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Taking the Pulse of the American Dream

A socio-economic biography by Chris Cocca

 

   As most people who know me know, I, like many students at Ursinus, come from a neck of the Pennsylvania woods not too far from here known as the Lehigh Valley. Like many students here, I come from a working class family, and like most students here, I wouldn’t be in college without the hard work and support of that family—or without my own dedication to educating and improving myself in a way that will prepare me for the great big world I’ll encounter after college.

   Growing up in the Lehigh Valley (Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and the surrounding rural and suburban areas), I’ve witnessed first hand the economic and social problems many in academia attribute to the cruelties that the “haves” in our capitalist system employ to keep the masses of the “have nots” bound by their collective chains. The Lehigh Valley area has had to deal with the problems of big companies moving south, cutting jobs, closing plants, or going out of business.  Mack Trucks, for example, still has its international headquarters back home, but the factories that used to employ thousands of Lehigh Valley residents have long since gone south in search of open shop states in an effort to cut costs and increase profits.  Bethlehem Steel, at one time the world wide leader in a multi-billion dollar industry, arguably the most important industry of the last 100 years, used to employ thousands of Valley residents at good wages in what seemed like relatively secure positions from floor sweepers and coke workers to truck drivers and executives.  Now, that once proud and dominant company is not even a shadow if its former self, its decline leaving thousands more unemployed in the area where I grew up.  Portland Cement dealt the Valley an almost identical blow.  I could list a dozen more companies that left the Allentown area with the same fate…names like General Electric and Black and Decker come easily to the minds of men and women my parents age and older.  But by now you might be growing tired of the “Roger and Me”-like picture I’m painting, asking yourself, why does Cocca think we care about the problems of his home town?  The answer has less to do with Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton than it does with opportunity, freedom, and the fulfillment of the American Dream, which despite the problems I’ve listed, is alive and well in the Lehigh Valley, in the nation, and believe it or not, even in our own little corner of the academic world known as Ursinus College. 

   Believe it or not, there are many among us…teachers, friends, co-workers (maybe even pledge masters) who don’t believe in the American Dream, or believe, at best, that it’s the most selective dream ever concocted by the minds and hearts of men. Some call it foolish, some call it capitalist propaganda, and some call it an outright lie, but to a lot of people I’ve known, it’s as real as the possibility of failure a free society implies.  Many people I’ve grown up with, worked with, and respect call it a possibility, a very real possibility with the power to encourage and inspire each of us to rise above the circumstances of our surroundings and make a better life for ourselves and our families.  And I find myself agreeing.

  I offer this naïve belief of mine knowing full well of the social situations that keep many from attempting the goal.  But I’m also aware that there’s a huge difference between “attempting” the goal and “achieving” it.  We are guaranteed the right to one, and we hope against hope and offer prayer against prayer that we may reach the other.  I offer this naïve belief of mine to those who, so thoroughly doubting the possibility of achieving success, accept the cruel lie that making the attempt isn’t even worth the effort. I implore them  to seriously reconsider.  I offer this belief knowing the scorn it engenders, knowing the stories of seeming hopelessness and poverty that some might think refute it, but also knowing the stories of those who rise above their conditions against all odds and succeed in this American experience of ours.  This brings me back to the Lehigh Valley.

   About 100 years ago, a poor Italian immigrant from a struggling tobacco farm in southern Italy left home with his older brothers for America in search of a better life, eventually making his way to Allentown.  He was 12 and followed his adult brothers every morning to a day of grueling work  at a local factory (these were the fledgling days of child labor laws).  Being Italian in an area that was at that time largely Pennsylvania Dutch and Northern European, the young man was the frequent subject of ridicule, scorn, and what would now be called sexual harassment—possibly even sexual assault, at the hands of American female coworkers curious about the ways Mediterranean male anatomy might differ from American. These too were the days before sexual harassment laws. 

