From Rags to Riches

Reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, I removed the idea of her being a famous Punk musician from my thought process in beginning the reading. Patti Smith’s early portions of her life and her experiences in New York reflect a grasp onto hope and promise of succeeding in a land of opportunity. Smith writes how she was initially homeless in New York, scrapping the streets for food and begging for a place to stay. I find it amazing that even in this worst-case scenario, Smith never lost hope, she never gave up and always tried to push herself forward in life. She truly grasped the opportunity of New York and the American Dream to grow from an impoverished woman to a successful star.

Upon meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s world is transformed as she meets her true soul mate who she could endure the hardships of the big city with. The fact that they relied greatly on each other and trusted each other in the harshest of times shows that true companionship is not material, but rather requires an emotional contact.

Together, the couple experiments (both positively and negatively) with the growing opportunities of New York. Smith finds opportunity in the artistic quality of New York, meeting new people and traversing its museums. Mapplethorpe contrasts her experiences by testing drugs, his sexuality and the underbelly of New York. Even though we may not fully agree with their preferences for experimentation, it was here in New York that the couple was able to truly find their identity and fully grasp it.

I think that at its base, Just Kids represents the idea of finding your identity in this life and exploring the options the world has to offer. Patti Smith may not have been successful if she had stayed home with her family and became a struggling waitress, but her strive to push forward in life allowed her to succeed. Smith and Mapplethorpe represent the rebellious subculture that America created, which gave birth to many creations such as new forms of art, expression and identity. By detailing her struggle, Smith truly shows that any rational dream can be achieved with the right amount of work and perseverance. Reading her early experiences, one would not think she would become a successful singer, but more likely a faltering artist or writer. In recounting her early life, she gives hope to the younger generations who read her book, and defines the idea of an American Dream–that people can do whatever they want when they come to America and succeed in doing so.

-Joseph Valerio

A Foreign World

Reading Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival”, I could only think of one story I was told which I actually discussed for my Found Art presentation. The story is of my great-grandfather who immigrated to America from Italy around the period of the 1920’s. My great-grandfather left his hometown in Italy to come to America with the hope of finding the American Dream. Always hearing stories that the streets were “paved with gold”, he was excited to become successful and the rumor of the time was that America was the country to go to for prosperity.

Upon arriving at America’s doorstep on Ellis Island, my great-grandfather soon discovered that prosperity was not an easy task. America was a foreign country to him, people spoke different languages and finding a job and a place to stay were the biggest challenges he faced. Thankfully, he settled on early into an Italian neighborhood where he worked for a well known Italian shop owner. With this early job, he was able to acquire money and a place to stay to start off his new life in America.

After years of saving up and working, he fell in love with the shop owner’s daughter, but was prohibited from seeing her. So, my great-grandfather–in an act of bravery– collected his life savings and ran off with my great-grandmother to form a life of their own in America.

Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” reminds me heavily of this story that was passed down in my family because of the depiction of an immigrant man leaving his family and coming to a foreign looking city (assumed to be New York). The man’s objective is to eventually bring his family from their own hometown which is under siege from a darkness–depicted by snaking tentacles. After arriving at the city, the man undergoes routine checkups and has a hard time adapting to the culture and the new society he is thrown into. I can only imagine that the grand city of New York looked just as foreign to my great-grandfather as the city is depicted in this book.

Going to a new land must be hard for all immigrants. The adaptation of a mixture of cultures, unfamiliar people, hundreds of languages and a vast empire to explore are just some of the obstacles to face. Shaun Tan depicts all of these hardships in “The Arrival” by showing how the main character learns to settle in to his new life. Eventually, the man becomes confident enough to try the food, mingle with the locals, learn the in’s and out’s of the city, and eventually acquire enough to bring his family over. This simple idea of adaptation to the American culture and the dream of a family is what the American Dream is. “The Arrival” depicts in beautiful picture form what the American Dream is believed to be for foreigners and what our ancestors had to endure to settle on our shores. Although the drawings may sometimes be abstract, I can’t help but feel my great-grandfather experienced many of the main character’s events in “The Arrival” and that the experience depicted is the same for many people who have traveled to the great country of the United States.

-Joseph Valerio