Fractured Fortunes

Money changes everything. When Leslie Bowe finally returned to the office that Monday, after he had recovered from the chicken pox and made a quick trip to Tallahassee, he was a different man. For starters he was rich, having cashed in a lottery ticket worth $17 million. And he seemed different, too. Always ebullient, he now had the air of someone who had pulled off a miracle, a feat so unlikely that even though he'd long boasted he would do exactly what he had done, no one could quite believe it. The impossible was made real, and Les was floating above the crowd.

Of course everybody knew. The office had been buzzing for weeks, ever since Bowe telephoned Marilyn Hernandez, his supervisor at the downtown headquarters of the Miami-Dade County school board, and delivered the news. "I won!" he told Hernandez, not needing to add, And didn't I always tell you I would?

Looking at Bowe straight on, the colleagues who crowded into his office took note of the barely contained excitement flashing from his brown eyes and then the klieg-light smile that repeatedly burst out to take over his youthful face. It wasn't until Bowe turned his head that the haircut showed. Leslie, what is that? What's in your hair? Is that ...?

Yes, it was. A dollar sign, etched into his hair, inches high and bold as can be, right above the ear. A dollar sign! The man was Mr. Money. At the age of 35, a $40,000-per-year bureaucrat in the school system's contracts management department had lucked into $17 million, and the in-your-face haircut announced to the world that while riches may breed conservatism in some, a windfall fortune was not going to turn Leslie Bowe into a mouse. Indeed a wealthy Leslie Bowe would finance the old Leslie Bowe's most extravagant dreams, and from that dream world would emerge an even more flamboyant man.

"I'm going to buy a roller coaster!" Bowe announced as he prepared to pick up the first of the $850,000 checks he was to receive annually for the next twenty years. He wasn't going to Disney World, the celebrants' mecca where even the rich and famous have to stand in line for a three-minute thrill ride. No, the gesture Leslie Bowe had in mind was grander by far than attending someone else's theme park. He would, at least figuratively, buy his own roller coaster, so that as he roared through a Space Mountain of his own creation, he could control the highs and lows.

And in a way, that is what almost happened.

When money falls in large amounts, it explodes like a bomb. The damage can be extensive. To be sure, quite a few people have become more financially secure since Leslie Bowe purchased a Quick Pick lottery ticket six years ago. They have bought new homes, built additions to old homes, indulged in fancy cars, taken trips, and started college funds for their children. They have helped relatives and friends and enriched several lawyers. But much has been lost, too: friendships, trust, and respect. Some of those who have profited from the lottery win now admit they wish the Ping-Pong balls bearing the numbers 2, 9, 16, 20, 22, and 27 had never been sucked up the tube back on September 17, 1994. They wish that Bowe, a man with a documented track record for good luck and winning prizes, had never organized a lottery pool, and that they had never agreed to take part.

Bowe and the seven co-workers drawn into the monetary maelstrom with him all still work for the school system, most in the same jobs they had then. They all see one another in the halls, in the lunch room, or, in some cases, in the same little office. Some remain friends, and some talk to each other only when they have to. Others don't talk to one another at all.

But all have been changed in unexpected ways.

Leslie Bowe says he is not an unhappy man. He likes his job, he loves his new role as politician -- he's a councilman and vice mayor of the Village of Pinecrest -- and his friends say that if the lottery fallout has left him embittered, it doesn't show. He continues to receive an annual check from the lottery commission, but after two lawsuits and two court decisions that went against him, his share now is just a fraction of what he once thought he'd won. He is still well-off. But behind the engaging smile lurks a deep well of anger. He says he is writing a book detailing his version of the tale. The synopsis: "It is the story of to what lengths greed will take us. They thought they could screw me. But they don't bother me. I don't let monkeys stop my show."

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Mike Clary