Minefield$ of green

Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

There are two pieces of paper, one in my wallet and one sitting ignored on a diner counter. By themselves they aren’t worth jack. But, I’m convinced, like the rings of the Wonder Twins, like the triangles in South Park, when brought together they could infuse each other with magic.

One is a newspaper with the Lotto numbers and the other is my ticket for a $76 million lottery jackpot.

I can say "I’ll never win," but that is a bluff – you don’t stick out your mitt unless you want to catch the ball and you don’t buy Lotto tickets because you’re so cocksure you’re a loser.

So screw the phony stoicism. I’m not Spock, I’m not Gandhi and I care if I win. But for now I want what’s in the space between the ticket and the paper – the anticipation, the vinegar-laced candy of "not yet" that will let me wonder a little longer.

Ever have anyone blow out the match just before you light your cigarette? That’s what my friend Gwen does to my plans for wealth.

"You wouldn’t be any different from how you are now," she says. I wanted to turn into a jet-setting, diamond-dripping, silicone-sculpted, St. Tropez-tanned, entouraged, paparazzied cipher, coached in the malnourished narcissism that passes for a hedonistic life, smothering my Neely O’Hara fits of raging emptiness with another Prozac shooter, and oh my, isn’t it time pop off to Mallorca for the squid races?

Leave it to Gwen to supersoak my dreams of operatic self-destruction by reminding me I’m lying. Gwen could spot a load of crap in a plowed field from a cruising aircraft. I secretly make her my investment czar.

But aside from investments and a few vague indulgences, I wouldn’t know what to do with that money. Most people would give you the Ricki-guest head swivel and say, "Hell, I know what to do with money."

Yeah, and you could fly a 747 because you can drive a Ford Escort.

If wealth was a solid state you wouldn’t see people like MC Hammer go stinking broke a heartbeat after their zephyrous success. If success were easy, everyone would do it and do it better.

"Monty Python’s Flying Circus" did a sketch pleading for help for one of the world’s most misunderstood minorities – the extremely wealthy. These poor fortunate souls, laboring under the burden of so much cash, had problems the rest of us could not begin to understand.

It was a good joke because it was so ridiculous. Which of course means it is now a reality.

There really is a sort of support group for the rich. Started by someone named Mogil, no less.

Chris Mogil and Anne Slepian started Impact Project eight years ago to help people cope with the sudden appearance of money in their lives, be it inherited, won, married into or earned. Having been blessed with a bang themselves – most became suddenly blessed with a mountain of money, largely through inheritances – the nonprofit group knows the pitfalls of having your dreams come true.

"I was a working stiff all my life," says Ruth Ann Harnisch in a phone interview from her Manhattan home. A "recovering journalist," and Impact volunteer, Harnisch went from a reporting job so low-paying she qualified for food stamps, to a six-figure income as an anchorwoman and newspaper columnist, to being the wife of a wealthy man.

Some of the mines in the field of green can be guilt, the resentment of friends, feeling you’re supposed to be idle and purposeless because you can, not giving any away for fear of being screwed out of all of it, not doing any good with it for fear of being screwed out of all of it, and not enjoying it for fear of being screwed out of all of it.

"Some people have a fame-shaped hole," in their souls, she says, "some have a money-shaped hole," driving them on with an ache that might be wonderful but will never be as fulfilling as "a meaningful, purposeful life filled with loving relationships." A real life.

"I would never pretend driving a BMW is not more fun than driving my old clunker," Harnisch says, having lived the adage that she’s been rich and she’s been poor, and rich is better.

But doing something that will involve you, rather than indulge you, is key to not ending up like the wasted cripple in my earlier fantasy, dumb enough to throw away a thing we all dream of for not taking some control of it.

Harnisch’s greatest recent joy was not one Robin Leach would describe like a lecherous race track announcer. Rather, it was helping build a Habitat for Humanity house.

Mogil says it’s the creative use of money that can help you do good, not just do well.

If I were to win the jackpot, I’d call Impact. I’d be too busy jetting from the Vanderbilt’s across the street to the Rockefeller’s to make sure the charities of my choice were on the level and the companies I’d invested in didn’t run sweatshops. Impact does that kind of research. They can make you your own foundation, or show you how to give just enough so the basic needs of one more kid will be met because you won the lottery.

But first I have to go put those two pieces of paper together. You’ll know my luck held if this story ends with this sentence.