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

What is the American Dream? Is it still alive? Adam Shepard decided to find out for himself. Fresh out of college with no job, he left his hometown of Raleigh with a tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, the clothes on his back, and a fake identity as a high-school graduate who was kicked out of his parents’ house. The train dropped him off in Charleston, SC, a location he chose randomly and where he knew no one.

That first night was rough, but Shepard made it by bus to a homeless shelter in downtown. Though it was late, he discovered that there is always room for “one more” at Crisis Ministries. It was hard to get used to the smells and the overcrowding, but the food was good (especially when there were volunteers). For a while he worked temporary jobs where he was paid at the end of the day, but eventually he set his sights on a job with a moving company. He went to the company’s office daily until he finally got a chance to talk to the manager, even volunteering to work for free until he had proved his worth. The manager liked his attitude and hired him.

In less than a year, by careful saving and lots of hard work, Adam had an apartment he shared with a coworker’s cousin and a used truck that started up with a screwdriver instead of a key. He says his story isn’t so much rags to riches as “rags to fancier rags,” but he learned a lot along the way about what it takes to make a decent living. He concluded that there are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who scratch their heads and say, “What just happened?” It is largely about the choices you make.

Shepard admits that his situation was not as dire as many of those on the streets—he’s young and healthy and doesn’t have a child to support, for example. One of his goals was to defend the American Dream against books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I think his story demonstrates that it is possible to better your situation and achieve at least your modest dreams in what is still “the land of opportunity.”

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