When I appeared to interview Joe, a stocky, silver-haired guy who could be played by Charles Durning at top volume, he reached into a bag and offered me a fast-food hamburger. "Hell, I don't need surf 'n' turf," Joe said later, working on some fries. "I'm happy with peanut butter and jelly and McDonald's."

"He's being humble when he chalks it up to luck," says Joe Jr. (whose own lottery winnings over 20 years total $40). "He's worked hard all his life, and he's been very kind to people. Even before he won the lottery, he's always given money to the community, and he's never wanted to be recognized for it. I believe he's being rewarded for the way he's lived his life. If you're religious, you might call that God."

If so, God doesn't only play lotto. After appearing on "Today," Joe took his cousin to Atlantic City to celebrate. Joe played the slots and went home $2,200 richer. Two weeks later, he returned to Atlantic City and came out $2,600 ahead. "But that's nothing!" Joe barks, leaning across the table to swat me on the shoulder. "Two years ago Dolly won $9,970 off one pull at Bally's. Four years before that, she won $10,700 off a quarter at the Sands, went right next door to Bally's and won $2,000!"

Joe points out that his winnings don't go as far as most people think. After taxes, the annuity from his $2.5 million winner comes to $85,000. He passes much of that on to relatives. "I sent my grandkids through private Catholic school, all six of them," he says. "The oldest one's in college. They all had braces, at $5,000 each. My grandson's car just got out of the garage. The bill's $184, and I have to pay it. This year was different because I won two other jackpots, but by the time April comes, I usually need a little luck."

It's odd to hear a lottery prodigy like Joe wishing for more luck. But at one point, Joe leaves the kitchen and comes back with a stack of letters--hard luck stories from around the world asking for handouts. One, written in German, included a doctor's diagnosis. A letter from upstate New York, accompanied by a program from a memorial service, read: "I too play the lottery trying to keep our head over the water. I won't give up. I can't. I believe prayer changes things.and when you said only God knows about your future winnings, I hope God knows when me and my mother will one day be blessed. ." Joe does not answer these letters.

Nonetheless, Joe obliges when I ask if he'll come with me to Bernie's to buy a few tickets. Still, Joe isn't one to squander his luck. We agree that he'll pick six sets of numbers and we'd each play them--"so we share it in case the numbers hit."

Bernie's is just like any other corner store except for three big blow-ups of winning lottery checks hanging behind the counter, all signed to Joseph J. Hornick Sr. As a woman ran the cards, I asked Joe if he expected to take another jackpot someday. "I hope I do," he answered. "I feel that I will once more before I croak." He paused. "And this time, I'll stuff the money in my pocket and run away before anybody hears about it."

I left wondering if Joe's winnings are a blessing or a curse. When I got home, I logged onto Pennsylvania's lottery website and checked our numbers-nothing. Of course I was disappointed. But I also considered what it might be like to be Joe-an object of such weird envy, scorn and improbable hope--and whether it's not luckier to lose.

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