In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “The American Dream” ran in our January 1993 issue.
Whenever I asked my parents what I should do with my life, they shrugged and said, “Do what makes you happy.” I would roll my eyes because there was no way that three generations of my family had sacrificed — first by fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution, then by leaving Taiwan and their friends and family to work at a fast-food restaurant in America — just so I could do whatever I wanted.
“OK,” I’d say, “but what do you really want me to do?” When they’d say nothing, I’d think this was code for being good at tennis or playing the viola.
It’s only now that I’m in college that I’ve started to relax and do careless, youthful things like typing a final on my phone while car camping. I took a year off from school to work as a nurse’s aide during the pandemic, just to try it out. I’ve gone sailing on a tall ship and learned to whittle from an old mariner. I’ve taken fun classes that have nothing to do with my major. When I tell my parents about all this, they smile and nod, and I realize that they were telling the truth all along. The reason they came to the U.S. wasn’t so I could perform well on tests and land a high-paying tech job. They came here so I could have the freedom to do what I want.
My father’s family had a farm in Oklahoma that was wiped out during the Dust Bowl. They moved to Texas, where my grandmother ran a chicken hatchery and grew vegetables and my granddad took odd jobs. Toward the end of the Depression my grandparents and their five children moved again, this time to a mining camp in New Mexico. They lived in a tent while my granddad prospected for gold and didn’t find any.
At a time when it wasn’t considered proper for women to be breadwinners, my grandmother and her oldest daughter somehow managed to buy a house in Albuquerque for the family to live in. They paid the mortgage by renting out three apartments that were part of the home. Then they bought large tracts of cheap land on the fringes of the growing city and eventually sold them to developers. My granddad and one of his sons went into the construction business and made a good living during the post–World War II boom. They didn’t get rich, but my grandparents were eventually comfortable, and all of their children wound up with secure middle-class lives.
Even though my granddad thought college was a waste of time and money, my father went. When my little sister and I were toddlers, our parents raised us in a one-room apartment in my grandparents’ house while my father worked his way through college. In time he became the director of a government research project, and our family moved into a nice three-bedroom house.
From a young age I got the message that I needed to be a tough competitor to achieve a decent life. In third grade my class had a spelling bee, the winner of which would have the glory of representing the class in an all-grades super bee. The night before, my father helped me practice by picking words from the dictionary. One of the last of those words was giraffe. I remember going over it again and again before I went to bed.
My stomach was in a twist the next morning as, one by one, my classmates were eliminated from the spelling bee and I was left to face my last opponent: my cousin, who was like a brother to me. The two of us went several rounds, each spelling our words correctly as the tension in the room rose. Then the teacher called out the next word: giraffe. My cousin struggled. My heart turned over when he missed the second f. I calmly spelled the word and became the winner. I was on my way to a bright future. But something immediately felt wrong: in becoming the winner, I’d made my cousin the loser.
That feeling has stuck with me, and ever since, I’ve been ambivalent about winning. I’ve got some self-inflicted losses to show for it. I’m almost as old now as my grandmother was when she died, and I can clearly see the shadow side of the American dream: a narrow focus on worldly success as the measure of one’s worth; a country that pits its citizens against one another in a hierarchical battle for dominance.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
My son’s first tricycle sits in front of the television. We assembled it while watching documentaries about homeless people taking over abandoned houses, and the fast-food industry’s oppression of its women workers.
My husband and I were laid off from our publishing jobs five months ago. We’ve struggled to recover a sense of dignity, not to mention income. Because we’re facing the end of unemployment checks, with no full-time work in sight, this tricycle, at $15.99, was a gravely considered acquisition.
Just two hours ago we were feeling like Christmas — a precious child slumbering upstairs, impossible instructions, tiny screws, and noisemakers. Now we’re frightened, worn down by these images of men and women, some angry and empowered, others resigned and exhausted, all sharing life on the razor’s edge of poverty. We secretly wish for our bad dream to end as neatly as a cut to commercial.
None of my relatives has asked if we need food, clothing, or money; relationships with my affluent friends have become less relevant. There is a noisy, cheery sameness to the quality of their denial. I recalculate how to live, how to get through this, while my family dangles on the edge of something black and vast. I feel a sense of suffocation, choking, as I melt into an unfamiliar and undesirable landscape, the country of my brothers and sisters as portrayed on this now-silent television screen.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I volunteer at Casa Alitas, a shelter in Tucson, Arizona, that receives asylum seekers released from detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol. My day starts with the sound of children crying and my supervisor shouting numbers, each of which corresponds to a person. My job is to do intake interviews so we can give the migrants medical or logistical support. The shelter is in an old warehouse. There is no sunlight, and the air often smells of people who haven’t showered in days.