  These problems and his limited ability to earn a living found the young man soon on a boat headed for his native San Marco, Italy, discouraged and demoralized, but undaunted nonetheless by the less than friendly reception the land of opportunity offered him.  He returned to Italy, worked long hours, scrimped, toiled, and saved, and 10 years later returned as an adult with $2000 (a decent amount) and the shirt on his back to the land that had once already sent him packing.  But this time was to be different.  This time he stayed, finding work where he could while learning the broken English he would speak the rest of his life.  The early years were slim, especially after marrying a woman from his old home town and starting a family.  But as long as work was present, any kind of work, he found it and struggled on.  Even during the Depression he managed to work two factory jobs that kept him on his feet 20 hours a day— and kept him sleeping in his shoes for fear that the intense swelling he’d grown accustomed to would leave him unable to put them back on and return to work in the morning.  He worked every day of his life, from one blue collar job to another, eventually saving enough money in his later years to buy a small apartment building that his children and grandchildren would one day call home.

   In 1927, after having two daughters with his wife Grazia, his son Vincent was born.  Vincent grew up like many of the children of recent immigrants—in a family struggling to survive, struggling to learn the language and customs of their new home while keeping their own distinct identity alive.  His parents still barely spoke English, hardly ever in the house, and could offer little help or instruction when it came to homework or other aspects of his American education.  Many people today would say these factors, his social conditions, were the most responsible for the less than successful experience he had in school, being held back in kindergarten, third grade and fifth grade, and perhaps are the sole reasons why he dropped out of school as a 17 year old 9th grader.  Suprisingly, at 74, he today is not one of those people.  While others might insist that these factors were essential to his educational troubles, none of them suffice to explain why, after serving his country in the Second World War and returning to a string of unsatisfying blue collar jobs, he started his own food business from scratch in the basement of his father’s house,  with zero training in the areas of entrepreneurship or accounting, without having ever taken a course in EcBa, and most importantly, with no guarantees.  Working countless days and long nights, Vince (as he was known) rigorously built a successful enterprise, and in a short time found himself delivering hundreds of lunch orders a day to the factories he used to work at.  

  While you might think this capitalist society of ours would reward a success story like Vince’s, he and his family nonetheless found themselves, along with hundreds of other Allentown residents and business owners, forced out of their homes and livelihoods by a government focusing on “redevelopment.”  The neighborhood that had been home to Vince, his father, and now his own young family, the neighborhood of his friends, his family and business, was bought out by the government for half its value and converted into government supported low income housing.  The once thriving downtown that had supported departments stores like the once world famous Hess’s (which our own Philip Berman served as a CEO for) died a slow and painful death as an important segment of its tax base found itself forced out of the only place it had ever called home.  People poured out of the city in droves, eventually shifting the tax money and businesses of many like Vincent to the nascent suburbs, an area today in the Lehigh Valley characterized by the best schools, the most business, and the greatest concentration of wealth.  It’s ironic how government intervention ruined the city it was trying to save and turned hundreds of acres of farmland into the most economically and socially desirable place to live in the years to come.  The process continues to this day, as the Lehigh Valley suburbs (just outside the tax authority of the city) become increasingly upscale and high income oriented.  It would be interesting to see what might have happened to the city if the hundreds of people like Vince hadn’t been forced out of their homes and businesses.  We’ll never know, but the scary picture that emerges is that (gasp) government involvement might not always be able to save us, and government just might be as adept at destroying cities as the real nemeses of progress in this capitalist mess of ours…our good old enemy known as Big Business and capitalism itself.

   Yet Vince and many like him survived, even if the economic life of the city didn’t, after redevelopment.  Like many city business owners, he relocated to the burgeoning suburbs to give the dream another shot.  With hard work and providence, he was able to repeat the success he’d had in town and even surpass it, adding a miniature golf course, gift shop and Italian restaurant to the fast food drive in he originally built.  “Vince’s” was an even bigger hit than ever, and for 12 years he and his family, most notably his own son Vince, competed against the fledgling national fast food chains popping up around him, but eventually succumbing to hard times and going out of business in 1981. 

    In 1985, Vince Jr, at age 32 already the father of two children (one five, the other a newborn) took a leap of faith and tried to revive the family business his father started when he himself was barely five years old.  Since the drive in collapsed 4 years before, Vince and his father had been working extensive carnival routes, selling their most famous item, cheesesteaks, from concession trailers week in and week out across the state.  The schedule of the carnivals and fairs kept Vince Jr. on the road for most of the spring, summer and early fall, keeping him away from his family for weeks at time in an effort to provide for their most basic of needs.  He traveled all across the state and beyond, sometimes doing well, sometimes loosing money, but either way giving a substantial amount of his gross sales as rent to the owners of the shows he traveled with in exchange for the right to work on their midways.  During the winter season he worked long hours as the manager of the cafeteria at Kutztown University,  with the worries of a mortgage, car payments, his own young family, and the financial security of his parents sometimes the only things keeping him going during the long hours he spent away from home.  

