Posted by Rojas @ 12:16 am on October 31st 2008

It Can Be Done

We all live closer to the edge than we might like to admit. If you’re like me, you do the best you can to save for the future; you put money away at every opportunity; you feed your 401k. Yet the reality remains that you are, in point of fact, one firing away from a major lifestyle change. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of months of unemployment before you found yourself substantially downgrading your accomodations, your diet, your recreational activities. And that’s to say nothing of the prospect of a major illness, which would wipe you out completely.

If the worst happened, what would you do? Where would you go? Would you be able to claw back from the brink? Or would you disappear into the underclass?

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read two excellent books on this subject. The first, You Want Fries With That? by Prioleau Alexander, is the story of an advertising executive and ex-Marine who dropped off the corporate fast-track and decided to pursue life in a variety of menial occupations, ranging from full-time pizza delivery to construction to trail boss on a recreational horse-riding trip. Alexander writes with wit and insight, but one never gets a sense of desperation from him–it’s clear at all times that he can use his considerable intellectual resources and his extensive network of contacts to vault from job to job, or out of the escapade entirely, whenever he chooses.

By far the more interesting is Adam Shepard’s Scratch Beginnings. Shepard goes whole-hog. A recent college graduate, he wipes his resume clean, picks the name of a city out of a hat, and buys a train ticket there, carrying a sleeping bag, a gym sack, the clothes on his back, and $25. His mission: without using any of his contacts, any of his education, or any resource other than what’s in his bare hands, to end a yearlong experiment with a full time job, a reliable car, $5000 in the bank, and a furnished apartment.

Shepard doesn’t cheat, and he doesn’t spare the reader the gruesome details of life as a homeless man. His is not an experience any sane American would voluntarily choose to repeat. And yet…his story is tremendously affirming in the respect that he does indeed manage, to a considerable degree, to lift himself up by his bootstraps.

And so do other men in Shepard’s circumstance; their stories, as told by Shepard, are as interesting as his own. It must be noted that Shepard does not, by any means, disprove the thesis that getting out of poverty is brutally hard; his own good health and his borderline-insane work ethic prove preconditions to his rise, and it is impossible to close the book without recognizing that some people in America live in dire poverty due to circumstances (health in particular) that they can’t control.

And yet…he makes it. And so do others. With the help of genuinely dedicated charity professionals, and a market of labor opportunities second to no other on earth, people in Adam Shepard’s situation do indeed lift themselves up from the very bottom. Not to riches, perhaps; but to comfort the rest of the world would envy, and to greater opportunities for themselves and their children.

It happens every day. It is a tribute both to our nation and to the remarkable individuals who make the journey.


  1. I read about the premise of that book when it came out, but had forgotten it. Will have to pick it up.

    I love that kind of writing—creative nonfiction where the author takes an issue or some thing, immerses themselves in it, and writes about it. It’s easily my favorite genre—though that’s hardly the right word. I think it was a strong drive for my monk think, my Russia thing, and probably a lot of other things before and to come. I’m at heart an experience junkie—I have a weird, sometimes overpowering need to live as many different lives as possible—so this kind of thing has a particular draw for me. I am the sort that read Into the Wild and found myself profoundly inspired. I suspect I’d have the same reaction here, probably for pretty different reasons than the surface subject (though that too).

    Comment by Brad — 10/31/2008 @ 12:29 am

  2. Not to mention that you’ve lived a portion of Shephard’s story yourself. I think you’ll find it interesting.

    Comment by Rojas — 10/31/2008 @ 12:52 am

  3. I imagine that some of the people that end up in that situation (in which he puts himself at the start) have the “circumstances they can’t control”, as you mention, that include various sorts of poor judgement.

    Additionally, he puts himself there and then tries to work up; people that end up there have probably fallen and I presume that affects motivation and confidence.

    Still, it sounds interesting. I also think I heard about it on NPR (on reflection, this must the sort of book that almost guarantees you some time on NPR).

    Comment by Adam — 10/31/2008 @ 6:37 am

  4. This kind of book is really good at reminding us that everyone who doesn’t bootstrap themselves out of squalor are deadbeat losers who are essentially at fault for their predicament.