My computer screen glows in front of me with a list of questions I have to ask everyone: “What is your number?” “What is your language?” “Where are you going?” “Were you separated from a family member in detention?” I have only five minutes with each person, and I try to do my best.
The people I interview come from around the world: Nepal, India, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Mauritania. I meet with single men, young mothers with children in tow, large families, cousins, and siblings. I say: Welcome. Here is how it works. This is your court date. This is where you will go at ten o’clock in two weeks to meet with immigration. No, you will not be deported at that meeting, but please look for a lawyer for your court date. This document is a notice to appear. The date is in one month, six months, two years.
I always wonder if they will be deported, what their stories are, how their lives will go. I always wish I could help more.
It’s a gorgeous day: good music on the radio, my old Lexus humming along as I cruise north on Interstate 55 toward Oxford, Mississippi. Suddenly I feel a jolt and realize I’ve been hit from behind. A car with a mangled front bumper speeds past me. I pull to the shoulder and call 911, shaking from the accident but also because, as a Black woman in her fifties, I know that the Mississippi Highway Patrol is not my friend.
During the Civil Rights Movement the Mississippi Highway Patrol was a full participant in the state’s reign of terror against Black people. When I was a young organizer in 1971, Charles Evers, brother of slain civil-rights worker Medgar Evers, ran for governor. One of his campaign promises was that, if he were elected, Black men would join the ranks of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The crowd always erupted in cheers and amens when he said this. He did not win the election, and I still can’t help but think of the highway patrol as a lawless, white-supremacist institution.
There’s a tap on my window, and the familiar gray uniform fills my view. I open the door nervously and look up. Standing before me, in full Mississippi Highway Patrol gear, is the most beautiful Black man I’ve ever seen. A second patrol car pulls up, and to my further surprise, out steps the second-most beautiful Black man I’ve ever seen. For a moment I’m mute. The officers peer at me with concern and ask if I’m OK. I grin and blurt out, “I can’t believe this is happening! I’m here with not one, but two young Black men in highway-patrol uniforms!” Their expressions of concern turn to amusement. “How many of you are there?” I ask.
“We are more than a few,” one of them says with a laugh. They tell me that they love their jobs, they’ve been well trained, and management is good. I try to explain my history with the state’s highway patrol, but I don’t think they could fully understand my past fear and current awe.
When I get back into the car and drive away, I laugh out loud at myself for feeling grateful that I got rear-ended on Interstate 55.
I was born in 1955 to German Holocaust survivors. Their lives had been solidly middle-class prior to the war, during which they’d watched in disbelief as their rights were systematically taken away. My mother’s father refused to believe that anything bad could happen to them, because he was a veteran who had fought for Germany during World War I. He and his wife were sent to Auschwitz. My parents hid their two young children in a Catholic orphanage, went into hiding, and miraculously survived. Most of their family was killed. After the war they retrieved my brother and sister from the orphanage and immigrated to Bolivia. Then, six years later, they came to the United States.
My father was a factory worker, and my mother was a cleaning lady. I asked my parents why they had a child when they were in their forties and struggling financially, and they drolly answered, “New mattress — and the baby clothes in Woolworth’s were so cute.” My parents believed that education and financial security were key. They encouraged me to find a profession that I could support myself with if I had to quickly leave the country: “Get a job they can’t take away from you,” they frequently told me.
I came of age during the sixties, when the war in Vietnam was raging and protests against it were ubiquitous. While I distrusted the government, I trusted my peers and believed we were working toward a better world of peace and togetherness. I chafed at my parents’ feelings of insecurity, worry, and pessimism. Still, when I got to college, their influence won out. Instead of studying fine arts, like I wanted, I became a dentist. My mother cried at my graduation. She cried again when she visited me at my first clinical job. She cried when I married my husband, a Jewish doctor. I was ticking off all the boxes.
Dentistry was hard work. I started a small private practice that I never really loved, but I enjoyed the financial security. I had two kids and was able to sign them up for music, art, dance, and sports. I encouraged my kids to follow their passions. I wanted them to be able to find a job that they loved and that gave them a sense of fulfillment. I was secure in my place in society and thought the country was politically heading in the right direction.
