I know a fellow who spent a year of his life living on the streets of Philadelphia. Let’s call him “K”. K is now an executive, and a widely respected member of his profession. Sometimes when he tells his story to other people, he reaches in his mouth and takes out half of his teeth, just for effect.
When he does that, there is a dissonant effect. People look at him and wonder, what part of his story is correct? The part that is wearing a suit right in front of me, or the part that is taking his teeth out of his head, talking about being homeless?
I know another fellow (a friend of a friend, let’s call him “R”), who is living in his car right now. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. But none of them make his situation any easier. He spends some of his time in his run-down vehicle, and some of his time in a shelter in our county.
My hope is that R finds a miracle, and that someday he can tell a story like K does.
I am fascinated, and terrified, by hard luck stories.
My wife and I watched a performance many years ago, called “It’s Raining On My Furniture”. It was part of a benefit show, and someone who was well-known as a comedian did a very serious monologue from the perspective of a homeless person.
The monologue started with a normal fellow speaking to the crowd about normal things, and it evolved into a monologue about disappointments, betrayal, divorce, despair and finally homelessness.
I heard it almost 30 years ago. I won’t ever forget it.
I went to see Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band on Sunday night. He played his album “The River” as part of the concert.
The River was a 20-song double album, released in 1980. At the time, the United States had fallen on really difficult economic times. The album is full of references to hard times, like “lately there ain’t much work, on account of the economy…”.
I watched an interview with Bruce Springsteen where he described the current situation as “the difference between the American Dream and the American Reality”. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
The American Dream is the idea that I should be able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, and achieve even greater things. And my children, and their children, should be able to stand on my shoulders and achieve even more than I did.
But not everyone gets to live the American Dream.
Why doesn’t everyone get to live the American Dream?
Someone I know likes to say “it’s complicated”. It is complicated. There are a lot of reasons. It would be easier if there was a simple formula for success, like “3X Effort + 2Y Education=American Dream”. My experience has been that a lot of achieving the American Dream seems to be about circumstance. That it is about being in the right place at the right time, about being born in the right family, in the right zip code, in the right year.
I have experienced a lot of the American Dream. But I don’t take much credit for it. My parents provided me the opportunity to receive a great education, and they shared countless other opportunities with me as well. I have been able to make a lot of mistakes, and I have received a lot of second chances. I’ve received more than my fair share.
So I don’t confuse all of that good luck with any virtue on my part.
There is a lyric in the song “The River”, about the loss of dreams. It goes:
“those things that seemed so important, they vanished right in the air, now I act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she doesn’t care”.
Later in the song, one of Springsteen’s most painful lyrics is “is a dream a lie, if it doesn’t come true, or is it something worse?”
So what do I do with all of this information? As best as I can, I try to share some help and hope with people who need it. My wife and I volunteer at a facility that provides transitional services to the homeless community in Philadelphia. We also work with a local non-profit organization in our community that helps people who have fallen on hard times to get back on their feet. Why do we do this? Maybe a story will help explain.
My friend “K” (who I wrote about earlier) did a really big favor for me one time. Really big. I thought it was epic. I asked him how I could repay him. I had a checkbook with me, and I was prepared to pay. K looked at me, and all he said was “Pass It On”.