In the middle of Adam Shepard's Scratch Beginnings, we learn that he's frustrated with not being able to find a job that pays more than $6.50 an hour, that down-and-out men living at Crisis Ministries have great senses of humor, that Shepard feels kinship to a larger group of "deprived men refusing to be deprived of our dignity," and that there's actually something good about being homeless: "the realness of the relationships."
Shepard also relates in clear and vivid prose his shock after witnessing the purchase of crack cocaine: "It's one thing that drugs are everywhere in the media, but not until you see it firsthand or until someone you know is affected by a hardcore drug like crack that you really start to realize the reality of it all ... I hadn't taken it seriously."
Much of Scratch Beginnings is like this, a literate and educated young man's scandalized response to a place most literate and educated Americans are likely never to see firsthand — a homeless shelter whose open bathroom stalls and seat-less toilets "meant we were forced to endure the humiliation of relieving ourselves in front of our shelter mates."
The only way we'd know about that life is via "articles and books and ... movies," a mediated look, in other words, that can often be manipulated by self-interest, ideology, and good intentions.
But instead of challenging his beliefs, Shepard's descent into poverty only adds to the already vexing verisimilitudes of poverty. Instead of offering insight into what he experienced and what that means to others like him, Shepard offers a book dazed by reality and confused by how to respond to it.
Shepard is frustrated, he tells us. By whining and complaining. By entitlement and greed. He wants to influence the attitudes of his peer group, people, like him, who were able to attend Merrimack College, an elite private school, and who mewl about not having what they want to have now.
Instead of talking, Shepard commendably takes action. He picks a random city. With $25 in his pocket, he ventures to become a regular citizen (defined by cash savings, a car, and a full-time job) from scratch.
His journey brings him to Charleston, where he resides at Crisis Ministries for 70 days. Over that time, he learns where to eat, to sleep, to make quick cash. He encounters an array of characters. From these intimate exchanges and strong friendships come sympathetic portraits of people whose circumstances — addiction, mental illness, or plain old bad luck — could be anyone's.
Part one of his mission is evangelical: to change attitudes among otherwise self-actualized Americans. The second part is polemical: to refute the challenge brought by writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, in books like Nickel and Dimed, that the American Dream, no matter how much you work, is still, in reality, beyond reach for many.
Part one is where he might have succeeded, but part two is where he errs. If Scratch Beginnings were a morality tale about appreciating what we have, it would be a credible addition to discussions of money and privilege. "[The American Dream] is about finding happiness and solace in your present lifestyle," he writes. But as a polemic, Scratch Beginnings undermines its own intentions.
Time and again, Scratch Beginnings actually affirms Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. Shepard meets men who come from middle-class backgrounds; who have jobs; who have an education, wives, and children; who would otherwise live up to our notion of the American Dream, but who are still homeless. Reality, it turns out, is far more complex and nuanceed than ideology. Despite his best efforts, Shepard can't seem to accept the reality of it all.