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The Reality of the American Dream Past and Present

I have a conversation with a security guard at the MoMA and am shown the reality of the American dream. I often despise art museums in general and modern art in particular not only because they are shrines to rich extravagance but also because the security guards tend to stare at me like they think I’m about [...]

I have a conversation with a security guard at the MoMA and am shown the reality of the American dream.

I often despise art museums in general and modern art in particular not only because they are shrines to rich extravagance but also because the security guards tend to stare at me like they think I’m about to start pissing on something at any moment. I mentioned to some friends that I had never been to the MoMA — Museum of Modern Art — while in Brooklyn, and a corporate pass was immediately flung in my general direction. “It will get you in free, you have to go.”

I went.

I muddled about for a while before meandering towards a collection of photographs from a guy who had a little shop in Paris where he made a living selling stock photos. I make a reasonable amont of money selling stock photos online and entered into the room to see if I could glean some pointers from the exhibit.

As I walked into the room I could not help but notice the stare being emitted in my direction by the security guard wearing a slick suit and tie. His skin was half dark, I could not place his facial features. He nervously stared at me as though he though that if he did not keep a good watch over me at any moment I could start pissing all over something. Usually, these suit clad security personnel just glare at me from a polite distance. This guy was staring at the back of my head while standing directly behind me. We were the only people in the room and I soon found it unbearable to look at the photos with someone staring a hole through my cranium.

I spun around and faced the fellow standing on my tail. “You must get awful bored just staring at people staring at pictures all day long,” I snapped.

He smiled big. Surprised, apparently, that someone talked to him. I was surprised that he absorbed my snarky comment with such grace.

“It’s a job, man,” he began, “it wasn’t suppose to be this way.”

I was drawn in.

“I never thought I’d be working in security,” he continued. “My specialty is logistics. When I first came to this country I had a good job with Swiss Airlines. I made good money, it was good work. Then they started laying people off. First, a couple would go, then a couple more, then it was me.”

I asked him where he was from. He replied generally that his home country was in South America. I asked him where specifically.

“You don’t know where it is, man. Guyana.”

“From Georgetown?”

“Yeah, you know it?” he exclaimed with a touch of surprise.

“I’m a traveler.”

I could tell right off that he was a touch discontented about something, that he was aching to talk to someone about what he’d been running through his head all day as he paced back and forth across the photography exhibit.

“We can’t get ahead here,” he continued. “I moved here for a better life, opportunity, and all that. Now I don’t have a better life, I work and I spend all that I make. In my home country I work and I can put a little away to save. My mother put me through college by saving a little bit here and there. We didn’t have much money but we were always able to put a little away to save. Here we can’t save anything, we can’t get ahead. My wife works part time and I work full time and together we don’t make $500 per week.”

This has been a story I’ve heard many times over from immigrants trying to make a life in the United States rather than just doing a term of hard labor in order to send remittances home. Many find themselves on a treadmill: working today just to be able to afford working tomorrow. It’s the American dream with the layers of fantasy shaved off. The number of people I’ve meet in my travels who think all they need is to go to the USA and then they’ll have it made is countless. I shrug and say nothing when I hear them talking of what they could have if they could only emigrate. They don’t understand that it often costs $500 per week in the USA to make $500.

“This country had it all,” the security guard continued.

“And they gave it all away,” I interjected and then began talking about the global tread of world economies slowly catching up to each other. But the security guard had things he wanted to say and was not poised to listen. We stood in the photography exhibit and I began to get a little worried that I could get him in trouble for talking to him for so long. Another guest could have easily gotten away with pissing on a picture as we spoke.

“There is deluge of labor in this country,” the security guard continued, unconcerned that he may get in trouble for gabbing to me rather than silently staring at people staring at photos. “I can’t go to my employer and ask for more money because there are 10 more guys who want my job. This recession is good for the wealthy.”

“Yeah, labor is on sale,” I accompanied his grumbling.

“The working people of this country have been victimized,” he added. “It is hard for immigrants in this country. We’re the last ones that are going to be given the jobs.”

He then said that he was thinking about going back to Guyana. I told him that it probably would not be a bad decision. With his education and experience he could more than likely get a better quality job and live better. “Yes, you would at least be able to be with your family,” I somewhat encouraged him.

“I’m waiting for my wife to make a decision.”

