An Interview With Adam Shepard, Author of Scratch Beginnings

I absolutely loved the concept behind Scratch Beginnings and admired Adam Shepard for coming up with that fantastic idea straight out of college, when many of us were flailing around, doing meaningless jobs without being able to write a book about our experiences. What follows is the slightly edited transcript of my interview with Adam. Enjoy.

To start out with, “Scratch Beginnings” is an ingenious concept for a book. Tell me what inspired you to do it.

Well, there are a couple things that I had going through my head. First of all, the summer after my freshman year of college I read the book “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich, and that book just really got under my skin. You know, she wrote on the death of the American dream and how you can’t make it on minimum wage. It just seemed like she was complaining and playing this victim way too much. She was laying it on way too thick.

And that really bothered me, so that’s what got the gears turning. And so I started thinking about what I could do to kind of make my own discovery of the American dream. But also, I was at Merrimack College, which is a great school. I met some great people. But I mean, my goodness, it was a $35,000 a year institution. And you’ve got a lot of kids there where mommy and daddy are paying for everything – for clothes, for iPods, for cars and giving them credit cards.

On both ends of the spectrum, I just kind of saw that, all right, I don’t think that anybody’s really appreciating the American dream here and the values that we have. And so, that’s why I decided that this is something I’d like to do and I kind of polished up the concept and I just went for it.

Got you. Now, tell everybody what you started with when you began “Scratch Beginnings,” the rules you set for yourself, and what you were going to consider a success.

I started with $25, the clothes on my back, a sleeping bag and a gym bag. I had a blue tarp with me also, because I planned on sleeping outside for as long as it took. My goal at the end of the year – my goal to be considered successful was to in one year have $2,500, a car and a furnished apartment.

And the rules that I had set forth were that I couldn’t use my credit history, my contacts, or my education. You know, I’m trying to start over as much from scratch as possible. Now, obviously I can’t erase that I’m a young, healthy white boy who’s always had it good….

And you started in a random city as well, right?

Yes. I started in a random city. I had 12 cities in a hat and I picked one out and I went for it. Now, the thing about the goal that I had set forward, a lot of people, you know, say “Oh, well, that’s not my American dream.” And I think that’s a very worthy point that if you ask ten people on the street, “What’s your definition of the American dream?” — you’re going to get a bunch of different answers.

Some of them won’t mention money at all or some of them might mention, “Oh, well, I want to have a big house and a nice car and nice things” — or whatever. I think that what I was looking at was what the American dream used to be.

It used to be that you could start over anywhere and that you could build up slowly over time rather than just going for one big quick hit. And so that’s what I wanted to do. That’s why I set those goals and those rules for me.

OK. Now, tell everyone what you finished up with at the end of the year.

I had $5,500, a pickup truck and a furnished apartment — and I paid about, I think it was $1,050 with the title and tags and everything, for the pickup truck. And that’s the whole idea behind this. I’m not going to be able to live and drive in luxurious accommodations.

My pickup truck was $1,000. It was the absolute opposite of a chick magnet. But it ran, it operated and it was paid for. I didn’t have a monthly payment. The whole thing here is that if I’m going to save money, I’ve got to make sacrifices. And so I think that’s one thing that was important for me moving forward. I can shop at Eddie Bauer or I can shop at the Goodwill.

You know one day, I’m going to have great, nice beautiful things, but right now for this year, the next five years, whatever, I’ve got to build slowly. And so, yes, at the end I had $5,500, a pickup truck and a furnished apartment.

Now, obviously you had some expectations on how things were going to go when you started this. What do you think you were naive about? What do you really come away saying – “Gee, that was not what I expected?”

Oh my goodness, John. I tell you, I was much more naive than I expected. I mean, because I really did have this picture, especially going down to Charleston. My gosh, Charleston is palmetto trees and the beach and the lovely downtown and the waterfront, and so I think a lot of stereotypes were shattered for me from the beginning.

Not only with Charleston where I arrived, because I did arrive on the other side of town, you know — and I mean I wasn’t downtown where it was lovely. But also, I mean, my goodness, walking into the homeless shelter, I figured I was going to meet a bunch of old, fat, bearded dudes with whiskey on their breath. That’s the picture of homelessness that I had.

I certainly did meet a bunch of just old bums that were up to no good, but I also met 20 and 30 and 40-year-old guys who really were ambitious and wanted to get the hell out of there and for whatever reason had found themselves at the shelter.

And I think even beyond that, I think at the moving company, you know I figured – not that I was going to meet a bunch of lazy guys, but I didn’t think that I was going to meet the guys that I did. Derrick Hale: he’s the hero of my book.

I mean, my goodness, here’s a guy without a high school education, he’s got a felony, he’s trying to raise a family and by the end of my year – by the end of my time in Charleston – he’s bought a house, he’s got a car, he’s making $13 an hour. I mean, he’s building a life for himself.

And so I think to meet that side, I think that was a little overwhelming for me. I knew the American dream was very much alive. I wasn’t going out to prove it. I was just going out to discover it and to meet these guys and to tell their story. And I think to be overwhelmed by the guys that I’ve met was pretty special. And I tell you, that’s what “Scratch Beginnings” is all about.

