Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Book Review: Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard (2008).

"Preach the gospel at all times -- If necessary, use words."
--Saint Francis of Assisi

Scratch Beginnings echoes this famous quote. It's best when describing what Adam Shepard did during his ambitious project. Not so much when it moves into preaching about it.

Shepard's project? "I'm going to start almost literally from scratch with one 8' x 10' tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back. Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States outside of my home state of North Carolina. I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a 'regular' member of society. After one year for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate) have $2,500 in cash, and, most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances by either going to school or starting my own business."

More broadly, his investigative project serves as a "rebuttal" to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch--books speaking of "the death of the American Dream." Shepard writes: "I resent that theory, and my story is a search to evaluate if hard work and discipline provide any payoff whatsoever or if they are, as Ehrenreich suggests, futile pursuits."

Shepard established some groundrules. He enjoined himself from using his college degree (he had just graduated from Merrimack College), credit history, or contacts. He further barred himself from begging or using services not available to others.

Shepard starts at a Charleston, South Carolina homeless shelter--his home for about 70 days. He describes life there ably and reveals some surprises about its inhabitants. According to Shepard, they are opinionated, hilarious folks who follow current events closely. They resourcefully use the library often for job searches and educational pursuits. They also cheer on the criminals on tv's Cops.

It's surprising how difficult Shepard toils to find work at first. Cold-calling a number of restaurants and hotels yields silence for even the lowest paying jobs--such as dish-washing and maid service. So much for the theory that "Americans won't do this type of work." Aside from work with agencies that skimmed a good portion of his earnings off the top and netted him about $30 a day, he had to essentially beg to get a job with a moving company that started at $9 per hour with no health insurance of course. Shepard admirably throws himself into this pursuit, learning from and modeling himself after his "hero", Derrick, who shows him how hard work and discipline can produce dividends, despite unfavorable odds.

The book's strength lies somewhere other than its prose. A sample: "[A]n older lady drenched in makeup and noticeably overweight...." Is there such a thing as unnoticeably overweight? The very nature of obesity is that it's not hidden. Another: "If they sent me out with Shaun [a fellow mover], they sent me out with Shaun...."

Moreover, when Shepard leaves the narrative and turns didactic, it abounds in cliche. An example: "Just me and a dream. In the end, though, isn't it really more about the journey, the process....?" It's more about the cliche evidently.

In the end, Shepard posits a formula for rising "from the pits of poverty": (1) hard work; (2) discipline; (3) a good attitude, and (4) smart decisions. Not terribly insightful or revelatory on their own, but Shepard's story illustrates them eloquently--mostly through his actions apart from the words, like Saint Francis of Assisi wisely counseled.

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