WASHINGTON -- At the southern end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, where motorists spill onto New York Avenue and into the District of Columbia, seemingly half of Maryland was waiting outside a Mobil gas station the other night.
"This is the Baltimore stop," declared Page Johnson, who stood with dozens of others in a line that snaked from the food mart out to the fuel pumps. "First stop off the parkway."
In droves, Marylanders have poured out of the state in search of Powerball lottery tickets and a crack at tonight's breathtaking $250 million jackpot. Some have crossed into West Virginia or Delaware, others into Washington -- all of which, unlike Maryland, take part in the multistate game.
As never before, America has gone lotto crazy. Six numbers will be plucked out of cylindrical machines at 10: 59 p.m. today to determine whether someone will win the biggest weekly lottery payout the planet has ever seen.
Those in the 30 states that don't play Powerball must invade a state that does, or else butter up a friend who will buy on their behalf. Indeed, despite odds of 80 million-to-1 (truth be told, you have a better shot at being killed by falling out of bed), Americans are doing whatever it takes to seize a ticket.
"I only put the money out when the big money shows," said Larry Matthews, a Baltimore bus driver in line at the Mobil.
The self-proclaimed jester of the group, the 50-year-old blurted out that he'd bring a hot dog stand and sodas for everyone next time. Over the thunderous sound of trains hurtling past the store, he wished all his new friends luck as he strode off with his tickets.
Normally, Powerball drawings carry more modest jackpots -- say, a cool $30 million. But as weeks go by, and nobody claims a winning ticket, the payouts balloon. Saturday, the Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association registered no winners for the 18th consecutive drawing, boosting today's potential payout past the previous record $195 million collected by an Illinois couple May 20.
On average, 24 million Powerball tickets are sold per week, said Athena Ware, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia Lottery, which handles the game locally. But for the occasional gargantuan payout, Ware said, folks who had never given Powerball a thought begin swarming to buy tickets.
On Monday alone, Washington's 560 Powerball distributors sold 1.9 million tickets. Before the machines shut down at 8: 59 tonight, Ware said, as many as 6 million are expected to be sold for tonight's drawing.
Across the District yesterday, crowds were spilling out of stores, and parking lots were clogged. At the Tenley Mini Market, a normally subdued grocery store just south of the Maryland border, Powerballers huddled over a cardboard table, filling out tickets with complimentary blue pencils. Trying to keep the frenzy from disrupting any stray non-Powerball players, employees sold from an outdoor window.
Still, said William Kim, a worker taking a respite and a smoke in the stock room, so many employees were needed to handle Powerball tickets that the deli -- a bigger moneymaker for the store -- had to be shut down for the day.
"If I sell a sandwich, I'm making as much money as 50 Powerball tickets," he said. "It hurts my business. The customers, when they come, they can't find any parking spaces. They see the lines, and it scares them."
The D.C. Lottery sent workers to relieve swamped stores, but it was difficult to keep up. At one Amoco station in Northeast Washington, Firdu Sinafikew, a cashier who had been selling for five hours, plopped backward on a rickety milk crate. "This is good for me -- I get rest now." His store had sold nearly 9,000 tickets Monday and was expecting to sell up to 20,000 today.
In Connecticut, the biggest-selling state according to organizers, drivers from the non-Powerball state of New York were met with a rude surprise. State troopers began towing cars parked along the Merritt Parkway near convenience stores.
The national hysteria reached even the town of Hardin, a dot on the map in southern Montana. "It's pretty crazy," said Bill Gameon, manager of the Town Pump, a convenience store. Folks, he said, were coming across the line from Wyoming, which does not offer Powerball, and daily sales soared from 100 to 1,500.
Prem Gupta, a first-timer from Fairfax, Va., jumped in his car Monday night to go buy a ticket in the District. In a frantic search, he got lost, zig-zagged across the city, and landed in Maryland.
"It was crazy," said the 44-year-old accountant, out of breath. "I didn't stop my car. If there was no line, there was no Powerball, so I didn't stop."
Alecia and Bill Steiger, of Milton, Pa., drove 3 1/2 hours to buy 25 of the $1 tickets. They had trouble deciding whether they'd prefer to collect their winnings in a lump sum, or in annuity payments over 25 years -- a preference that must be indicated on each ticket.
"With the annuity, if we croak, does our family get the money?" a straight-faced Alecia asked the cashier through a thick glass window. No, the man squawked back; winnings are not inheritable. "We'll take the money," she declared. "That answers that."
Each Wednesday and Saturday, lottery officials draw five numbers from a pot of 49, and a sixth "powerball" from 42. Patrons can choose their numbers, or have a machine do it randomly. A ticket matching all six numbers wins the jackpot. There are also lesser prizes.
Some folks, of course, have somehow been able to resist the craze. "The odds are too outrageous," said 73-year-old John Linhardt, noshing on a crispy apple pie and sipping orange juice at a McDonald's. "I'm my own thinker."
Across the street, however, Donald Hartman of Rockville was getting in the Powerball line at the Tenley market. "There's no other way you can attain this level of riches for a dollar," said Hartman, a lawyer. "It's the American dream."
Pub Date: 7/29/98