UNTIL THIS week, I had never leapt into the rapid current of Big Lottery Fever.

It's not that I'm opposed to gambling. If I were, I wouldn't keep re-upping my life-insurance policy or squirreling nickels into a 401(k) - which is as much about betting as any lottery is, except it involves paperwork.

It's just that it's painful to dream in the way that Big Lottery Fever makes me dream. When I ponder what I'd do with $600 million-plus, which is what the Powerball is worth this weekend, I get lost in fantasies that feel so real it's a bummer to snap back to the reality of life as a working stiff.

The odds of my winning are more than 175,000,000 to one. I have a better chance of altering my own height, since I'll surely shrink with age. So what's the point of my dreaming about redoing my old rowhouse, buying a Paris apartment, paying off the mortgages of all my co-workers and starting a foundation that rewards Good Samaritans for being awesome?

And yet I bought two Powerball tickets on Thursday anyway. I debated whether to select my own numbers or have the machine pick them for me. I made sure to buy one of the tickets from the News Stand in The Gallery, because that's the place that sold the ticket that won 48 SEPTA workers $107.5 million last year. And I told myself that their good fortune would rub off on my ticket but on no one else's.

I did it because it was a beautiful afternoon, the people in the Powerball lines were friendly and I wanted to participate in a collective action in this pay-to-play city where the outcome would be based purely on luck.

Political connections wouldn't pave anyone's way to a win. Youth or age would give none of us a leg up or thumb's down. Being a dropout or a valedictorian wouldn't increase our chance of a win. Nor would race, gender, wealth or personal ties, the way they so often do in life, and especially in Philly.

The lottery unfolds on a truly level playing field, so whether you win or lose, you get to indulge hope equally. When you talk to the people standing in line with you, you're reminded that most people are really good folks with really big hearts.

Take Frances Talley. Her son died last year on his 45th birthday and he was on her mind Thursday as she passed Sunil Headline News, a stand in the concourse of Mellon Independence Center. She's not a regular lottery player, but something - maybe her son's spirit? - pulled her into the shop to play the Powerball.

"If I won, I'd buy my grandchildren their own house," she said, so that she could return to the beautiful apartment in a seniors' residence that she had to leave to care for the kids following her family's sorrows. "I would still be very involved with them, but I would love to go back to that apartment."

Talley and two girlfriends used to pass the residence on the bus and pray they'd live there one day. They all got in, but Talley left after a year because, for her, family will always come first.

"At least I got to live there for a year," she said wistfully. "God blessed me."

Jeannette Murrell of Southwest Philly, who waited in line behind Talley, would use her Powerball winnings to make substantial donations to breast-cancer research and Alzheimer's organizations.

"You've got to help people," says Murrell, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency in a capacity she says she is not allowed to discuss. "That's why we're all here."

Becoming a father has opened the eyes of ticket buyer James Ferguson. His 1-year-old son is healthy, but Ferguson, a security guard, thinks a lot about kids with disabilities. He feels bad for kids whose physical or intellectual limitations might keep them from the opportunities that he's working so hard to give his child.

"If I won the Powerball? Oh, man, I would open up gyms for kids with special needs," says Ferguson, 25, who was athletic as a kid and recalls the pure joy of scrambling around a playground. "They struggle so much and they deserve the opportunity to have healthy, fun activity."

And so the dreams went, for themselves and others.

Yes, George Mates would take a dream vacation with his wife, but then he'd pay his son's mortgage and get his daughter out of debt.

Joyce Moore would buy herself a mansion but keep her job in dining services at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, because she knows she brings comfort to families who call her "Big Mama."

And Nalini Mehta of Center City would use her winnings to set up group housing for the lonely, elderly poor and create a loving community where everyone treats one another as family.

I know that I won't win the Powerball. But for the price of a ticket, I was reminded this week that, for many of us, wealth would mean nothing if it weren't shared.

Not a bad lesson for $2.