   In 1985, on the grounds of a run down gas station in an aging Allentown shopping center, he opened a new “Vince’s,” a small fast two lane fast-food drive through with a small area in the front for walk in orders.  Is wasn’t nearly the size of its previous incarnation, but after a few months it turned out to be successful nonetheless.  In order to keep costs down, Vince, like many hard working proprietors, found himself working the bulk of the hours, 14+ hours a day, six days a week, chopping and cooking tons of meat each week, loading and unloading trucks everyday, lugging 70 pound soda tanks and keeping on his feet most of the day from 8 am till after 10 PM, sometimes much later.  Business was good, but rent was ridiculously high and the hours were ridiculously long and grueling, but thankfully the people kept coming.  In the midst of his frenetic schedule, he also found the time to be a loving father to his two growing children, and loved to see them come to “the shop,” for a visit, or to come out to the fairs (which he still found time to organize and work) and help him “work” (which in consisted of them tapping sodas or cutting rolls—but mostly in just getting a chance to be with their dad).  And as they grew they understood more and more how hard their dad worked, and as they got old enough to work along side him they appreciated it even more.  Vince’s own son would now help his dad load trucks, haul trailers, work on the road hours from home, and when he finally got his license, run stock from one fair grounds to another other.  He learned from working with his dad countless lessons about life, things no class can truly teach.  He learned about people, about his family, about himself.  He learned the value of a dollar, the reward of hard work, and he witnessed first hand the process that provided for his own needs.  He learned to work 12 hour days, he learned to work fryers and cook meat in 110 degree summers, and he marveled at how his dad seemed able to do it day in and day out, week after week for years.  He grew up respecting hard work, witnessing it from his dad first hand, and encountering on the road the kind of people that make this world of ours go around...the hard working people, the people who find jobs when the chips are down and press on in an effort to one day succeed.  He learned by working with his family and others that triumph really could be wrestled from seemingly hopeless situations, that working hard really can lead to success, and that as long as there is a hard working kid with a goal for something better, the American Dream endures.  He learned from his grandfather the regret of not taking education seriously, of not taking every opportunity to “work with his brains and not his back,” and felt a commitment to the family that had worked so hard for so long to take every chance he could to reach the next level.  He even eventually found his way to college.  He got there by the hard work of his family, by the dedication of a great-grandfather, grandfather, and father that succeeded when government wasn’t there to save them, when neither sociology nor socialism were there to save them, an amazing work ethic, faith, dedication, and self taught skills the only tools at their disposal. 

  Life is a journey, and the quest for success can be long, multigenerational one.  The beauty of the American life is that it leaves of free to take that first step.   It might not provide us with a car to make the trip any smoother, but it does provide us the road to get where we’re going.  It doesn’t promise ease, it doesn’t always lend itself to comfort, but this is a nation founded by pioneers and built my men willing to take a chance. It’s a society that sets challenges before us instead of dragging us down the socioeconomic scale by redistributing our wealth, a society that encourages us to dream, leaves us free to try, and inspires us to succeed. The possibility of economic failure is an ever present one, but is the price we pay for the enormous freedom we have to succeed.  Giving up on the dream of improving our lives in every aspect, on the other hand, is the price we pay for believing the lies thrown at us by those who would like to keep us all stymied in mediocrity, easier to fool, easier to rule, and easier to control.  They offer social circumstances as the insurmountable walls to success, citing the fortunes of individuals as aberrations, and I suggest, secretly resenting the most successful of men for daring to prove them wrong.  To deny the ability of man to rise above his surroundings is to deny the power of individuals to effect change.  To deny this is to deny that we as humans possess the strength to fight against our social circumstances, to fight against our surroundings, and ultimately, to rise above them in effort to improve ourselves and the world around us.  If this is really true, our efforts here are meaningless, our dreams futile, and our futures bleak.  That’s a prescription I have no reason to accept—and a pill I refuse to swallow.