    Comment by Jerrod — 10/31/2008 @ 10:34 am

  5. I can’t tell if you were being sarcastic or not, Jerrod.

    I will say that we live in a country of amazing opportunity and a lot of generosity when it comes to non-profits that help people get back on their feet. Applied determination and hard work go a long way in the U.S. However, having never been in that position myself, I can’t be so judgemental as to call people losers for falling or being born into extreme poverty and getting stuck there.

    As Rojas said “it is impossible to close the book without recognizing that some people in America live in dire poverty due to circumstances (health in particular) that they canít control.” (don’t know how to do the grey text box thing)

    With the state of education in the inner cities, the kids born into desperate circumstances sure have a lot more ground to make up than I did. Not saying it isn’t possible of course but it is a hell of a lot harder.

    Comment by Liz — 10/31/2008 @ 11:11 am

  6. The cover and the subtitle suggests that it’s about one man’s descent into male prostitution.

    If things go badly in his travels, Brad will be able to write the book that one appears to be, cleverly combined with the “One man immerses himself in Russia”. If he dies, we could always pay some hack to construct it from his diaries. Or just make it up.

    Comment by Adam — 10/31/2008 @ 11:43 am

  7. …his own good health and his borderline-insane work ethic prove preconditions to his rise…

    And in one sentence we see why you have yet to scale that slippery slope.

    Comment by Adam — 10/31/2008 @ 12:06 pm

  8. Wasn’t ther some sort of “How Starbucks Saved My Life” book on that had some similar concepts to this genre?

    Comment by Jack — 10/31/2008 @ 7:00 pm

  9. I’ve been thinking about definitions and perceptions of political ideologies lately and realize that part of the reason I’m a little cool on “conservatism” and even “libertarianism” is that there is a tendency among some proponents to characterize people as I did above. The push for welfare reform, for example, seemed to run on conservative rails about welfare = lazy losers sucking on our collective teat. Small government proponents in general have a bias in this direction, it seems.

    I’m sure this is a great book and I’ll add it to my reading list. America is a great country precisely because it 1) offers this opportunity and 2) has people that take advantage of it. I like having this kind of stuff covered in this space. And this is NOT sarcasm. :)

    Comment by Jerrod — 10/31/2008 @ 9:31 pm

  10. Mort: I accidentally edited your education comment in attempting to respond to it. My apologies. Please feel free to re-post, so that we can fight about it.

    Comment by Rojas — 10/31/2008 @ 11:18 pm

  11. Sort of along this same line, and on a lighter note:

    Comment by RoTalMomska — 11/1/2008 @ 2:06 pm

  12. Rojas: I don’t remember the wording I used(I was imbibing bourbon that evening and I’ve had a busy time since then) but I’ll toss out the general gist of my argument again. If restating it otherwise causes a change in argument, sorry about that.

    Basically my thought is that Shepard may not have used the fact of his education to advance, that is he didn’t wave a diploma around, he did use the actual education itself. The whole reason for preference to people with education (aside from specialized positions with education aimed at it) is that education as a whole is supposed to engender an improved understanding of the world, and thereby result in a person better able to deal with the world. Since Shepard had such an education, he benefited from it despite not showing proof of it. For that reason I think using his case as an argument that higher education is not needed for advancement hard to argue.

    I know there are multiple counter arguments here, (many are on an individual basis) because I’ve run it through the devil’s advocate in my head a number of times, but I’ll wait and see your response because I don’t want to influence your take on the matter.

    Comment by Mortexai — 11/3/2008 @ 2:17 pm

  13. Did you still want to discuss this Rojas? Or did I screw up my repost?

    Comment by Mortexai — 11/11/2008 @ 12:09 pm

  14. No, your repost is fine. I’m just seized by apathy. I would make a piss-poor poor person.

    Comment by Rojas — 11/11/2008 @ 1:09 pm

  15. Hm, I have that problem as well.


    Comment by Mortexai — 11/11/2008 @ 1:18 pm

  16. There’s a Freakonomics blog post on Scratch Beginnings today.

    Comment by Cameron — 4/7/2009 @ 7:14 pm

  17. Yeah, I saw that, and I noticed in the comments someone making much the same point I did above.

    Comment by Mortexai — 4/7/2009 @ 11:23 pm

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