By Carley Stavis

When you ask a Santa Cruzan about the meaning of the American Dream, they don’t think white picket fences, 2.5 children, tract homes in the suburbs, or family pets named Fluffy and Spot. Their eyes don’t flash dollar signs, and they don’t spin into a dizzying discussion of stock options, foreign travels, or 401Ks. Instead, the single word hanging on their tongues: freedom.

The way five locals see freedom and the American Dream is, as the inherent spirit of Santa Cruz would dictate, far from traditional. Certainly, these residents agree, the American Dream means something different for everyone. A white picket fence may very well be the icing atop the dreamer’s cake. A multimillion-dollar paycheck and a nine-to-five office job just might be the stuff of someone’s dreams.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

And in that spirit, with confidence and imagination, these folks, living and working in Santa Cruz, have cultivated unique views of the American Dream and have traded in traditional American existence for the lives of their dreams.

The American Dream of Old

On January 27th, Caroline Kennedy wrote a piece for the New York Times about her candidate endorsement in the upcoming presidential election. At the end of the piece, she mentioned that the candidate she believes this nation needs is the one, among other things, who “appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream.”

But the American Dream is perhaps one of the most elusive and truly mythical creations the United States has ever known. It is hard to define and is in a constant state of change. However, even in its very beginning, the American Dream was, at its very core, about some variety of freedom.

“In the beginning, the American Dream was related to immigrants coming to the United States. They were coming from a place where the state essentially governed their lives. In America, they found greater freedom,” said John Dizikes, retired UC Santa Cruz professor of American studies.

“At one time, it was a very general term. What has happened for most people is that it has been narrowed down to meaning financial well-being—owning a house, having a job.”

Lori Kletzer, UC Santa Cruz Professor of Economics, echoed that sentiment,

“Jobs, wealth, financial security: are all huge things. For many people, owning a house is a big part of the American Dream.”

“But the American Dream does not, and should not, refer, only to material wealth. There are still those few people who see it as something more broad, the way it was seen in the early days of our country,” Dizikes said.

These Santa Cruz residents appear to be among those lucky people who still see the American Dream as a great, broad ideal, and even more importantly than that, as something absolutely achievable.

*The Lifestyle Changer*: For Karl Heiman, the 53-year-old owner of Caffe Pergolesi and Mr. Toot’s Coffeehouse, the American Dream is the result of a complete lifestyle overhaul that didn’t come about until middle age.

Until just five years ago when he purchased Caffe Pergolesi, Heiman, like many residents of the Bay Area, worked for the fast-paced, profit-driven high tech industry.

“I was making a lot of money doing what I did before this,” Heiman said.

“It was a lot of 70-hour weeks, traveling to Asia and Europe about 20 times a year—everything was about selling more and making money,” Heiman said.

To some, world travel and big paychecks seem like the makings of a fabulous lifestyle. For others, this dream fades.

“I think at a certain age you have a sort of self-realization. I questioned what I was doing and thought, ’Where will I be when I get older if I keep doing this?’ Something young people don’t think about [that] so much.”

“I read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosake, and I just decided on a whole lifestyle change.”

Heiman, who says that he is living the American Dream “one hundred percent” has reaped the benefits of that decision ever since.

“My own perspective of the American Dream is that you can work at something you enjoy, have the ability to make the money you need to, and have the freedom to retire and still have something to do part time, and something that you want to do because you like it, not just because you need the paycheck.

“I have the ability to do all of that now. I have a lot of freedom. I’m doing what I want and making my own decisions every day—I get to meet and interact so much with different people all the time in this business.”

Heiman compares his goals as a small-businessman to those of a sculptor working on a new piece.

“You craft it, mold it, make it what you want it to be. For me, that’s what the businesses are. I don’t come in to punch the clock. I come in to shape the businesses into what I want them to be.”

*The Non-Traditionalist*: There is a lesson to learn from Cory Meyers: living the American Dream means following what you want and what your heart tells you, and not being bound by what tradition so often dictates. Since the birth of her first child, Meyers has, proudly, taken on the role of mother and teacher to her three daughters and has learned to push cultural pressures aside.

“When I think about what the American Dream is, I guess I’d say it’s having the freedom to choose your heart’s desire and live your life the way you want without judgment or consequence. It could look so different for everyone. That would be my dream for everyone. I am definitely living my version of it.”

Before her first daughter was born, Meyers worked in marketing for a healthcare company. She had never planned to stay home, but, when the time came, she just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her daughter in someone else’s care. It was her own outlook on life that she says allowed her the freedom to stay home and, eventually, home school her daughters.

“I think the freedom [to do what I am doing] comes from how I think, from within me. I see lots of choices out in the world. Working is one. What I am choosing is another.

I am not giving up anything. I am enjoying a rich and full life.” “Would I like understanding from others about my choices?

