Starting With Nothing: Author Searches for 'American Dream'
"Learn by doing. Embark on your own journey. Pursue the Truth."
Adam Shepard took these words to heart as he set out to pursue the "American Dream" after graduating in 2006 from Merrimack College. But unlike thousands of other business grads from elite private schools, he didn't go to Wall Street.
Instead, 23-year-old Shepard began his pursuit of the American Dream at 573 Meeting Street, North Charleston, home of Crisis Ministries, South Carolina's largest homeless shelter -- not as a volunteer -- but as a resident.
On Thursday, March 5, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, Shepard will discuss his book, "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream" (Collins $19.95), a chronicle of his 10-month experiment to find out if the American Dream is still alive, or "if it has, in fact, been drowned out by the greed of the upper class coupled with the apathy of the lower class."
Shepard originally sold over 10,000 copies of his self-published book in 2007 before HarperCollins released it last October. Since then, he has appeared on "The Today Show," "Inside Edition," "Fox News," "20/20," CNN, and NPR, and at colleges and universities across the country.
"My story is a search to evaluate if hard work and discipline provide any payoff whatsoever, or if they are futile pursuits, as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in her book, 'Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America' (2001)," Shepard says. "My book is not a simple answer. It raises a lot of questions and more importantly, it gets the issue out and allows it to be seriously discussed."
Like "Nickel and Dimed," "Scratch Beginnings" is now required reading at some high schools and colleges in Texas, New York, Alabama, and Georgia.
When Shepard spoke recently at Southeast Raleigh High School, his alma mater, he was disappointed to hear students tell him their dreams revolved around acquiring wealth.
"I am frustrated with the lethargy and lack of drive that seems to be overcoming a younger generation," he says. "I am really, 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.' The American Dream is about finding happiness and solace in your present lifestyle. When you change your attitude about money, you can find happiness in everyday life. You can find so many reasons beyond money to be happy."
Shepard began his journey homeless and nearly broke, taking only a backpack, $25 cash, and his idea of the American Dream: to have a job, own a car, live in a furnished apartment, and have $2,500 cash. He promised himself he would not use his college education, credit history, or contacts to advance his situation.
In July 2006, he took a train from Raleigh to Charleston, "the Pride of the South." He learned later that North Charleston is ranked the seventh most dangerous city in the country, and that Crisis Ministries, where he spent the next 70 days, was where two of "America's Most Wanted" had been arrested.
Among the 90 men in the shelter, there were, he was told, "three different types of people -- the ABCs: the mentally afflicted, the bums, and the victims of circumstance."
Conditions were disgusting in the "dehumanizing world" where the residents "checked their rights and freedoms at the door." His fellow residents told him their stories of lost love, crime that didn't pay, and $16-an-hour jobs that had disappeared to the production lines of Mexico and China almost overnight.
It wasn't long before the atmosphere at the shelter dragged him down.
"I started not to care what I dressed like or looked like," Shepard recalls. "I started saying 'I ain't sure' and 'Yeah, I done hear about that.' While I was walking down the street, I would pick my nose and scratch between my legs. We didn't care what people thought. We were walking our own made-up fine line with absolutely no pride left on one side and an overabundance of pride on the other. The longer I lived there, the more I realized what a downer it was to live that lifestyle. Imagine waking up every morning at a homeless shelter, and then off to some dead-end job, only to have to look forward all day to returning that same evening to the same stinking homeless shelter with the same stinking men."
During the first two weeks Shepard found work through a day-labor agency making $4.50 an hour after taxes and agency expenses. After finishing a job, he and his fellow workers were discarded like "an empty tube of lipstick. It was a cruel system, and we felt victimized, but we accepted it," he said. "We were conscious of our standing as homeless men, the filth at the bottom of life's social structure."
He finally landed a permanent job working six-days-a-week as a mover making $9 an hour. On Sundays he worked odd jobs, and twice a week sold his plasma for $30. His goal: to save his money -- every penny he could. "I had money coming in and I could control the money going out. I immediately eliminated wants versus needs," he says. "Sacrifice is the name of the game, delaying gratification." He lived on a diet of peanut butter crackers, canned Vienna Sausage, and Rice-A-Roni, and shopped at the Goodwill and the Dollar Store using his meager allotment of food stamps.
But within six months, Shepard was living his version of the American Dream: he had a job, an old truck, an apartment he shared, $2,500 in the bank, and most importantly, he was in a position to continue to improve his circumstances.
His formula for success? Hard work. Discipline. A good attitude. Smart decisions.
"Millions of Americans are creating a life for themselves from nothing, just as millions of Americans are not getting by," he says. "Quite frankly, it is a marathon and not a sprint. It's important to question: Do I not just have a goal, but do I have a vision for achieving that goal? Am I prepared to be disciplined for 2, 3, 5, 10 years?
"You can't focus on the things you can't control," Shepard says. "The only thing you can control is your ambition to get out of poverty. Anyone can live the American Dream."
After 10 months, Shepard had to cut his "project" short so he could return to Raleigh to care for his mother, whose unemployment benefits had run out as she was facing a stem-cell transplant to battle a recurrence of lymphoma. He continues to work as a mover and does motivational speaking at high schools and colleges. He is writing a new book, "The Best Four Years," that encourages college freshmen to make the best out of their time in college.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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