Hope may float but hopelessness still sells. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, about poor Americans stuck in crummy jobs, made more than nickels and dimes for her publisher and herself. But one recent college graduate, Adam Shepard, read Ehrenreich and decided to try his own experiment: Start out in a strange city with the clothes on his back, $25, and almost nothing else, and see if after a year-without using his college degree, credit rating, or any previous contracts-he could have an apartment, a car, $2,500 in cash, and prospects for advancement. The result is Shepard's Scratch Beginnings (HarperCollins, 2008)
Q: So you didn't deliberately choose Charleston, S.C.?
No. I put 12 southeastern cities in a hat (Mobile, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Savannah, Nashville, Columbia, various cities in Virginia, among others), and the idea was that I would pick one out on Monday and hop a train on Tuesday.
Q: What was your initial experience?
I got anxious very quickly. I didn't have a plan or a route to cover. And I certainly didn't plan on arriving in the dilapidated neighborhood that I did. It was a very naïve experience, and the first chapter shows how grossly unprepared I was.
Q: You lived a long time at Crisis Ministries. Did spending a few months there help most of the folks who lived with you? If not, why not?
I don't know that it helped them as much as it helped me. I wasn't there to have a positive impact on anyone, rather to observe a totally different lifestyle than I was used to, and, as it turned out, I learned so much from a group of guys that didn't represent the ideals of homelessness that I had expected.
Q: What did you discover about the alcoholics and addicts you got to know?
That was a completely new experience for me in that I had never had access to anyone that had an alcohol or a drug problem. So, to see what a serious issue it was, for one, but to also see that some of them wanted help-and got it-while others were simply content with their lives under a cloud of addiction.
Q: What's the weirdest experience you had?
I didn't grow up in a sheltered atmosphere by any means, but I had never seen any hardcore drugs in my life up to the point that I lived in the shelter. We were sitting outside on the stoop and I saw a crack-cocaine deal go down, a very epiphany-like moment for me since I had only seen crack on TV. There were also a few awkward situations inside the shelter where guys were hitting on me and inviting me to sleep next to them. For the most part, though, they were harmless since we all knew that if we acted out of line, we were evicted for three days.
Q: What did you learn about the difficulty of getting and keeping a job, and saving money?
That it wasn't as easy as I had predicted. From the onset, I figured I would arrive in my new town, it might take me a few days to get a job, and then I would have a steady paycheck coming in. Two weeks later, I was unemployed and living in a homeless shelter, wondering if I could actually achieve my goals. In the end, though, I knew that once I had a job, saving money would be the easy part as I sought out ways to budget everyday expenses.
Q: When you had setbacks, how did you get back on track?
That was the ultimate challenge. I broke my toe. I got sick. I got into a vicious fight, and I don't think I got in a single blow. But every time I hit a roadblock, I just figured, "Hell, it could be worse," and that helped me to remember what I was doing in Charleston in the first place, that I had a goal and that nothing was going to get in my way.
Q: What was your bottom line at the end of the year? Did you end up with an apartment, a car, $2,500, and prospects?
Yes, I did. But that's beside the point. It was all about the journey for me. Maybe I succeed, maybe I don't. But to wake up everyday with a mission was far more powerful than any material possessions. More than me succeeding though, I was fortunate to meet guys like Derrick and BG and Omar, who were taking their own shot at the American Dream. To tell their story is far more fascinating than my own.
Q: Who was the most interesting person you met, and why?
Derrick Hale, who bought a house near the end of my time in Charleston. He was an "average blue collar worker" who was truly debunking the myths that hard work and sound financial decisions don't pay off here in America. Twenty years down the line, I'm going to look back and know how lucky I was to have experienced his influence in my own life.
Q: You went into this experience with an education and with values oriented toward working and saving. How much of your experience is applicable to those without your education and values?
On a basic level, it's very applicable, because regardless of our own respective talents or education, we wake up everyday to face our own unique situation. Some of the people that I met-uneducated and having come from an impoverished background-were exploiting their talents to the best of their ability. Others were squandering opportunity that was right in front of them. To me, the success of your own American Dream is answering the question, "Did I fight to better my life along the way?" Some are. Some aren't.
Q: Are values key, then? And what's the best way to change them?
Values are key for sure, and it is obviously true that some people have access to those values while others don't. I don't know that the values need to be changed, rather we need to keep an open dialogue that engages the spread of those values across boundaries. I have friends from my small private college that missed those values just as I met people in Charleston that were in the same situation. The values are there, and I speak in the epilogue of Scratch Beginnings on how we can help more people have access to the same values that helped make my journey a success.
Q: What story about your time in Charleston do you think you'll tell your children some day?
I'll probably give them a copy of my book on their 13th birthday along with a check for $25, the last handout they'll ever get from daddy. It's tough, though, raising children in a society that seems to place more value on lethargic, passive activities like Nintendo than sports or the arts. Expectations are so much lower today than they used to be. A strong work ethic has been replaced by rewards for merely completing homework, for example.
I was fortunate in that my parents didn't allow me to watch TV during the week and they made sure my brother and I were out discovering our surroundings rather than remaining stagnant. They placed value on being active. I hope to raise my children the same way that I was raised.
Q: Do you plan a sequel?
No. I've had a great experience with this book, but that is it. After all, so many people write one successful book, and they feel that provides an open door for them to write seven more. I'm not an author. I'm just a regular guy who was passionate about something and I decided to write about my experience.