In 2006 the German Citizenship Project was established in the United States. It encouraged victims of Nazi persecution and their descendants to apply for German citizenship. I started gathering the necessary documentation for myself and my children. Obtaining my parents’ U.S. immigration records was a nightmare that took years, but getting information about them from Germany was chillingly efficient. I became obsessed with going through all my parents’ papers and reading about their experiences under Nazi rule. I went back to their hometown in Germany and interviewed the local historians. I participated in a ceremony that commemorated the lives and deaths of my grandparents by placing stolpersteines in front of their last known residences. Stolpersteine means “stumbling stone,” and through the Stolpersteine Project more than one hundred thousand brass plaques have been laid in front of the houses of people who were persecuted and murdered by Nazis. I visited old cemeteries and train stations, including the one where my grandparents boarded the train to Auschwitz. I visited the orphanage where my brother and sister had spent their childhood. I started having brief panic attacks.
Then the 2016 U.S. presidential election happened. I heard language from the newly elected president and his followers that echoed that used in 1930s Germany. I listened to the president of the United States vilify Muslims, immigrants, LBGTQ folks, and people of color. I watched in horror when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and I shuddered when the president called them “very fine people.”
I started imagining how my parents had felt in Germany in the 1930s as their safety and status were stripped from them by lies and anti-Semitism. Now it seemed my children might be safer moving back to the country that had tried to annihilate their ancestors. I finished pulling together my documentation to get dual U.S.-German citizenship for myself and my kids, but the German consulate was booked out months in advance. (I was told there had been a sudden flood of applications after the election.) I had trouble sleeping and started encouraging my musical, creative son to attend nursing school. My daughter is pursuing a teaching degree and taking German lessons, although she would rather dance and create art. There are obvious reasons to encourage kids to seek greater financial security in today’s economic climate, but the advice I give both of mine is to learn a skill that “they” cannot take away from you.
Growing up as a middle-class white girl in the 1970s, I had no idea I was living an anomaly of good fortune. My father supported our family of seven on his salary, even though he did not have a college degree. By the age of seventeen I was paying my way through college by waiting tables part-time. It was exhausting and often degrading work, but I earned enough to cover my bills, including my public-university tuition. (This was also thanks to legal abortion; otherwise I would have become a parent at nineteen.)
Today that land of opportunity is gone. My godson and his four-year-old daughter are moving in with me next week. A young, single parent and full-time worker for a well-known insurance company, he clears about $3,000 a month. With unregulated rent prices where they live, he can’t afford both housing and his child’s basic needs, never mind swimming lessons or other so-called extras.
His daughter is smart, healthy, and strong, but her father is too exhausted to read to her at night. Her mother struggles with mental-health issues and has abandoned her. And she’s living in a state where funding for public education and social services is among the lowest in the country. She will go to a school with thirty or more kids in a classroom and without art or music teachers. And if she goes to college, unless things change dramatically, she’ll come out with decades of debt. That’s not even the worst of it, of course. There is the devastating loss of her reproductive rights; the attacks on democracy, gender identity, and sexuality; the incessant horrors of gun violence; and a dying natural world.
She is deeply, beautifully American. Of her four grandparents, one is Black, one is Mexican, one is Korean, and one is Anglo. When I think of her many forebears, whose paths have united in this incredible child, I wonder, Is this what they would have wished for her?
As a child growing up in a village in rural India, I would tell people, “I want to go to America and meet Superman,” without truly understanding what that meant. When a lucky break took me to Singapore, I was swept up in the glitz and glamour of the city, but a part of me felt restless and out of place.
After I married my wife, she suggested we move to America. It seemed impossible, our chances of being approved for a visa slim. But we decided to try. When we arrived at the U.S. embassy, it was a grim scene: immigration officers were yelling at the Chinese applicants. Just as our turn came, a new window opened, where a friendly officer stamped our forms and passports. We screamed with joy as soon as we stepped outside.
Since arriving in America twenty-five years ago, I have volunteered for hospice; served the unemployed in Detroit, Michigan; and cooked curry in the soup kitchens of San Francisco. Occasionally I find myself adhering to the logic and structure of the Western world: I set clear goals and work to achieve them. I strive to make and save enough so I can retire comfortably. Yet when my well-constructed plans fail, I sink into depression and have even contemplated suicide.
