When I first picked up Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard, I had my doubts. For starters, the whole premise of the book seemed lame: Young twentysomething college graduate hits the streets with $25, a sleeping bag, and a sack full of enthusiasm to see if he can "work his way out of homelessness and into a life that would give him an opportunity for success." On the surface it had all the hallmarks of one of those angry, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" polemics that conservatives love to trot out as proof that the American Dream is still alive; that the United States is still the land of opportunity; and that homeless people are that way because they are just too lazy to work.
After I started reading, however, I realized that I had completely misunderstood what the book is about. Shepard's "mission" to pull himself out of poverty is not nearly as important to the book as are his experiences and the human relationships he forms with the characters he meets along his journey. It's not a "rags-to-riches" book. Instead it is a true story about being homeless. It is a glimpse into a world many of us only view from afar.
Shepard is a wonderful storyteller. His sensory accounts of events draw you into the scenes he paints. For example, when he describes his first night in a homeless shelter, he writes: "There's nothing harmonious about the chorus of a roomful of men snoring in unison. My college roommate snored like a warthog choking on his tonsils, so you could say I was used to it, but ninety-plus roommates added a different dimension."
Scratch is not without its flaws, however. The original premise of the book feels contrived and even somewhat disingenuous because Shepard's upbringing doesn't bear any of the predictors usually associated with some of society's most marginalized. Instead he was raised by loving, supportive parents and has a double major degree from a small liberal arts college in New England. He is bright, mentally and physically fit, and doesn't smoke, drink, or do drugs.
To compensate for his tame upbringing, Shepard concocts an elaborate fictional backstory to convince caseworkers, employers, and other residents of the shelter that he is just as disadvantaged as everyone around him. Thus, while he is scrupulously honest and straightforward in his goals, his entire persona while he's "clawing his way out of poverty" is a sham. It's like a documentary on third-world poverty where you suddenly realize that the cameraman is witnessing the same sea of pain that you are, only he's standing there in the midst of it with $6,000 worth of camera equipment draped around his neck.
Shepard's antipathy towards his subterfuge is a bit disquieting at first. But his explanation is succinct: "It was a great story, one that I had been concocting for two days, and as I was going to find out during my stay at the shelter, absolutely imperative to have. Everybody had a story. In fact mine wasn't even that impressive compared to many of the rest. It was our way of being accepted into the group. It gave us something to talk about, a way of relating to one another. It put us on the same playing field."
This theme, of everyone being in the same boat, is the book's saving grace. While his backstory may be false, Shepard's experiences in the shelter are not. He eats the same food as everyone else. He sleeps on the same floor, uses the same disgusting toilet