The security guard hit a dead end on the road for the American dream. It is my impression that he was from at least a middle class family in Guyana, he received an decent education, and came to the USA in pursuit of something more to do with it. He found himself working security — a job he obviously felt was far below his capabilities. The United States is a country where doctors,  lawyers, and university professors immigrate to become dishwashers, landscapers, and gas station clerks. This is the reality of the American dream — past and present.

The American dream is rarely for the immigrants themselves but for the subsequent generations that they leave with a different set of possibilities. The security guard has a son who was born in the United States, and this is what keeps him standing around in the MoMA looking at people looking at pictures.

“If it wasn’t for my son I’d be back in Guyana.”

Filed under: Immigration, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

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  • Bob L April 11, 2012, 1:11 pm

    I am not sure this is any different from the past. When my grandparents came here from Poland, there were not a lot of good jobs available. Where they lived in the US, the Irish got the low paying jobs because they spoke english and had freinds/family to recomend them. The better jobs went to the non imigrants. Non English speaking people got the dregs. My Grandfathers worked hard, learned English, raised kids and struggled to survive. Their kids, however, did better, getting better jobs, bigger homes, etc. Their kids (my generation) went to college, got proffesional carreers and did quite well. THAT in my eyes is the American dream of my Grandparents generation. What they left in their home country was pretty bad.

    Times today may or may not be worse, I am not sure. I suspect that in my Grandparents time, it might not have made sense for a middle class person to come to the US. After the depression, during and after WWII, I suspect that it may have been a very good time for middle class people to come here. During hard times, I think it is hard to jump into, and maintain, a middle class existence if you are from another country.

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    • Wade Shepard April 11, 2012, 9:34 pm

      Exactly, it seems the same past and present — same immigration story. The first generation climbs the hill then all of us spoiled ingrates have a relatively easy time after our grandparents and parents busted their asses haha. Except with maybe those with lots of money from the start the American dream has always been to come to the USA to work hard and hope.

      Many seem to blame hard times on the current recession or whatever it is, but things seemed way worse when I was a kid growing up on the Great Lakes watching my entire family and everyone else losing their jobs as the factories closed down.

      One thing is for sure though: the prices of basic essentials in the USA have gone up from last year.

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  • Gar April 11, 2012, 10:11 pm

    “…working today just to be able to afford working tomorrow.”

    Man I understand that. I did it for years. Finally I survived long enough to qualify for “Social Security”. It didn’t take me long to find that it wasn’t very social and it certainly wasn’t secure. I couldn’t even eat cheap catfood. So, by selling all the “stuff” that I had been working to support (house, auto, furniture – not to mention yearly taxes and insurance on all that shit) I moved to Mexico. I’m living right and eating good down here.

    Maybe people in the US are just dreaming the wrong dream…?

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    • Wade Shepard April 11, 2012, 10:40 pm

      Right on. The USA is great if you are living Spartan and working 60 hours a week to save up money for something else, but doing this long term isn’t really living and it’s definitely not getting ahead. It’s my impression that there are two types of immigrants worldwide: those busting balls and living like crap to make money and those trying to make a life. The making a life dream in the USA, to a large extent, I feel just means running the economic treadmill. Most people seem OK with this, but for immigrants with big dreams the prospect of working long days for decades to not really socially or economically advance is probably a big let down.

      I agree, I think many Americans are living the wrong dream. Working lives away to acquire stuff and things and status to represent the amount of time invested to the grindstone.

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  • Bob L April 12, 2012, 8:16 am

    Yeah, I talk to some people who complain how bad they have it, and that “someone” needs to do something about it. True, there are a whole lot of people struggling here, but when I meet people like the following, I just want to slap them.

    man, just turning thirty, didn’t bother with getting a highschool degree or eqivilent, working the same yard maintenance job he was doing in highschool. If there is nothing to do, such as during a winter with no snow to plow, he does nothing. Does not take classes, does not try to find another job, nothing. He has a large screen TV, car, motorcycle, an Xbox or whatever the latest electonic heroin is, a phone with lots of whistles and bells, goes out with his friends, lives with his girlfriends parents. Yeah, life is SO unfair.

    Another, has a kid, no husband, lives with parents, almost 30, works some, but not too much because if she works too much the state won’t give her as much money. This way she gets to spend a lot of time with her kid. Thinks the world is unfair. Aparently supporting her and her kid is not enough. She also has the latest phone with the fancy data package and all. Thinks I’m strange because I don’t have a lot of toys.

