being a millionaire. Oh, she's got the house, all right, and the house has four bedrooms. But the thing of it is, she misses her work.
"I had a system," Leuck says. "Get up, take a shower, go into work at four. The Equitable Life Building, I worked there 16 years, I loved it. There was a purpose."
She pauses, standing on the deck of the yacht the New York State Lottery has chartered for the occasion, looking at the most expensive sections of skyline move by. "I don't know.... I thought it would be different, that's all."
It's been six years since Lady Luck sashayed over to a 19-year-old gas station attendant named Robert Netto and made him a millionaire in New York State's tremendously successful lottery program.
He leaped clear out of his chair at the drawing in New York City when he got the word, and immediately -- and characteristically -- quit his job. One year later -- also characteristically -- he got bored and went back to work. Since that time, 81 people have won a million dollars, the lottery has brought the state $1.6 billion, and hundreds of reporters have asked the winners thousands of times: "How did it change your life?"
The peculiar thing, the really astonishing thing, according to lottery director John Quinn, is that the winners' lives, more often than not, do not really change. Those with a tedious job may change it, those with debts can finally pay them off, but the tastes of a lifetime, the friends of a lifetime, all remain.
Robert Netto, a millionaire for six years now, is still very cheap, his wife says. He hollered when he found out she paid $25 for a handbag to come to the city. Marie Leuck, who worked all her life, had to be talked into spending $59 for her new dress. When the Leucks won the big money, and the regional director of the lottery asked where they'd like to go to lunch, they said Nathan's, Coney Island's famous hot dog stand.
Thinking about it now, Marie Leuck laughs -- not at herself, but at those silly reporters.
"The Post runs a picture, 'Millionaire Still Loves Hot Dogs' -- whadda they think, you win a million dollars you should all of a sudden change what you like to eat? Most of our life we didn't have money. We went to Coney Island, Brooklyn, for years."
This is not to say, of course, that lives do not markedly improve. Lou Eisenberg, a $225-a-week Brooklyn maintenance man who was a $5 million winner, wasted no time at all quitting his job when he heard he had won, and now is having a wonderful time. He just got back from five weeks in Hawaii, where he saw a lava tunnel -- and he never even heard of a lava tunnel. He eats out with the wife "maybe 99 percent of the time," where before it was maybe once every two weeks.
Sure, after he won, he had to have his phone unlisted because people called for handouts, but there were also simply calls of congratulations and good will. And he could start living. And he could pay off his bills. And he could buy a co-op, staying in the neighborhood. And his wife, Bernice, who used to shop leaving a $2 deposit, could now buy anything she wanted. Though, says Bernice, she shops where she always shopped. And even after she won big, had trouble remembering.
"I saw something I liked, I said, 'Okay, I'll leave a $5 deposit,' " she said. "The woman in the shop went crazy. She said, 'Bernice, remember? You can afford it now.' "