The Abidance of an American Dream in Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Serving in Florida” and Adam Shepard’s Scratch Beginnings
A national ethos of the United States, the American Dream, is the ideal that all U.S. citizens should have an equal opportunity to achieve prosperity and success through persistence, determination, and hard work. There are countless stories, nonfiction and fiction, that shape the American Dream today. However, due to unequal opportunities and lack of education, some Americans are left hopeless and stuck in low-wage jobs and poverty. After her experience of living as a low class worker, Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to establish that it is most likely that low-wage workers will remain in minimum wage jobs and that the American Dream is unattainable in her experiment, “Serving in Florida.” However, Adam Shepard rebukes Ehrenreich’s assertion through his inquiry, Scratch Beginnings, where he starts from the bottom and strives to achieve his goals. Shepard attempts to change most Americans’ pessimism regarding the American Dream through his belief that a positive mindset can lead to success. Between the two works, Shepard’s use of ethos makes his argument more persuasive in the idea that the American Dream is achievable for anyone.
In pursuance of bringing the American Dream to life, Shepard brings the story of “rags-to-fancier-rags” to life. His goal was to change the lethargic attitude Americans have towards reaching what may seem elusive by showing them that a positive mentality and attitude can change their lives. Starting off his experiment with just twenty-five dollars, a sleeping bag, a tarp, an empty gym bag, a high school diploma, and clothes on his back, Shepard works toward his goal: a home, $2,500 in cash, and a stable position within 365 days. Shepard attempts to inspire Americans who are reaching for the American Dream by saying, “I’m not an extraordinary person performing extraordinary feats. I don’t have some special talent that I can use to ‘wow’ prospective employers. I’m average” (4). He claims himself to be nothing more than average, establishing that anyone whether they are classified as “ordinary” or “special” can achieve the American Dream.
Contrary to Ehrenreich’s claim that the American Dream no longer exists, Shepard molds his outlook of living in “a world of independence—free from responsibility—where each day would be [his] to seize, or, if [he] chose, to squander” (15). He comes to a valuable conclusion that the homeless people in the shelter choose to live in “a world loaded with potential but short on ambition” (15). However, he strays from the rest of the crowd by encouraging and reminding himself, “Likewise, a day off would keep me from attaining my goal” (25). Shepard realizes that each day is valuable because he can be a day closer to achieving his goals. Throughout the time he had to work relentlessly every day, Shepard kept a positive mindset, which was one of the keys that unlocked the apartment he earned. He adds, “I knew that I was going to succeed. Now more familiar with my surroundings, I knew what I had to do to make it happen. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I had a plan, and now it was just a matter of putting my plan into effect” (35). Although there were times of success, there were also times of fear when Shepard was rejected to work for certain jobs, however, he still continued to push himself. He expresses, “My faith was fading, but I remained fearless” (43). Through frugal tactics and genuine effort, Shepard was constantly thinking ahead and taking advantage of little resources he had, which was how he earned his furnished apartment, $2,500 in cash, and a car in just six months.
As a successful woman who came from “craft work straight into the factory” (269), Ehrenreich comes to the conclusion that the poor will always be poor and the rich will get richer, failing to test her mathematical proposition and personal experiment. Unlike Shepard, Ehrenreich didn’t feel motivated and hopeful for her future by working low-wage jobs. She often felt as though she could not be her true self due to the pressure of being accepted by her coworkers. When her boss told her she can’t bond with her customers, she says she was “feeling like I’ve just been stripped naked by the crazed enforcer of some ancient sumptuary law: No chatting for you, girl” (271). Feeling stripped from her rights, she claims, “Chatting with customers is for the beautiful young college-educated servers in the downtown carpaccio joints, the kids who can make $70 to $100 a night” (271). Not only did she feel physical discomfort in her experiment, but she also felt emotional distress and insecurities, which discouraged her from believing she can make her dream a reality. Moreover, she conveys that working class people have to be discreet about skipping a shift, taking drugs, and so-called “lunch breaks” due to the “corporate rationality” (272). Looking back at her previous life, Ehrenreich realizes a significant difference between how middle and upper class workers get treated. Often times, middle class workers are treated like potential enemies, embarrassed by their employers, and lack basic rights like privacy and free speech. As a response from complaining customers, Ehrenreich admits that she started growing hatred for certain people whom she never sought to hate. She complains, “There are the traditional asshole types—frat boys who down multiple Buds and then make a fuss…” (271). She becomes cognizant of the fact that she might have changed from a person who got along with most people to a person who has personal bias towards a certain group. She also doesn’t recognize the moderately brave woman she was previously when she couldn’t stand up for George, one of her good coworkers. Unlike Shepard who felt encouragement and support from the homeless shelter, Ehrenreich felt negativity and constant pressure which caused her to eventually give up in her experiment.
Ehrenreich encounters twisted situations and fails to find the strength and motivation to get closer to the American Dream because of her negative attitude and mindset. On the other hand, Shepard pushed himself through adversities by keeping his positive attitude and mindset alive. The difference between Ehrenreich and Shepard is their outlook on overcoming difficulties with positivity. Shepard grabbed every opportunity to earn at least a penny a day. He didn’t look down upon any jobs—he worked for hours shoveling dog feces for only minimum wage. His attitude was that any job “would be better than nothing” (25). He concluded each day with a positive note for instance, “I was happy just to be working” (26). Moreover, Shepard asserts that everyone—including women—need to work just as hard as men do to achieve the American Dream. However, Ehrenreich implies that women have to depend on men for their success. As she was searching for a second job, she relates to her coworkers saying, “Of my fellow servers, everyone who lacks a working husband or boyfriend seems to have a second job” (272). Instead of feeling the excitement and urgency of having a second job, Ehrenreich implies that she is jealous of her coworkers who have a significant other. Ehrenreich’s American Dream consisted of intangibles: happiness, comfort, health benefits, and good working conditions. However, after her rude awakening, Ehrenreich established that it is impossible to attain the American Dream because of the horrid reality of the life of a working class individual.
According to Shepard, the American Dream is attainable for every American who puts his or her mindset in a positive light. Shepard attempts to bring the rags-to-fancier-rags tale to life in order to make his argument most compelling. His strong work ethic, good health, favorable personality, and positive attitude led him to his success: a furnished apartment, $2,500 in cash, a car, and a stable position. Through his investigation, Scratch Beginnings, Shepard demonstrates to the American body that an affirmative attitude is all one needs and that the American Dream does exist.
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