Column: New York

My American Dream

  • TEXT HELGE TIMMERBERG
  • ILLUSTRATION TIM MÖLLER-KAYA

 I once worked as a dishwasher in New York (in German, we don’t talk about going from “rags to riches”, but from “dishwasher to millionaire”). Anyway, I washed lots of dishes but never became a millionaire. What is the wrong kind of establishment? Because it didn’t serve meat? Vegetarian restaurants weren’t cool in the ’70s, they were weird and a place weird people went to eat. But I liked the staff. A Native American dishwasher there won every dish washing contest hands down. I wonder what became of him? Did he end up living the American Dream? I hope so, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Those were formative days, back when I was a young man working in Manhattan for a handful of dollars just to buy a ticket for the Greyhound bus to Florida. Doing that woke in me a belief in the land of opportunity and in my own potential. Travel experiences are a capital investment in the soul. I remember how incredibly big the full moon looked the night I rode the bus into the tropics. Looking up at the sky, I was swimming in a sea of stars like Scrooge McDuck in gold coins. I was perfectly happy without a cent to my name because in Miami, you could wash dishes and earn the money you needed to get to Key West.

I wouldn’t do it today. I probably couldn’t because now, dish washing is done by machines. But I think back fondly to the start of my career – my millions-of-travel-experiences career. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. What did I get wrong?I still don’t know. In America, they call the fairy-tale concept that we are all master of our own fortune “real life.”


Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.

helgetimmerberg.com