American Dreams, Lost and Found | The Nation


American Dreams, Lost and Found

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When I was in grade school, I would scrub floors and help with janitorial duties to pay my tuition. When I got into high school, I worked as a caddy at the country club, from 1959 to '64. I was carrying two bags. They called it workin' doubles. Going forty-five holes a day, six days a week.

This conversation appears in American Dreams Lost and Found (New Press).

About the Author

Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel's most recent book is Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (New Press).

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I believe in the work ethic. There's a tremendous dignity in work, and it doesn't matter what it is. What some consider menial, I found to be just a chance to make a living. I always tried to do the best I could at that time. Work hard, get ahead, that was my American dream.

We lived next door to black people. It was integrated. There's a lot of poor and working ethnics who have to struggle their way into the system, who can identify with black people's striving. I'm trying to show both that the color of the enemy is green. (Laughs) This is a city run by the Mayflower-type aristocracy. It's as if the people here don't even exist. Until recently. We seized the decision-making power through the ballot box. If the black movement did one thing, it created ethnic pride.

I'd ask myself why it is that with so many people trying to improve society, not that much changes. As I looked around, I saw many of the kids I grew up with trapped, not able to get as far as they would have liked. I started to wonder, What the heck is this? No matter how hard they work, they can't get ahead. Seeing all these people working their heads off, you find out the system is rigged.

When I first started, I didn't question the institutions. I never really put it together. I think it was the Vietnam War. I'd see that some people were profiting, while tens of thousands of Americans were dying. Friends of mine went over there, and they died. Kids I rode the bus with to school. I started to think: This is a dirty business. I'd better start to find out more about it.

I began to get into city politics. In 1967, I ran for the City Council. I was 21. I went from door to door, and I found out about people. Every campaign I've ever run has been door to door. I spent months just talking to people. They don't ask for much, but they don't get anything. They can have a problem with a streetlight that's out, with a street that's caved in, with a fire hydrant that's leaking, with flooded basements, with snow that isn't plowed.

I've visited tens of thousands of homes over the past years. That's how I got my real education. Door to door.

I was elected councilman in '69. I had just turned 23. My ward was made up of Polish, Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Slovaks, Appalachians, Puerto Ricans, blacks. It was a good cross section not only of Cleveland but of America. They worked in the mills around here. Some had lived in the neighborhood sixty years. Same homes. The churches are still here. They say masses in Polish and Slovak and Russian. They helped keep the neighborhood alive. I loved it.

People were wondering how the heck I got elected to the Council. No one believed the old councilman could ever be beaten, he was so entrenched. At first, people wondered if the banks sent me there. Or the utilities. Or some big real estate interests. All the traditional contributors who buy their candidates. I was elected on a shoestring. I financed nearly my whole campaign out of my pocket, my savings, which weren't much. I put together a coalition of people who were disaffected and ignored.

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