    I could throw out lots of examples, but there are these that give me hope:

    Twenty something, dropped out of highschool, started working bussing tables, living at mom’s house, letting her support him to some extent. Smartened up and started working a TON, saving money, going to college for a physics degree, having enough money to take a trip every year between semesters, setting up a real job prospect to start before he even gets his degree. He will do good.

    Another, came from a fairly poor family, made some choices that were not so great (college for a degree that even in good times has few job prospects), but worked her butt off finding a job when supposedly there were none, kept expenses low, and tried increasing income, now has a fairly good job, will save to finish college, and with real experience should be able to land any number of jobs. She will do good.

    As you can see, this, this is an interest of mine. I see people who truly have hard times, either because of their choices or bad luck or both. Many of these people struggle and make it, or at least put their kids in a position to make it. Then I see people who were given lots of help, who could have written their own ticket if they had only made smart choices, or got off their butts, or listened just a little to those offering advice. It drives me crazy.

    But, there is another American Dream that I have had a small part in. This is the American Dream of a College Degree. For years I and so many like me have encouraged kids to go to college, and get a degree in something worthwhile. Basically, go to college no matter what. The problem is, when we went to school, a person could get a degree while working, and come out of school with a decent degree and only a small loan. Now, these kids are coming out of school with $40 to 80K of loans, that they have to start paying off as soon as they get a job, ANY job. Even when times were good this was tough, but with tough times, well…. I have learned that the other part, the part we did not teach as much, is more important now than ever. That is, try to NOT have loans, work during school, get a job where they will pay for your education, go to a school that has a strong work/study program. Or… wait a few years until you are better prepared to choose your path.

    Wow, the coffee hasn’t even kicked in yet and I have written a book. Must be sleep deprivation.

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    • Wade Shepard April 13, 2012, 3:02 am

      Everyone thinks they have it hard, whether their a poor laborer or some rich guy in a high rise office. But when someone who is plump and full of food, housed, and has everything they need to survive begins whining to me about how hard their life is I laugh in their face. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re in the USA, Latin America, Europe, or Asia: I pinch one of their fat rolls or grab the meat on their arm and laugh at them. Only at the basest of levels is money an indicator of well-being — wealthy Americans are probably the most miserable cultural sect I’ve ever encountered — and when someone begins complaining about money all I hear are farts.

      It is perhaps ironic that it is often the people who really have it hard who seem to be happy with what they have and rarely complain. Whining and complaining about your life is a luxury of sorts: if you were really bad off sitting around complaining would be the last thing you would be wasting time doing.

      As for social assistance, if governments give people money for being poor then people will stay poor. It sounds sort of cheeky to say this but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Having a certain percentage of people unemployed and on government assistance is perhaps an economic equalizer of sorts, a way of taking money from the far upper echelons of a society to stimulate the lower rungs. It seems as if it’s a necessary economic balancing act as capitalism is inherently an imbalanced model. It’s my impression that the deadbeats on the dole are what keeps modernized societies economically stable, rather than the other way around. As you pointed out: these poor people buy a lot of expensive gadgets — funneling the money back up to the top, always priming the system.

      Now if governments gave that money to people like you or me there would be a problem because we would hold on to it. To speak very generally, the industrialized “poor” are an economic stimulus class: someone who is comfortable with being broke (who has a support system in place to allow for it) often has no problem with spending money frivolously.

      Just an idea. Maybe this is way off target.

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      • Bob L April 13, 2012, 9:23 am

        “Having a certain percentage of people unemployed and on government assistance is perhaps an economic equalizer of sorts, a way of taking money from the far upper echelons of a society to stimulate the lower rungs. ……………As you pointed out: these poor people buy a lot of expensive gadgets — funneling the money back up to the top, always priming the system. ”

        Interesting idea, one I have never heard. To some extent, I have to agree with this. It does seem to help the Governments of this world to have poor people to call on when they need anger votes. I just wish my govt didn’t seem so intent on getting as many people as possible on the public dole.

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  • Tiffany April 14, 2012, 4:06 pm

    Indeed. I once worked in a factory with two doctors from Europe and a woman who was a nuclear physicist in Russia. In the filthy factory they worked a minimum of 70 hours a week just to get by.

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    • Wade Shepard April 14, 2012, 8:52 pm

      Yes, it is amazing. It’s almost like the American dream is for an immigrant to sacrifice themselves for their decedents. It will be interesting to see how this phenomenon changes as the middle classes of developing countries rise and those of over developed countries begins to lower.

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