The phrase “The American Dream” has always struck me as somehow hollow and phony, ever since I was a kid. I always took it to mean something similar to “You can be anything you want,” which I already, at an early age, knew to be bullshit. You can be a lot of things, and given the firm support of Constitutional rights and protections, you could likely be something you’d like being, but you were not going to be President — there’s only so much room at the top — nor Elvis Presley, nor filthy rich, nor a lot of other things. You might not get to be a fireman. You might not be police material. You might never be a cowboy or a nurse. But some of these things were at least imaginable. You could probably be a civil servant (I was born and raised in DC) or an auto mechanic or a teacher or something else useful and satisfying. If you lived in one of the big industrial areas you might well work on an assembly line or repair buses and streetcars. All honorable professions, some even pretty well-paying. Grocery clerks and postal workers did okay, too. A few of us would become doctors or scientists, but the path to those more lofty ledges were made partly of effort and partly of uncommon intelligence and/or opportunity not evenly distributed among the masses.
And that was okay.
If you did become something productive — or even something questionable like a writer, actor, poet, artist — you still would likely be able to find a niche in society locally and perhaps even nationally. At any rate, if you did something and did it passingly well, you’d probably be able to afford to live in a sane, cozy environment in a sustainable community. If you were rural you might become a farmer or work on a farm, and a similar sort of niche was there waiting for you.
But The American Dream? That you could be anything, that you could become wealthy and conspicuously consumptive? Why even bother? That was my thinking. Why kill yourself — or others — to accumulate more than you could reasonably use? Why take over the commons when you could live in a comfortable, modest, pleasant abode and share the commons with the rest of society and be part of that society, come out of your nest and into the park, visit with the other sane and not-so-sane, mix with all sorts of people who had in common the bond of neighborhood, city, state, nation, Constitution, rights and responsibilities, but who, when they went home might live, love, act, create, complain, draw, paint, build as they would? And if you became close enough with some of those others, and if you visited their homes, you would then remember the smells, the scents, the uniqueness of their abodes, the smell of curry or garlic or grits and gravy, cigarettes or no cigarettes, of electric trains or airplane glue or musty old books, and you would remember, and associate forever, those smells with the people who created and owned them.
Those people weren’t all killing themselves to one-up each other. They were a part of us. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was part of his dream too.”
And there were those who rose, economically and technologically above that level, but they remained among us, because that’s where they came from and where they lived and we were who they served and vice versa. Doctors, scientists, the occasional Horatio Alger. Oh sure, sometimes someone would need to move to pursue what he was trying to accomplish or to accommodate that larger home-based medical practice or to be nearer a community more suited to his field of work. But mostly they stayed on and lived part of their lives inside their houses or apartments or rented rooms, and partly out there in the commons, in the parks, in the restaurants and bars and shops. We lived together first, and only second did we gild our lilies.
In my personal life, midway through the 20th century, my family (I was an only child) managed to move from relative (but comfortable) poverty to a blue collar neighborhood, from an apartment my grandmother agreed to share with us though its living room had no windows, only a skylight, and was situated above a store on a narrow side street off the main drag, a very busy retail and entertainment strip along 14th Street in DC. We moved at last into our own, independent quarters, well semi-independent because semi-detached, and we were fully on our own then. A small, modest, brick house, two stories, three bedrooms, one and one-half bathrooms (plus a rough one in the basement), fenced back yard 25 feet wide and over 100 feet deep. And we acquired a dog, and then another dog. Across the street was a vast swamp, as was common in DC in those days, though today people attempt to debunk the swamp history of the place. I don’t know why. It’s turned out well enough.
The city came and dredged and filled the swamp by the time Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in, and it became two baseball fields and a football stadium. Those baseball fields became the Holy Ground for all of us in the neighborhood, and not long after, the Supreme Court of the United States deemed it fitting that Negro Children should have access to the same opportunities, to attend our public schools, and so become part of this “dream” in which we lived.
Of course someone could be called a Commie and have his life ruined, or a girl could get impregnated (God invented sex, by the way) and wind up “going away” or undergoing a dangerous and possibly deadly abortion, and some gay kid could wind up never feeling free to live as who he was, or any number of kids could have been molested by their own parents, but these were things we didn’t discuss, so it was as though they never actually happened.
And it was good.
For a while.
Here is where the accursed American Dream of the far right evolved, as the phenomenon of white flight descended upon us, as “blockbusters” (real estate agents who would go door to door in white neighborhoods, telling horror stories about the coming of the “colored” and how the property values would plummet like a paralyzed falcon, so act, act quickly).