I think often of Joseph Campbell’s saying that you must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you. An invisible force guided me to this land of the free, where I learned to be resilient and to give more than I take. America may not be what I thought it was as a child, but despite the guns, the politics, and the posturing, it’s better than anything I could have imagined.
My daughter has long dreamed of going to American University, and last fall she was accepted. We rejoiced and bragged, in spite of my worries about the cost. After some financial-aid hiccups and endless emails, we learned that we will be expected to pay more than $60,000 out of pocket per year. That’s roughly a quarter of a million dollars by the time she graduates, assuming it takes her four years. I knew it was possible the numbers might shake out this way, but now that it’s real, it feels unfathomable.
I’ve spent years trying to convince my husband that when it came time for our kids to go to college, we’d have a financial-aid advantage if we were making less money; my parents’ low income led to more assistance for my siblings and me to go to college. But my husband has always been driven by the pressure to be successful and provide security. As I feared, we are in a difficult position. Sixty thousand dollars is almost half my husband’s annual take-home pay. It is baffling to me that American University thinks our family can reduce our spending so drastically and still afford to raise four other children in the Chicagoland area.
I had hoped that the pandemic would lead kids to embrace less-expensive community colleges, but in our suburb most families still value a prestigious name-brand higher education. I am finally getting firsthand experience of this dysfunctional element of capitalism: the absurd cost of an elite college. Are we rich enough to give our daughter the experience she has dreamed of? Will we fail in our duty to provide her the very best future possible if we can’t afford it?
My parents visited last weekend. They have been attempting to hide their horror that we are considering spending so much money on college, but they did remind me that they chose not to send me to Duke University because of the price tag. I’ve always wondered if I would have been more successful if I’d gone to Duke instead of the Christian college I attended. The reminder that the decision had been a financial one made me resent my parents, once again, for their obsession with saving money. I’ve called their behavior greedy and stingy. What should I call spending a quarter of a million dollars on a college education that may mean little in the long run?
Oak Park, Illinois
Neither of my parents is much of a storyteller. They don’t like to talk about the past. When I was a child, I saw my grandparents once or twice a year, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins even less frequently. Feeling like I was missing something, I turned to genealogy at the age of ten to understand how I fit into my family, our country, and the world.
Both sets of grandparents shared family-history paperwork with me. With those documents, genealogy websites, and DNA technology, I’ve learned that my ancestors came to North America from Europe starting in the 1500s.
Recently I heard a program on NPR about the living relatives of historian and author Carter G. Woodson, who was born in 1875 and founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. His ancestors were among the first people taken by force from Africa and brought to the New World. Their lives were purchased in 1619 by some of the first enslavers in North America: the Woodson family of Jamestown, Virginia. My ancestors.
I’ve become one of many descendants of enslavers who are joining the call for reparations to be paid to the descendants of the people our ancestors enslaved. I’m glad to contribute to this growing movement. Too many lives were lost, too much liberty and happiness denied. It’s not about guilt; it’s about accountability.
Mr. Smith started his weekly therapy session by showing me his watch and asking how much I thought it cost. I shrugged. He quoted me an obscene figure — more than my car — then added casually that he had another, almost identical to it, at home. The only difference was that this watch had a light face, while the other had a dark face.
At the end of our session he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of fifty-dollar bills, and paid in cash. Mr. Smith ran a successful business. He owned the bright-red Ferrari parked outside the health center. He sent his daughter to private school and had bought her a horse. His wife did not work. On the surface it looked like he had everything, but his marriage was in shambles, his daughter had an eating disorder, and he was miserable.
Our lives were quite different: I drove a Honda. My daughter had to make do with two dogs and a cat. My wife and I owned a modest home, which we were rehabbing, and we were still paying off student debt. We’d had some hard times, and there were more to come. I didn’t know then that I would be diagnosed with prostate cancer, or that more than twenty-five years later we’d be living in the same house and driving another old vehicle. But I’m still married to the love of my life, and my daughter lives ten minutes away with her partner and our three grandkids. I’m living my dream.
Cortland, New York
When I was a senior in high school, I had an epiphany: I would not pursue a college degree, a family, or homeownership. Instead, that first summer after graduation, I hopped on my bicycle with some crude camping gear and started pedaling cross-country. It was the first time I had been outside of Michigan. I turned eighteen on the back roads of Indiana. After watching a small-town Fourth of July fireworks display, I slept under the stars on the grass of a high-school football field.
