I first heard of Adam Shepard’s Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream when the author was interviewed on Glenn Reynolds’ infrequent podcast. The twenty-something Shepard conceived his book as a kind of response to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, setting out to prove the “American Dream” was still alive. Shepard believed that Ehrenreich set herself to fail from the start — she was both ideologically committed to proving that the American Dream didn’t exist and also made some rather silly financial mistakes that Shepard would not repeat (specifically, Ehrenreich lived in a hotel and ate out for many meals).
Shepard, a 2006 college graduate, set out to Charleston, South Carolina, a city chosen at random, with just the clothes on his back, $25 in his pocket, and the contents of his duffel bag. The goal was to live a life on the margins, and within one year’s time, to have a furnished apartment, a vehicle, and $2,500 in savings. Shepard could not use his college education, credit history, or any personal contacts to give himself a leg up. Scratch Beginnings is the first-person chronicle of that year. It describes Shepard’s first 70 days in a homeless shelter, the inspiring and tragic characters he meets there, the degrading day-laborer system in the U.S., and his eventual success in meeting all his goals despite the fact that medical problems in his immediate family caused him to cut the project short.
When he talks about Scratch Beginnings, Shepard comes across as very humble. He doesn’t make many sweeping observations about working class life and doesn’t draw many conclusions, except to express the importance of ambition and personal responsibility. He acknowledges that his youth, relative health (he did suffer a broken toe and food poisoning during the year), and lack of dependent children probably gave him a leg up compared to other people. But nevertheless, Scratch Beginnings is a reminder about the importance of personal responsibility, self discipline, having a plan, and setting goals in achieving success in life. Shepard watched the little money he earned like a hawk and was relentless in pursuit of a full-time job (with the surprising inspiration of another homeless guy named Phil Coleman). He befriended and bonded with the other homeless men at the shelter, but was able to avoid the idleness and instant gratification that keeps many people in poverty.
Shepard’s book reads like a diary of his year. It’s a quick, enjoyable, and inspiring read.