And many were made afraid, and For Sale signs went up and the suburbs were not only born but flourished, and those suburbs, lacking straight streets that led anywhere, and lacking alleys and lacking character and soul, became the national standard for white people, spawned that nebulous American Dream, a nightmare where one was never quite on sufficiently solid footing, because some of those “colored” folks actually went to those schools we left behind and moved on to college, and became, within certain limitations, competitive with the white folks who had fled, and one was never quite good enough until one could be certain a Negro family could not afford to live next door.
And then neither could any white folks one might want to associate with either.
“You don’t go to college, you’ll wind up a plumber or a mechanic or selling pencils on the street corner or riding the back step of a garbage truck,” I was told by upwardly mobile white friends from the new school I hated, neighbor friends who weren’t friends at all but smiling tormentors who saw through my well-read veneer to my inner city roots and laughed at my quaint ways and my lack of ambition to live in Burnt Mills or Chevy Chase or Woodside Park.
I was inferior because I did not buy into that nascent American Dream.
And the dream became, by degrees, a nightmare.
I have never bought into that dream, even though while I was still under my parents’ roof, my father had fallen prey to the disease of ambition, had moved us to this suburban enclave where nothing seemed to happen spontaneously, and I was enrolled in the cotillion and acquired a dazzling girlfriend and became articulate in the language of sarcasm and began to earn some grudging respect.
I could dance. I had this girlfriend everyone else wanted. And, since I still lived as though I had nothing to lose, I became more and more outspoken and people either loved me or feared me, and either was fine with me.
The others from the old neighborhood became part of a diaspora. Those new to me worked hard at one-upping each other. My plan was more subtle. I wanted to live back in the city or some place like it, and enjoy once again the commons and be able to find my true friends, that band of eccentrics that had been the backbone of neighborhood and the modest dream that was of course American, before it became a mandatory, white, elitist American Dream.
I wanted to return to the days before that nightmare began. And so I discovered Bohemia.
But the world was moving forward, and Bohemia was discovered by others, and gentrified and essentially made not much different than the suburban horror into which I had been dragged earlier.
So I succumbed to that picture, and married a girl who had grown up on those surroundings, and we lived in a box in a suburb with no immediate connection to anything, just far enough away from reality to be hellishly tidy. Of course, during that same period the Civil Rights Act was signed into law (though not necessarily observed), Roe v. Wade happened, and the horrors of back-alley abortions and/or banishment went away. We did crawl forward.We did. Somehow.
Over time I managed to sell my wife (my second wife, actually) on the beauty of going back into (or near) the city. We tried, but what I didn’t realize was that I was pulling us both backward in time instead of forward. And again our secret was discovered and gentrified, and my urge was toward exploration and hers was toward what she knew: The suburbs.
And so we parted ways and I ran off to Southern California for some years to live with an eccentric beauty who one day walked in and said “I can’t do this anymore,” because, I now realize, I was still me and she was still her and never that twain was going to meet.
And so I made the biggest mistake of all: I went back — yet again. Back east, as though somehow I could find solid ground where solid ground had already been snatched from beneath my feet multiple times before.
And at last I realized, as the nation’s economy crumbled even as our first black President was elected, that I had once again played Lot’s Wife, and at last I looked long and hard at the despised American Dream and realized at long last that the only American Dream is THIS American’s Dream, that one size does not fit all, and that we can only go halfway into the woods before we are on our way back out again. And I turned to face the west, set my sights on Ixtlan, decided to live as I always had anyway, out on the blue horizon, the far edge of What Lies Ahead, and set out on a journey with no destination, my own personal dream locked up in my heart, knowing that what I had loved and what I will love may have the same qualities, but they are not in the same places, because the past is dead and gone, and the future has not yet arrived.
So as I listen to the incessant political memes of this most important election year of my (or anyone living’s) lifetime, and I keep hearing reference from both sides to The American Dream, I understand that no one can realize this American’s dream for me but me, that there is no one-size-fits-all dream. All the rhetoric, all the rest, is posturing and farce.
My mother used to sing: “You tell me your dream, dear. I’ll tell you mine.”
In order to move forward we must leave the past behind, even if we are to find the best parts of that past somewhere out ahead, as articulated in El viaje definitivo by Juan Ramon Jiminez:
… and I will leave. But the birds will stay, singing: and my garden will stay, with its green tree, with its water well.
Many afternoons the skies will be blue and placid, and the bells in the belfry will chime, as they are chiming this very afternoon.
The people who have loved me will pass away, and the town will burst anew every year. But my spirit will always wander nostalgic in the same recondite corner of my flowery garden.
You are part of my dream of course, but then, I pray, I am also a part of yours.