Absolutely! I want to be seen for contributing to my family, myself, and my community in ways that are meaningful, but others’ views of my choices don’t influence them.”

*The Artist*: At only 27-years old, Dan Wysuph of Samuel O’Reilly’s Tattoo Parlor, has achieved what he considers a “revised” version of the American Dream.

“I obviously love tattooing, that’s definitely a part of why I do it. I’m lucky to have freedom in my schedule, freedom in what I draw, freedom in who I take as clients. But I’m not a millionaire. I have to work, or the rent doesn’t get paid.

“I guess that’s part of the reason I have sort of an altered view of what the American Dream is,” Wysuph said.

“In Santa Cruz, its hard to impossible to own a home. I could go tattoo in Cleveland or somewhere and have a huge house with a ton of land and be just fine. It just happens, for me, that there are more important things in life than a big house and lots of land.”

When it comes to this revised version of the American Dream, Wysuph sees it as involving self-sufficiency and freedom.

“In Santa Cruz, being an artist is viewed as a legitimate way to earn a livelihood. I can afford to live in a place I want to, in, more or less, the manner I want. I’m my own boss and can do what I want where I want. I definitely think that, doing all of this, I’m living a version of the American Dream.

“And I’m also lucky enough to live in a place that’s welcoming to artists of all kinds. In Santa Cruz, just because you look like a freaky person doesn’t mean you’re going to be treated like one,” Wysuph said with a laugh.

*The Community-Lover*: A Seattle native who grew up visiting the central coast of California, Darryl “Rudy” Rudolph, the 58-year-old owner of Charlie Hong Kong, loves the Santa Cruz community and has it to thank for helping him live out his version of the American Dream.

Though Rudy’s involvement in the restaurant industry started in Lake Tahoe when he was in his twenties, it was not until he opened Charlie Hong Kong in Santa Cruz almost nine years ago that he started to truly find meaning in what he was doing.

“Honestly, when I wake up everyday, I really aim to serve the community, as cliché as that may sound. I don’t do it for myself,” he said.

Since starting the restaurant, he has found what he considers the key to the American Dream, “true internal peace and happiness,” and learned what a role the community can play in achieving it. “The great thing has been that, as I’ve tried over the years to make the food the best it can be, to make my employees happy and my customers happy, I have also been able to take things away from the business.”

One element markedly absent from Rudy’s definition of the American Dream: money.

“It can’t be a money thing. It’s not enough in life to just get a paycheck. There has to be something else.

That’s not to say the American Dream can’t be achieved when you have it, but money isn’t a requirement. So many business owners are primarily concerned with the bottom line. And certainly, every business owner has to be concerned with profit, or the business cannot survive. But I would dry up if that was all that I was after.”

*The Fearless Female*: “I was a waitress and enjoyed what I was doing, but I was starting to have some issues and decided that at my age, I was 45 at the time, that I wanted to go in another direction.”

The change of direction resulted in Nan Seadler becoming the owner of Paradise Tanning Salon, just over seven years ago. As a woman in business, Nan faces some unique challenges.

“People are often surprised to know that a woman owns the business, and there have definitely been some gender-related problems, like repairmen trying to get one over on me.

“But I think [being a woman] has really helped in this field. Most people who tan are women, and other parts of my business are related to women.”

“I like making people feel good about themselves on the outside because I know it can translate into making them feel good on the inside, too.”

The tanning business was on the decline for a while when Nan first started out. But rather than bowing out, she went to Estheticians’ School and began offering waxing and facial services, and started carrying skin care products and cosmetics. She also relied on her family, without whom she says she wouldn’t have ever been able to achieve what she has. Not only did they help her with initial construction and staffing her business when she couldn’t afford employees, but they were there for her through all of the emotional ups and downs along the way.

“The American Dream, to me, is finding the freedom to pursue any direction in life that brings you happiness and fulfillment…I couldn’t have achieved that without my family’s support,” Seadler said.

“If I had known when I was starting out what I know now, I would probably have done some things differently. But I believe that’s what we’re here for, just to learn about life.”

* * *

Central to each of these stories is the fact that the city of Santa Cruz has given these people the freedom to live-out their own versions of the American Dream.

They share basic hopes. They all want to be free to pursue things that they enjoy, both professionally and personally. They all want something greater than a paycheck, though that admittedly comes in handy when bills start rolling in. Yet, despite the similarities from dream to dream, the way that they manifest is unique for each person.

If these five Santa Cruz residents’ lives are any indication, the American Dream is no longer a tightly-packaged ideal with a clearly defined set of results. The next president won’t just have to appeal to believers in a single, pre-defined American Dream, like Caroline Kennedy suggested. The next president might, instead, need to understand the many unique forms this dream might take, and honor each American’s deep-down hope to define and live his own version of it.