I’m now sixty-three years old, and I’ve spent my life pursuing adventures on my bike. For a living I’ve cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a variety of eateries and worked as an emergency medical technician, ambulance driver, and legal assistant. Today I sell my handmade ceramic pendants, necklaces, and earrings at art shows and street fairs. When a fair ends, I strap my custom-made, collapsible jewelry display to my rear bicycle rack and head to the next one.
It’s been more than twenty-five years since I’ve owned a car. All my possessions fit on my bike: tent, sleeping bag, foam sleeping pad, saddlebags packed with clothes and rain gear, and a day bag with my laptop. The past decade has taken me from Sacramento, California, to Portland, Oregon, where I stayed for six years before pedaling north into Washington State when COVID restrictions started lifting. I eventually landed here in Port Townsend, camping in state parks and using token-fed showers until I found a room to sublet. I sleep comfortably on the floor using my foam pad instead of the furnished bed. My forty-dollar Tracfone is usually off. I use it mainly for two-factor verification with my bank.
When I feel a life chapter coming to an end, I purchase a road map, load up my gear, and start pedaling. I’ve been called a lone wolf, which I consider a compliment. I tried being like everyone else. I ended up being myself.
Port Townsend, Washington
I am one of an estimated 3,300 infants and children who were flown out of Vietnam during Operation Babylift in April 1975. I arrived in the United States as a malnourished eleven-month-old with hepatitis, but I was healthy when I was eventually adopted by a couple in Missouri.
Raised by an Irish Catholic father and a German Catholic mother, I was one of only two nonwhite students at my parochial school. The other girl, also adopted, was the only Black person I knew until high school. It would sometimes slip my mind that I looked different than everyone else — until someone would ask, “Where are you from?” It was easy to forget my pre-Babylift past, because there was no record of it.
My dad, who had served as a Marine in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, offered to take me to see the country, but I never wanted to know more about my homeland, the war that had brought me to the States, or the magnitude of the trauma I’d experienced as an infant. Why would I? I was an American, privileged with a private education, housing and food security, air-conditioning, and fireflies skimming our suburban lawn. My image of Vietnam was that it was ungodly hot and home to jungle centipedes, giant scorpions, and deadly vegetation. I was grateful for the life I’d been given, partly because others constantly told me, “You must be so grateful.” Thanks to those offhand comments and the images I saw on TV, I felt an unspoken pressure to succeed in life.
I carefully took the expected path: I made friends in my socioeconomic demographic, went to college, got married, had a child. Today I have become like so many other middle-class Americans: simultaneously over- and underdiagnosed, spoiled and grateful, and great at faking success, happiness, and orgasms. I take my antidepressant cocktail with my organic meals and drive to my therapist’s office in my Volvo. My life is still extraordinary.
My dad started working for Mobil Oil right after he finished eighth grade in the late 1940s, and he remained a company man for the rest of his life. His bosses moved Dad wherever it suited them — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Saudi Arabia — like he was a pawn on a chessboard. The only time he sounded excited about his job was when he told me about shipping off to Paris to work on the jet engines used to push oil through pipelines.
I have no memories of my parents as a couple. They divorced when I was eighteen months old. I spent my summer vacations with Dad, listening to reel-to-reel tapes of Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash and sweating in his one-room cabin in Texas. Not a single thing changed in that cabin during my entire childhood: the wagon-wheel chandelier hung over the table, and his cowboy hat hung on the wall.
Work was a big part of summers with my dad. He fixed water pumps, riding lawn mowers, old trucks, and cars. Sweat dripped off his face, and his hands always seemed to have cuts on them. He would laugh and say, “You’re not working unless you’re bleeding.” I suspect the Jim Beam might’ve had something to do with his injuries.
The last time I saw my dad, the skin of his nose was a map of broken blood vessels, and his ears were flushed like he was feverish. Winston cigarettes and the Texas sun had wrinkled his skin into deep arroyos. He lived on canned Vienna sausages, saltine crackers, and wine spiked with vodka (his stomach couldn’t take the whiskey anymore). If you saw him from behind, he was stick thin, but when he turned around, it looked like he was hiding a pillow under his shirt because his liver was so swollen. We talked about my future, and he told me about all the things he had planned for his retirement. He ended with the same line I heard all through my childhood: “Of course this will be yours someday,” meaning the cabin.