I mean, my story’s cool and it’s interesting. I’m able to navigate the system and I’m able to achieve my goals, but it’s also the story of Derrick and Omar and B.G. and all these guys that I meet along the way.

Now, you did stay in a homeless shelter the start of the book. A lot of people think – OK, the majority of the people that are homeless, they’re mentally ill, they’re alcoholics. Tell us a little more in-depth about what you found about the homeless staying there.

I’ve spoken with the director since and probably 40% of the residents of this shelter, in particular, had some sort of mental illness that they were dealing with. And then the other 60% were otherwise healthy. You know, they may have had an addiction or something else going on, but they were otherwise healthy.

I guess, the key word there is initiative. I think to meet guys on essentially the same playing field, maybe they’re uneducated or they’ve come from broken homes, but these are guys that are healthy that can, if they want to, can go out and work.

And so I think to see two guys standing next to each other and one of them is just going to sit on the stoop all day long and the other guy is going to wake up at 6 o’clock and he’s going to go catch the bus and he’s going to go paint all day long and save his money. In two months or three months or however long it takes, he’s going to be out of there forever, while the next guy is just going to kind of be cruising along.

There was one guy in particular, his name was Phil Coleman, and he basically – there’s a chapter in the book called “Job Hunting 101 with Professor Phil Coleman.” I mean, this is a homeless dude that you know I wouldn’t have looked at twice crossing the street. And he gave me the secret to getting a job.

He said, “Listen, you can’t just go out and pass out your application like you’re doing. You have to go and you have to talk to these managers. You have to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, you need me. You need me to come work for you. I’m a hard worker, I’ll show up on time, my shirt tucked in. Let me work a day for free.’ You’ve got to show them. They’re not going to call the homeless shelter and hire you.”

And so I think to get advice from a guy like him at a homeless shelter, I think things like that surprised me. And so definitely, a lot of stereotypes were shattered in the homeless shelter. I mean, some guys smelled horrible and some guys showered every day and were clean-cut because they didn’t want to present themselves to the public as homeless….

Now, one criticism that came up over and over in some form or fashion in the reviews of your book on Amazon that were negative was that your experience is only applicable to rich white kids and nobody else. This doesn’t apply to anybody else. You just did well because you happen to be rich. You’re a privileged white kid. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I think it’s absolutely a very worthy criticism to mark the advantages that I have going forward. And there’s no way for me to mask those. I mean, I would have loved to have been a single mother at 22 and done this project because then it – that would be far less criticism for me. But the fact is that is not what this story is all about.

I don’t need to be a single mother. I don’t need to be an Hispanic gentleman that can’t speak English because the bottom line is that those people are already living the American dream. That’s why I’m saying that I’m not proving anything. I’m just writing a story that is the spirit of a dream that’s already being lived so many millions of times over. And that’s the best part about this.

The emails that I get now where people say – “Hey, Adam, you know great book, love it. I’m passing it on to my kids, but let me tell you a story about where I come from.” I met plenty of adversity and I had good times and bad times, but I think the single mothers, for example, or Hispanics, you know those guys are facing real adversity and those guys are making it happen.

And so I think “Scratch Beginnings” just represents the story of what they’re able to do. But, that doesn’t mean that it was easy for a young healthy white guy like myself.

Right, last question for you. If someone came to you and said – “Look, I’m broke, I don’t have any money, life’s not going anywhere for me, I’m practically homeless, what would you advise me to do? How do I get myself back up and going? I mean, how do I achieve what you did in a year?” What would you tell them? What would be 60 seconds of advice from you?

You’ve got to go do it. There isn’t some secret to make it happen, but you’ve got to take action. I think that’s the difference between somebody that’s not making it and somebody that is. Those guys that are taking action, that are going out – if they don’t get a job at the first nine places, they’re going to get a job at the tenth place. You know, whereas another guy might not get a job at seven places and just give up.

I think that’s what makes this country so great. That’s what the U.S. is all about. The opportunity is out there. You’ve got to go get it though. And so, I think the secret to all of this and the story behind the story is taking action. You’ve got to go out and take action. And after you get rolling, after you get a job and after you start making a little money, you can’t take the situation for granted.

And I think that’s what I see with my own friends who have jobs, who are making money, but are living lifestyles that they can’t afford. And I think that’s where we’ve, you know, started to screw up a little bit — is that we’re living lives that we can’t afford because we take our situations for granted.

I think the first step is just to take action and the second step is, don’t take anything for granted. You can build a life for yourself, but it takes time. There’s no quick fix.

Adam, outstanding, I think this is very good. …I will shoot you an email when it goes up…

Perfect. Awesome. Now, just so you know, if you’re going to be around a TV, I’ll be on “20/20” on Friday. John Stossel is doing a special on big government and bailouts and whatnot. I think it’s going to …

Well, I can toss a little promo for that in the interview, because it should be up by then?

Cool, cool, perfect.

And I appreciate you taking the time.

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