For the last couple of months, the gray-haired old man has been a regular morning sight for passersby, his arm thrust deep into the trash barrel outside the White Hen Pantry on Main Street as he fishes for discarded lottery tickets.
But lately 83-year-old Edward St. John has been doing his best to disappear.
As he sifted through the throwaways in front of the convenience store earlier this week, St. John picked out a $1 million winner, and now he's trying to keep a low profile. The winner was on one of the Massachusetts Lottery's "instant" games, or "scratch" tickets.
"That's me, I'm the guy," St. John said as he answered the door of his dormitory-size apartment in a nearby housing complex last night, clad in a white-tank top T-shirt and a pair of taupe khakis. "I don't want pictures taken, nothing, not a thing."
"All I'm interested in," St. John said, "is getting that thing over to Braintree," where the headquarters of the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission are located.
But St. John's treasure-in-a-trash-barrel story is already the talk of the town, and practically everybody — from residents of Early Village to folks at Family Grocery — has heard of his winning pick. Most of his neighbors seem to know who he is, even if they don't know his name.
"That's his car, right there," said a neighbor packing boxes onto a truck in the parking lot. "I don't know his name, but that's his car."
Part of the story going around town, however,
is that there are troubles ahead for St. John when he tries to claim his prize.
At the White Hen Pantry, the manager initially posted a photocopy of the winning ticket on the wall, like all the other store's big winners. A day or two later, the photocopy was removed from the display window. The word is that someone who claims to have purchased the ticket — and then threw it away — plans to file a legal action to reclaim the property.
The store apparently removed the photocopy of the ticket on orders from White Hen's corporate honchos in Sharon, Mass.
"Everybody's coming into the store and asking about it and I'm telling them the same thing," said Bob Penta, the manager of the store. "I'm not talking about it. There's a gag order in effect."
A gag order?
Penta declined to elaborate, however, referring questions to the vice president of White Hen Pantry stores, Eric Rosalind, who did not return telephone calls.
To town residents, St. John is a familiar sight on Main Street, fishing through the trash while customers stop by the White Hen for morning coffee and Keno chances. Often, he is seen wearing a gray hat and a trench coat.
"It gives me something to do," St. John explains.
He said he has heard nothing about a looming legal battle to challenge the rightful ownership of his prize — information that seems to surprise him. "Is that so?" he says with the decisive tone of someone ready to do combat.
But if there is such a battle, the court of public opinion already seems to be siding with St. John.
To Richard Ravenelle, it's a clear case of finders-keepers-losers-weepers.
"The way I see it, it belongs to the old man," said Ravenelle, who owns an apartment house not far from the White Hen. "I don't see it any other way. How are you ever going to prove who threw it away? You can't."
Ravenelle didn't know St. John's name, but when he heard of the amazing discovery through the grapevine a couple of days ago, it made sense he was the lucky man. Ravenelle says he often sees St. John in the morning on his way to work, his hand thrust elbow-deep into the convenience store's trash barrel.
From the man's threadbare appearance, Ravenelle figured the guy lived in one of the subsidized apartments for senior citizens nearby, or he might even be homeless.
"He seemed kind of down on his luck," he said.