Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Down but Not Out--Starting on the American Dream!

“I am really frustrated with the poor attitudes that seem to have swept over my peer group. Frustrated with hearing ‘I don’t have’ rather than ‘Let’s see what I can do with what I do have.” That’s how Adam Shepard started his book “Scratch Beginnings,” about his quest to see if he could make it in America with literally nothing but the clothes on his back and a plan.

Picking Charleston, SC, one of twelve SE cities out of hat, Shepard landed there with an 8’ x 10’ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25 in cash and the clothes on his back. His goal was to not only survive but to have the start up the ladder to the American Dream, in this case, an operating automobile, a furnished apartment, $2,500 in the bank and a good job.

Starting off in a homeless shelter that would be his home for the first several months, the 22-year-old recounts his experience of working as a day laborer, sometimes for as little as $14/day, eventually working his way up into a permanent job as a household mover. Along the way he met a cast of interesting individuals, some of which were real characters and most importantly found out a great deal about himself.

While there were many people in the shelter who were chronically destitute, Shepard also met numerous ones who were at a low point in their lives but determined to work their way out and to get back onto their feet. The biggest vices for all of them were the ones that can constantly eat away at savings: lottery tickets, alcohol, cigarettes, fast food, etc. He told of one example where one guy saved up thousands of dollars over the course of a year of living in the shelter so that he had enough saved to purchase a duplex in North Charleston, living on one side and renting out the other. Shepard explained, “He would never be one or two paychecks away from living at a shelter. He had security. He was prepared to confront financial disaster.”

Shepard achieved all of his goals within six months of his arrival in Charleston, eventually staying 10 months, having to move back home early to Raleigh, NC in order to help take care of his dying mother. When he drove off in his pickup loaded down with items he accumulated during his stay and with $5,300 in his bank account, he was ready to continue to better himself just as he had done in raising himself up from shear poverty.

If you don’t have time to read the entire book, be sure to at least read the last chapter, in which Shepard philosophizes about his experiences. Here were some of my favorite passages:
“Yeah, life is a bitch for sure. Or actually, let me rephrase that: life can be a bitch. It’s all about how we look at things. Moving furniture sucks. Breaking your toe or suffering through seven days of diarrhea sucks. I would have loved a day off, time to relax and rest, maybe a vacation. But that is unrealistic. Good times abound, but time off is a bad investment if you live at the bottom. There are plenty of ways to have fun, plenty of ways to look at our lives as more than just tolerable. All the while, we have to be more focused, keeping our eye on what we really want to do with our lives: move up. Or not. We’re either on a mission or keeping our flight grounded. Either way we are the pilots.”

Or this one:

“Perhaps the ultimate irony of my project is that the American Dream has evolved into so much more than financial ambition. It used to be that a European sold all of his possessions and sailed to Ellis Island with $100 in his back pocket and a dream in his head. He worked hard in a factory, got married, and had 2.3 kids. His children worked hard and got an education so that their children could have a better life. And on and on and on and well, here we are.”

Adam Shepard experienced and wrote a wonderful book about his experiences. I hope that you’ll take the time to pick up a copy and also check out his website.


Anonymous said...

My name is Marc, I am a single parent that lost the use of my left arm, and now a survivor of cancer. I had lost everything. And with saying that I am still the richest person that I can be. I HAVE MY DAUGHTER!!!
Comming back can be done, I am proof positive, of that fact.
I have skill's in a demanding market these day's, a skill that is hard to find, and I am working on having my own business.
I would love to hear from other people in the same situation.
Please email me at
Best wishes to everyone out there.

BoomtownUSA said...

Marc: Thanks for sharing. What an inspiring story you have! All the best to you in journey.