Waking Up From The American Nightmare

August 19, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Rewriting the American Dream

The American Dream is not a dream, it’s a nightmare, and it’s time to wake up.

The American Dream according to Wikipedia is “the opportunity for prosperity, success and upward social mobility … achieved by hard work in a society with few barriers…”

“‘Work hard, save a little, send the kids to college so they can do better than you did, and retire happily to a warmer climate’ is the script we have all been handed,” writes Lawrence Samuel in his book The American Dream.

The trouble is we rarely question what “better” means. Better than who? Europeans? Because we have bigger cars, bigger houses, faster food and work longer hours? Better than the few remaining gatherer-hunter tribes on the planet, who, until recent contact with civilization, lived in real-life Paradise?

The truth is America’s been fucked ever since the first Europeans set foot on her soil and turned happiness into a pursuit — a dream.

Our version of the dream

My life partner and I never fully bought into the American Dream, but after owning our own business we are completely disillusioned.

I lived on the fourth floor of our downtown Raleigh apartment building, he lived on the fifth. Far from our hometowns and lonely, we kept each other company.  Six months later I was pregnant.

We weren’t ready for a baby, marriage or a mortgage, but there was no stopping the baby, according to my indoctrinated mind, and we didn’t want to raise her in our downtown apartment. So we skipped the wedding, Brad found a higher-paying job as a manager, and we bought a house in the suburbs.

We knew we wouldn’t fit in there, but somehow¬†thought it would make us responsible parents.

I quit my job when our daughter was 9 months. Brad was terrified about how we would make ends meet, but I couldn’t pull one more all-nighter typing with a baby in my lap or rush home from the office every time my sister called saying she screaming for my breast.

I spent the next couple of years playing stay-at-home-mom/housewife, a role I totally sucked at. Sure, I was giving her a much better toddlerhood than some shitty daycare, but it was at the expense of my own well being.

I was lonely, depressed and fat (for the first time in my life). Brad was gone 10+ hours a day, six days a week, and tired and grumpy when he got home. I couldn’t relate to my Cailou-watching 2-year-old and I couldn’t relate to the moms next door, who paid other people to raise their kids, so they could afford two SUVs and two weeks’ vacation.

I was so bored and Brad was so overworked and stressed — and we were so isolated in our single-family home — we had no one to blame but each other. Our resentment grew. We almost broke up.

Becoming “entrepreneurs”

Then we decided to shake things up. Brad quit his corporate job, we sold the house, bought a food truck and moved to a new town.

We thought owning our own small business would be the pinnacle of whatever shred of hope we had left in the American Dream.

In our version of the dream, the food truck represented the perfect opportunity to escape the machine and fuck the man.

While being our own bosses seemed like a major step toward freedom, it was also a step toward never-ending stress and responsibility.

Taking Care of Business… Everyday

We spent our first three months “in business” jumping through half a million hoops just to get the thing street legal. We spent the next three – January through March – freezing our asses off, operating at a loss.

Over the next six months, we finally started making a little more than we were spending just before our engine blew. $10,000 and two months of unemployment later, we got right back to the grind.

By our second year, we’d gained a reputation as having some of the most delicious, highest quality, affordable food in town. But for food to be high-quality, delicious and affordable, something’s got to give — our profit margins and our backs.

Before we started I imagined my role would be Brad’s social media and PR person. I could write adorable little articles about the local, organic food he was using. That dream quickly went down the toilet, when we realized the most economical role for me to play while caring for my child was full-time dishwasher/truck cleaner/errand runner.

Sure, it was better than my $6 an hour job as a dishwasher in my college cafeteria — I got to be at home and listen to all my crazy documentaries and gurus while I worked — but it still sucked, and Brad was slaving away in the hot truck, flipping grass-fed hamburgers (he quickly found out that’s all people were willing to pay for and scrapped all his exotic menu items).

The capitalist pyramid scheme

By the third year, we had two full-time employees. For a while, we thought we were on our way to the “easy” life. “At some point we can just have other people run the truck and use it as a source of passive income,” we thought.

But that was just another dream. None of the other food truck owners sat home and left a crew to run their truck. It’s not a big enough business to afford that luxury.

We found the more responsibility we tried to offload onto our employees, the more resentful they got (rightfully so), and the more things started falling apart.

The only people we could afford to hire (like most businesses) were desperate people, whose personal problems couldn’t be left at home. If we had “helped” them the way I wanted to, the business would’ve gone under and they wouldn’t have had jobs.

So, instead, we became “the man.” We were cogs in the machine and we were the machine. Our employees looked at us as both their “saviors” and the enemy.

We knew we couldn’t go on very long profiting off other people’s labor. We had no interest in climbing the capitalist ladder by stepping on other people’s shoulders. And we for damn sure didn’t want to do the dirty work ourselves any longer. So we sold the food truck.

The Death of the American Dream

An popular Chinese restaurant in town is about to close up shop after 15 years. We ate there at least once or twice a week. Why? Because it was one of the only affordable places to get delicious, local, healthy food. How many Chinese places can you get a plate of stir-fry with grass-fed steak in it for $12?

What’s interesting to me is how upset people got about the news. Their comments in the local paper reveal an attitude “they have no right to go out of business.”

The owners said they’d been working alongside staff everyday since they opened, because they had trouble finding “good help” in Asheville, a town where enlightened hippies refuse to work hard for low pay.

People wrote comments like “surely there must be a way for you to continue” … “ I can’t believe the owners won’t to sell the business and let someone else keep it going” and “Please stay, Asheville needs you!”

The sense of entitlement from these customers is mind boggling, as if the owners and staff owed it to them to keep providing cheap, high-quality food. If they’d look behind the curtains of our fragile pyramid scheme of an economy, they’d realize why they have such a hard time finding it.

“Give us cooks a living wage! And maybe we stay! And pay our rents!!” a presumably former employee commented.

This is the crux of it. It’s not that small business owners don’t want to pay more. It’s that they don’t want want to go out of business. And to stay in business, they have to sell cheap food and pay low wages (though not nearly as low as big corporations).

We had the same reaction from some of our customers. A woman whose wedding we were supposed to cater later this year freaked out on us, appalled that we had the audacity not to stay in business just for her. Where else is she going to find such affordable, good food and get away with not tipping for it?

Living the Dream

Needless to say, we’re done with all the false promises our high school counselors made. For us, college, career, home ownership and business ownership, were a waste of time.

So we threw it all to the birds and bought a camper trailer, which will be our home for the indefinite future. We’ll be semi “nomadic” with several home bases around the country, primarily here in Asheville. We’ll travel the continent and turn life into a permanent adventure. Maybe someday we’ll settle into a more permanent home base — I envision a tiny home community with a big communal kitchen and permaculture garden — but until then, we’re not living for the future, we’re living in the now.

Wish us luck and follow our journey on Facebook and Instagram.

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