When we talked about my plans to go to college, he said, “Yeah, I guess you should get a sheepskin to hang on your wall, and then you can get to work like the rest of us.” He had never really appreciated the college graduates he worked with because, he said, “they just ain’t got no horse sense.” But he always supported me.
In February 1986 Dad came home from work for lunch; he had a headache and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The pain in his head was caused by a burst blood vessel in his brain. He was fifty-three years old. He never got to fulfill a single one of his retirement dreams, and he missed so much of my life. I was in my second semester of college in California, just shy of my twenty-first birthday. I felt angry and abandoned.
A week after his death I received my first report card in the mail — straight As. I quit doing drugs and kept my grades up. I went on to run a multimillion-dollar company, became a successful cannabis farmer, and started a family. I even fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a commercial pilot.
I inherited the cabin by Lake Thomas — just like Dad had said I would — and I went back as often as I could to do repairs and visit neighbors and family. It was, after all, my legacy and my childhood time capsule. But it began to feel like a burden, and the long road trips from Northern California to Texas grew less and less frequent. Finally I made my last trip with my two grown children in January 2020. We spent three days at the lake, I shared my childhood stories, and then we sold Dad’s cabin for $5,000.
Today I can hear the ocean from my California living room, but one corner feels more like Texas. Next to the wagon-wheel chandelier hangs Dad’s yellowed straw cowboy hat with the two-inch-wide sweat stain. When I sit on my couch and look over there, I can still see him with a Winston hanging out of his mouth, thick white smoke curling around the edges of his brim. I’m no longer angry about the drinking and the secondhand smoke. I no longer feel like he abandoned me. I’m mostly happy with the life I’ve made for myself, having fun while I’m alive instead of waiting for the payoff at the end. But now that I have multiple sclerosis and no retirement plan, I have questions: Should I have focused on a corporate career with a retirement package and health care? What would my dad think of my choices?
James Coyote Norris
Fort Bragg, California
I arrived an hour early, the third person in the queue that stretched across my Ivy League campus. It was the semester’s most anticipated meal, surf and turf, featuring shrimp, lobster-tails, steak, full bottles of A.1. for every attendee, and an ice-cream-sundae bar.
I fingered the neon-pink index card in my pocket: my subsidized meal ticket. When I’d applied for it earlier in the year, the advertisement had promised discretion and directed me to the dimly lit basement of the campus dining hall. I had to ask four people about the ticket, each of whom smiled a little less upon hearing my request. The last told me to wait in an empty office for someone who could “address the situation.”
By the time the surf-and-turf buffet opened, I held the ticket in my fist. The students in front of me handed the cashier prepaid meal cards to scan. I slipped her my ticket, facedown. “What’s this?” she asked loudly. A uniformed police officer and two campus security officials stood behind her.
“It’s from the EMF,” I said.
“What?” she asked, flattening the ticket with her palm and straining to read its wrinkled words. Behind me, classmates waited with laminated photo IDs paid for by their parents, who could easily afford $3,000 for a meal plan.
A second cashier paused her line and walked over. They both looked at me. “It’s a new program,” I said. “The Emergency Meal Fund for hungry students.”
“What are we supposed to do with this?” the first cashier asked the second.
“We can’t take this,” she said.
I slipped the card back in my pocket and briefly considered waiting in another line, hoping for a kinder cashier. As I sped toward the exit, a voice called out, “Excuse me — you! We’ll take the hungry-students ticket.” My peers watched as I walked back to the line and loaded my plate — a university-branded frisbee.
I found a spot near a shrub to sit alone. My stomach hurt, so I couldn’t eat much. After I was full, I opened my backpack and stuffed it with everything left on my plate: lobster, strawberries, mozzarella balls, coconut cookies, a half-eaten steak and its fat that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. In class later I avoided unzipping my backpack, fearful of releasing the aromas that were marinating inside.
At the end of the day I shrank beside the school’s towering marble columns and metal statues. I paused at the campus’s armored perimeter: black iron bars over windows, iron fences around buildings. Were they trying to keep people like me out?
New York, New York
I am living the American dream, thanks to the U.S. jail and prison systems.
I come from a poor family. My parents grew up in the South before the Depression. My mother walked along the railroad tracks, picking up coals that had fallen from the coal cars. That was how they heated their home. My dad’s house didn’t have an indoor bathroom. He had to dig holes for the outhouse. Few of my ancestors owned land. Most were poor squatters just eking out a living.
