Lady Luckless

The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.

kiwi-pokerThe end is fast approaching for my wonderful time here in Hobitton. Much of that time has been spent as a Hamlet-like gatekeeper for information – cold, underpaid and with only a few ominous lines. As a result, I’ve probably missed out on what many travellers do with their time here – bungee jump, abuse sheep, spend late nights in the back alleys of K Road in Auckland, you know, the usual.

But now that I’ll soon have some free time, I thought it best to take a little trip in a camper van down to the world’s edge.

Even without the world recession caused by some overzealous country (sorry bout that) the trip is gonna be pretty expensive. While I might be living large here, by US standards I am below the poverty line, so it was important when planning this trip, I be as frugal and careful with the money as possible.

I’m not alone in this adventure, of course. I’ll refer to that special queen as “Lady Luck” for reasons that will soon become apparent, and for my own protection. Anyway, Lady Luck and I had it all planned out. Throughout the number-crunching and calendar-reading, we both let out grunt of discomfort as we watched our saving slip away faster than a Webb Ellis Trophy. We roughly figured out how much blood we could sell before the vacation and calculated how much weight we could lose to ease up on the cost of fuel (Did you know a person can go four, not three, days without food before passing out from exhaustion?).

Last week though, things changed. Lady Luck called and could barely contain herself.

“Are you sitting down?”

I panicked when she said that.  For months, she said she had been practicing out-of-body experiences and at that moment, I was on the toilet.

“Yeah,” I said. “My bum is firmly planted.”

What followed was not a conversation about intricate paranormal  activities, but something near to that area of improbability and disbelief. My Lady Luck had won the lottery, and not just won, she killed at the lottery. Division 2, $15,000. We talked for an hour about all the debts that were going to be cleared and all the things to be bought. Afterwards, I congratulated her and asked what Fiji was like this time of year.

The truth is, I know very little about this strange, nation-wide game.

I think a lot of that has to do less with New Zealand and US, but Arkansas and New Zealand differences. Gambling is basically illegal in Arkansas. The closest and most profitable lottery is the Illinois lottery. You can go to the Missouri, but most people I know usually get hung up at the strip clubs straddling the state line.

When my family took the annual Thanksgiving trip north to visit the relatives, I always knew we were only a few hours from our destination when Mom stopped at a gas station and the man behind the two feet of

glass would hand her bits of paper with a lot of numbers on them. I never understood exactly what they meant, but I knew my sister and I always got candy. Now, I understand two things about that experience: 1) my mother always bought $20 worth of lottery tickets and 2) we got candy because she felt guilty denying us our pleasure when she just dropped my whole college fund on her whimsical luck.

So the lottery is foreign to me, even when I’m back home. When I think of lottery I think of the Vietnam draft and private school vouchers.

This is a small country, but it’s still strange to consider the idea of a national lottery company cashing in on an entire country’s silly superstitions, rabbits foots and birth dates. They’ve put all that profit to good use, though. I think the Keno ads – particularly the Horny Old Dog one – are the cleverest commercials Kiwiland country has produced.

pokieThe poker machines are great, too. Uniformly calling them “pokies”, makes it that much more entertaining. When I think of “pokie”, many things are conjured up – great NZ ice cream, sex, annoying Japanese anime – but NEVER gambling. The word just sounds too cute to be associated with what many people call an addiction or devilish. The mayor of the town I used to live in wanted to banish those evil and destructive “pokies” and I couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of him battling a giant yellow fur ball as flashing lights and poor overdubbing crowded a tv screen.

The first and only pokie I’ve seen with my own eyes is at a pool & beer hall in my hometown. It sits at the edge of the bar in a dark corner. The best I could tell, it flashed a game of blackjack on the screen. And coins didn’t spit out the bottom. That dirty place also attracts a strange lady who tries to sell half-grown roses to drunks at one in the morning, so the two images are inseparable in my mind.

What’s not funny about New Zealand’s culture of chance is all the numbers involved. I hate numbers, even when they’ve been written on my hand with a little heart added at the end. When I go to the race track, I pick horses on basis of their  names. I’m still trying to figure out why “Sure Winner” hasn’t come through for me. But this lotto thing is full numbers and meanings: Powerball, Strike!, Big Wednesday, little Tuesday, etc, etc.

Few people admit it, but I think all Kiwis have trouble understanding what their ticket actually means. Not only do I not understand what is required for a Division II win, but so does Lady Luck. The day after her big win, she called and sounded a bit deflated. When she took her golden ticket to the lotto centre, the machine had done it’s little jingle and told her she was the proud recipient of $60.

“I went to the lady at the cashier and said, ‘um, I think something’s wrong with the machine’,” she confessed sheepishly.

Apparently, that big win that was going to take us to Fiji wasn’t so big. Instead of getting five straight numbers PLUS the powerball, she got five numbers INCLUDING the powerball. It was a division IV win, which meant enough money to fill her gas tank three-fourths of the way.

I wanted to cry after I heard that. Goodbye white sandy beaches and liquor served in coconuts! Instead, I started to laugh. I imagined her at the counter, questioning the divinity of that lotto machine and saying “I think something’s wrong with your equipment,” which is exactly what I would have said. I think most people, if you get them to be honest for a moment, would admit as much. Mind-numbing disbelief is what keeps our species alive. Sometimes denying the most obvious is the only defense we have.

So it looks like we’re going to be travelling the South of New Zealand in the dead of winter with just a camper van and our love, and I feel very fortunate for getting that much out of this country. Still, after she finds out I’ve written this column, it’s gonna take more than luck to stop her from kicking my ass.

It’ll be impossible deny the beating is actually happening and I’m betting any suggestion that “something’s wrong with your equipment” will only make things worse.

Where the hell’s my rabbit’s foot?

Timaru Herald, June 9, 2008


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