From behind the counter at the SuperAmerica in northeast Minneapolis, cashier Michelle Szczech hears all the lottery dreams — fancy cars, no more debt, mansions on a lake. But come January in Minnesota — amid wet flakes and a subzero sting — No. 1 on the list of wants and desires for the dreamers who play the Powerball is buying a house someplace warm.
And if they're lucky enough to land the winning ticket, many promise to help Szczech get to warmer climes, too.
"Pick me a winner and I'll get you out of here," customers tell her as they plop down wrinkled dollar bills, two at a time, and a machine spits out a piece of paper over which they will spend hours fantasizing.
Heading into Saturday night's drawing, the Powerball jackpot has rocketed into uncharted territory, soaring to an estimated $800 million or more, the largest in U.S. history, according to Minnesota State Lottery officials.
Sales across the state hummed Friday, prompting officials to predict that more than $11 million in tickets could be sold for Saturday's drawing, a state record.
Sure, ticketbuyers know the chances of winning are mighty slim — 1-in-292.2 million odds, officials said. But oh, it's fun to imagine the possibilities: Writing large checks to friends, family and charities; building homeless shelters; getting plastic surgeries; buying a small tropical island; heading to Vegas — and staying for weeks.
"What it is, for players, is a chance to dream," Minnesota State Lottery spokeswoman Debbie Hoffmann said.
Altug Ipekci, who owns the Northeast Tailor Shop up the street from the SuperAmerica, said that while he's stitching people's clothes, he thinks about taking his wife and two adult children on trips around the world. They would start with Brazil, where they'd visit soccer stadiums, travel onto Chile and Peru, then head to China and eventually, Europe.
"It would be cool, don't you think?" he said, a twinkle in his eye.
At the Holiday store on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, many first-time buyers stepped up for tickets Friday.
Sydney Lightner and Derek Nichols, both 23, each bought 15 tickets. Both young professionals, Nichols said, "We always talk about what we would do with it, but we never buy them."
But with the jackpot at $800 million, they decided it was worth the investment.
"I don't want to be a young professional," Lightner said chuckling. "I want to be a young millionaire."
Faisal Bashir, of St. Paul, stopped in and turned in winning scratch-off tickets and bought a few more.
"Powerball I think is overwhelming," he said. "That's a lot of money. I would go crazy.
"This is a better chance, and it's better to start small," he said with a laugh as he walked out the door.
But a few minutes later, Bashir returned, having won $6 in a scratch off. Riding a lucky streak, he decided to buy a Powerball ticket after all.
"I might be lucky, you never know," he said.
While the odds are against winning, players say, somebody has to win eventually. Minnesota has had 22 Powerball jackpot winners since the game started in 1992, with its biggest winner claiming $228.9 million in 2011 and its most recent winner getting $149.4 million, in 2013.
Employees at the SuperAmerica in northeast Minneapolis recently had a brush with lottery luck, too — a $1 million Minnesota Millionaire Raffle ticket was sold there on Jan. 1. The winner of that ticket still has not come forward.
As customers filed through the store's doors Friday, cashier Belinda Contreras froze, eyes wide, when the Powerball ticket machine hesitated for a moment. The system was slow at times, but it never seemed stuck for long, producing ticket after ticket after ticket.
"I'm waiting for the machine to start smoking, honestly," Contreras said. "We've had people coming in spending $100" on tickets.
Brett Stembridge, enjoying a day off from his job de-icing airplanes, handed Contreras $2.
"I got just as good a chance of winning as anybody else," he said, as Contreras gave him his ticket.
"What do you want?" he asked her, offering to share his winnings.
"A car," she replied with a hopeful smile.
Stembridge thought for a moment about how he'd spend the winnings. He'd pay off loans, buy property to build houses for his family, and make sure they all had good care in their old age.
As he talked, he bent down to tie the loose laces on his work boots. "I guess I'd get a new pair of boots, too, that stay tied," he said.
Szczech, the longtime cashier who worked alongside Contreras, returned from cleaning up the coffee area to resume selling gas, snacks and dreams — in the form of lottery tickets.
"Good luck," she told each ticket-holder cheerfully as they ducked back out into the cold. Maybe, just maybe, she hoped, if someone who promised to share a piece of the winnings with her should actually win, they will make good on it.
"You never know," she said. "You can always hope."