When the Depression hit, my dad and uncles turned to crime, mainly petty theft and bootlegging, but one of my uncles was convicted of bank robbery. I remember visiting him in prison when I was a little girl. He had made me a small leather pouch, the kind you might make in Scouts. Later in life I saw the prison my dad had been in as a teen: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was a true horror. I don’t think anyone in my family was ever rehabilitated or made better by being locked away in a cell. They were people trying to make their way, by whatever means, and the system came down hardest on the poor, as it always does.
Imagine their surprise when I became project manager for a company that specialized in building jails and prisons. Then I started my own business doing the same. This was in the nineties, when the prison population more than doubled, and state and federal agencies were spending billions on new facilities. I felt shame for my part in mass incarceration, but the guilt was assuaged by my bank-account balance.
I made enough money to retire at the age of fifty. From there I began living the life I had always wanted. I went to Bryn Mawr College for a liberal-arts degree and earned a master’s in writing. I lived on a sailboat for a few years, traveling from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys and to the Bahamas. I bought a house by a lake to enjoy with my grandchildren. I am filled with gratitude toward my ancestors who paid the price for me to live the life I do.
Vero Beach, Florida
The other morning my teenage son sat down beside me, poured cereal into a chipped bowl, and started talking about his plans for the future. He told me that he’s going to do things differently than I did. “I’m going to travel and see places,” he said, “not stay stuck in one town all my life, always broke. I’m actually going to do something with my life.” I tried not to be hurt by this comment, which I knew was made by a teenage boy with lots of ideas and little experience.
I have done something with my life: I got married, had two children, and bought a home. I am a teacher, and I was the first in my family to earn a college degree, even though I have a disability (cerebral palsy). And I have tried to give my children worthwhile experiences and material things, often at the cost of endless debt and sleepless nights.
Now that my children are almost out of the house, I wonder if I’ve been trying to live up to someone else’s standards. If I’m honest with myself, my son’s words hit a nerve: I thought I would be further along now than I am. Driving into the city recently to see my daughter’s college program, I noticed rows of tents dotted along the highway. The homeless camps themselves are not alarming — they are the new norm. What’s alarming is that I am only two paychecks away from being in one.
As a child, I carried around an image of who I would be as an adult. It was — sadly — a composite of all the media images I’d ingested since birth. I’d be straight. I’d be thin. I’d be a happy, sharp, on-the-go woman, always looking good with the right hair, makeup, and clothing. I’d have an exciting career. And I’d have a handsome boyfriend who would eventually be the prop for the grand finale of my life: a wedding. I wanted these things because they were the only things available to want. Because I was intelligent and attractive, I assumed I could have them.
When I was a teenager, this everyday happiness wasn’t within my grasp, but I still believed that it was on its way. As sure as I started my period at thirteen, my glamorous life would descend from the skies around my twenty-fourth birthday.
During college it occurred to me that this scenario might not come true for me. With a closet full of khaki cotton in size fourteen, I slipped further away from my dream with the discovery of feminist politics and lesbianism. As I was introduced to new ideas, I found myself wanting the life of those commercial women less and less.
But the American dream still exists within me and still force-feeds me, twenty-five years later, from every billboard and TV screen I see. When I hold my current life up against these images, I sometimes feel like I have failed, as surely as if I’d abandoned the family business.
Kansas City, Missouri
I spent my final year of high school at a private arts academy for dancers, writers, musicians, and visual artists. We lived and studied together, and everything was geared toward training us to be the best in our fields.
One day I left my sheet music in the auditorium after rehearsal. It was the weekend, and by the time I realized it was missing, the building had been locked. I needed my music to practice and for a class. I went to the security guards and asked if they could unlock the doors for me, but they just shook their heads. I left feeling frustrated with myself and wondering what I would tell my teacher. Then a security guard named Vic said, “Hey, wait a minute. Nothing is impossible. You need your music, and I have the keys.”
He was finishing his lunch as we walked together across campus through the snow. “You kids with your big dreams,” he said. “Dreams is for the bedroom, I say. I live well: I have my garden at home, my wife and kids. I put food on the table. I try to help where I can. That’s what life is really about. Don’t forget it.” He let me into the auditorium, and I got my music.
I never forgot Vic’s kindness or his words. My education was all about competition, winning, and being the best. Vic was the only person who ever told me it would be enough to live small, take care of people and the environment, and die anonymous to all except the people you’d touched with your kindness.