At first, there was the absolute indignity of it all, since, by any form of justice, it was he who should have finally hit the big one — he and not that dilettante, the by-now famous doorman who worked across the street.
He — Ray Otero, superintendent, ordinary luckless guy — should have the cash, the car, the sexy Swedish girlfriend. The numbers alone demanded it: Last year, he spent $30,000 on the lottery. The winner, Richie Randazzo, spent a measly thirty bucks or so a week.
"When I heard he won, I got so mad — I said to myself, 'I can't believe it,' " Mr. Otero said the other day, recalling how the television crews descended on his friend in a free-for-allish media display. "I spend all that money and the" — unprintable fellow — "wins? It's wrong. I mean, I'm happy for him. But it really isn't fair."
It is a nagging fact of life that the lottery gods have a slender grasp on fairness and a sense of irony so developed it would even make the Devil crack a grin. After watching someone else take home the jackpot — someone from the neighborhood, no less — Mr. Otero spent his summer struggling with the victory of a colleague and the providential mystery of when his own hot streak would finally begin.
His troubles began in May when Mr. Randazzo, a doorman at 1021 Park Avenue, watched his ship come in, in the guise of a $5 million prize in a daily scratch-off game called Set for Life. The tabloids wrote of his ascent with a schadenfreudic fervor: How "the rags-to-riches doorman" tried to keep his job, but was fired for being lazy; how he started dating a leggy Swedish model who was later charged with promoting prostitution at Big Daddy Lou's Hot Lap Dance Club on the side.
Winning is, of course, the essence of the lottery, though it might be said that losing is its natural state. And Mr. Otero is certainly a natural — at losing. For the last three years, he has utterly failed to recoup a rather staggering investment: $500 to $700 on the lottery a week.
"The guy is crazy," said Carlos, a doorman at Mr. Otero's building, at 106 East 85th Street. "He's got tons of worthless tickets."
Carlos, who declined to give his last name, showed how many by placing space between his fingers. It looked to be a pastrami-sandwich high.
Such a habit goes well beyond "social gambling," said Jim Maney, executive director for the New York Council on Problem Gambling. John Charlson, a spokesman for the New York State Lottery, declined to discuss the specifics of Mr. Otero's situation, but said that independent studies showed that the average New York lottery player spent about $350 a year and that other surveys showed that 75 percent of all New Yorkers have, at one time or another, put down money on the games.
Mr. Otero, 52, came to New York City from Puerto Rico nearly 30 years ago and worked as a mechanic in the Bronx. He has held his current job for about 10 years and supports his wife and two children on a yearly take-home pay of $40,000, he says, which does not include the free apartment, odd jobs or the typical Christmas tips.
But working is for poor uneducated men — a sucker's game, he said, where one must run increasingly fast to keep one's place in line. "You're making money on the one side and spending it on the other," he said. "If all you're doing is working, you're never going to win."
So, for the last three years, Mr. Otero has been searching for an entry to the easy life — to win the lottery and move back home to Puerto Rico; to put his feet up with his family by his side.
He plays the game in shifts: one bet in the morning at 11 o'clock, another in the middle afternoon. His bets will range from $10 to $20 on a scratch-off game or on the daily numbers. He picks his digits, he explained, from the license plates of parked or passing cars.
"Papi, how you doing today?" he said to Mohammad Hassan, owner of the Lexington Avenue News Shop.
"So O.K.," he went on, "give me 52-20 in a 4-and-1, all right?" That meant four $2 bets played "straight," or precisely in the order that the numbers had been stated, and one $2 "box" bet, covering himself if the digits showed up differently arranged.
Mr. Hassan received his money frowning; he handed the tickets back.
"What can I do?" he shrugged. "I have to take his numbers, but he never gets them right." (In fact, he almost got it right. The winning pick that afternoon was 5-4-2-0.)
In three years, Mr. Otero has won only three times: He earned $1,000 on a scratch-and-win last year and pulled in more than $2,000 on the Pick Five twice.
But all of it was reinvested, as one must be assiduous to win.
"No matter how much I get," he said, "I always spend it back."
As for Mr. Randazzo, he doesn't really come around these days, although about a week ago he called. "He didn't give me no money," Mr. Otero said, "but I guess he's still my friend."
There are other things to think about, of course, like an item in the paper that he saw some weeks ago. It seems a woman had been walking in the Bronx and came across a twenty on the sidewalk. She spent it on the lottery. And won.
Mr. Otero is haunted by the story.
"Her first time playing," he exclaimed, "and she won what? $250,000. I said, 'It can't be, no, I don't believe it — on her very first time?' "
Then he paused and looked down at the sidewalk, at the concrete cracks where the mysteries reside.
"That's luck," he said.
"It's destiny," he added with a smile.