1.31.2011

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard

First, watch the video above.  Now, tell me how you feel about this character.  Because I'm telling you, I've read the book, and I definitely have an opinion on this guy, his views, and his book.  But I don't want to come across too strong. I don't want to find myself in the all-too-familiar territory of soapbox spewing, and I definitely don't want to seem unreasonable or unwilling to give the kid a break.

So, let's start with the basics:  Adam Shepard graduated from Merrimack College with a degree in Business Management and Spanish.  He hails from Raleigh, NC and (as the video explains) is frustrated with his generation's general sense of entitlement.  He also disagrees with Barbara Ehrenreich's proposal that minimum wage jobs do not provide a sustainable living as shown in her Nickel and Dimed, a book I have not yet read but am interested in.  In response, he decides to go to a town where he knows no one (Charleston, SC) with only $25 and the clothes on his back.  He has to "make it" by getting a job, a vehicle, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in a savings account in one year.  He starts at a homeless shelter, works day labor for a time before getting a steady position with a moving company, and ends up "making it" in under six months.  His premise: the American Dream is alive; you just have to work hard enough and "stay focused."

I'm convinced the kid has good intentions, and perhaps I shouldn't call him "kid."  But the biggest detraction from his effort here (besides pitiful writing; see examples below) is the blindness that comes from immaturity.  He has a cool idea, but he refuses to see how twisted it all-too-easily becomes if you just think for longer than one moment.  See, here's the thing:  if you are a college-educated white male from a relatively stable upbringing AND with a peculiarly focused motivation, you cannot possibly replicate the experience of the average homeless, unemployed, or underemployed person living in poverty in America.  And though he tries to acknowledge his advantages in the introduction:
Whether it is the absence of a family to tend to (as may be the case for many in the real world living in similar circumstances), or my innate sense of adventure, or my overall health that plays to my advantage - all are fair criticisms and worth noting.  However, my hope is that these thoughts will not take away from the tedious task at hand or the theme that I intend to represent. (xv)
it just doesn't cut it for this reader.  He wants us to just ignore that he has these advantages (especially that innate sense of adventure - that certainly serves him better than the white maleness he does not mention here), and he offers no commentary on how these advantages make something possible for him that would be simply impossible for another.  The advantages he mentions don't just make it easier for him to do what he does; they make it possible.   Even another adventurous single male doesn't get done what he does if he has a bad back or a bum knee or a debilitating drug addiction or a mental health disorder.  Even a healthy white single mom doesn't get to live in the same places he does, doesn't have the same expenses he does, doesn't get the moving job.  You get my point.  The funny thing is that even after living this "adventure" of his, he still doesn't get my point.

Repeatedly in the book, Shepard asserts that all he has to do is "stay out of trouble" or "work hard and stay focused."  And I must agree that if a person can stay out of trouble, work hard, and focus on some tangible, external goal (like an apartment, or a car, or a book deal), he or she will be much more likely to succeed.  It's just so insulting to disregard all the things that might legitimately or illegitimately make that more difficult for Shepard's peers than it was for him.

The biggest lesson I learned from this book is if I ever find myself in seriously difficult circumstances, I'm hopping a bus to another town.  There, my past can't keep interfering with my present.  If I know no one, no one is asking me to go out, spend money, get in trouble, do illegal things.  No one is distracting me from my goal.  All I have to do is pay attention to me (something Shepard does quite well) and get the job done.  But for most of those guys he shared a shelter with, Charleston is home and has been.  And for most of them, the company they keep is not going to help them achieve the American Dream.

Which points to my final soapbox moment.  No kid of privilege can understand fully the psychological burden of being a poor, underachieving, undersupported, underfed, underloved, person of color in America.  We can try, and thankfully, many do.  But Shepard wants to deny the power of his background just as he wants to deny the power of the backgrounds of those around him in the shelter.  He claims to have done this without any reliance on his education or contacts.  But he comes from a life of love, support, and encouragement that not only told him he could do whatever he wanted in life but gave him ample models to draw from.  To claim that past doesn't play a part in his present and future is silly if I'm being generous, infuriating if I'm not.

Now, for the bad writing.  I'll offer only these two examples:

In the introduction, he says:
I am not an author or a journalist.  I only mention this to establish that my intent in this project is not to produce a divine work of literature where carefully comprised prose dances sublimely off the page. 
I can't get over the irony here.  He's trying so hard.  I'm laughing all over again.

Then, later he writes:
I knew what I had to do to get where I wanted to go, and I knew that late nights partying with the beautiful, busty girls I saw on a daily basis downtown could cost me in so many ways.  So I remained focused on the task at hand. (111)
Oh, my.  I wish I could slap him.  Like somebody's grandmother.  Just slap him right on the mouth.  Sigh.

The good news?  This book has proven an excellent tool for helping my students look more critically at a text and at the world around them.  Great class discussions and a budding awareness of how to question a premise and a product.  So, not a total bust.  But oh, so close.

4 comments:

  1. I read Nickel and Dimed several years ago, and one of the things that it brought home to me was that when you're working low-wage jobs you have very little room for error. You miss a bus, you lose out on an interview. You decide one day, just one day, to be a little lazy and you miss out on another opportunity. Who doesn't make an error in judgment now and then? But for many of us, those small errors don't mean the difference between making rent or not.

    This kid sounds like he doesn't quite recognize how difficult that day-to-day life on the edge of poverty can be, especially for someone who doesn't start out with basic advantages and those who no longer have the energy level of a healthy 20-something.

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  2. What a great post. And I agree with everything Teresa added. Easy to do anything for a year when you know there is an end point. And Nickel and Dimed had much to do with folks who didn't have the opportunity to escape minimum wage servitude. I agree that many today (in all age brackets) have a crazy sense of entitlement, but I am not sure folks working for minimum wage are the main perpetrators of that trend.

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  3. Excellent point, Teresa. We do all screw up, but when the upper class do it, they're just not on their "A" game that day; when a member of the lower rungs of society does it, they are just doing what so many expect them to do. Expectations mean so much: for my students, for my children, and for every one of us.

    To his credit, he does acknowledge the difficulties of daily life in poverty are, but he doesn't see how his difficulties are so very different from someone else's.

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  4. Thanks so much for your comment, Thomas. Your point about who Shepard is actually talking to and about is a solid one. We explored this concept of audience (and purpose) quite a bit in class and determined that if he intended this work as an instructive piece or an inspirational model for those actually living in poverty (if he truly wanted to help), he would have created a different product than a book. He would have appeared on different media outlets than FoxNews or CNN. He would have self-published a number of these books to be donated to the Crisis Ministries shelter that he lived at. He would be doing speaking tours at shelters now instead of bookstores and universities. If this experience had changed him, he would be making change happen in the trenches rather than from his comfortable perch on a university auditorium stage.

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I love a good conversation, even (or especially) one that gets heated, so fire away! I try to respond to all in a timely manner.