The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman is not a household name to young people, but then neither is Paul Simon. What they have in common was a movie that came out in the Summer of Love, 1967. Simon wrote a song that helped immortalize the film—the tune was called Mrs. Robinson.

The young man played by Hoffman has just graduated from college, and the premise is that he is a young adult, all set for a career doing what graduates do. Except nowadays they don’t. It doesn’t seem so long ago that someone told me of doctoral students coming out of universities such as Kiel, in north Germany, and taking on restaurant jobs, but actually it’s been almost twenty years.

At that time, not that many people in Europe thought a university degree would be a useless piece of paper, never mind a master’s or doctoral qualification. But useless it is, as more and more people from all over the world enter an employment rat race which takes them very far from their intended goal, and often from their own land.

I got in a cab last Monday night in Washington DC, after waiting in vain for a hotel shuttle. The weather was bitterly cold, and I was exhausted. At London’s Heathrow airport you’d get chapter and verse from a cabbie for such a short trip, so I asked how much it would cost for the ride.

I settled back gratefully in the back of the cab, as the driver explained he was happy to take me anywhere, even just round the corner, as long as I gave him my money.

“Where are you from?” I’ve never been in a cab in Washington or New York driven by an American.
“Afghanistan.”
“North or south,” I wondered.
Was my man a Pashto, perhaps from Kandahar, or maybe a Tajik, like Ahmad Shah Masood, the warlord murdered by Bin Laden just before nine-eleven.
“From the capital, sir. Born and bred in Kabul.”
“So… what do you think will happen in your country when the Americans go?”

He was unsure. He covered some well-trodden ground, about how the Afghans could never be conquered, and he spoke of what the nineteenth century Brits called ‘The Great Game’—espionage, and the fight for the northern frontier. He told me the Pakistanis had created the Taliban to ruin his country, and he explained that all around, from Pakistan to Iran, his country’s neighbours coveted Afghanistan’s natural resources.

“What is your main resource, gas?”
“Sir, you are asking the right man. I have a master’s in geology from Kabul University.”
He went on to tell me that Afghanistan has everything from gold to uranium. The New York Times bears him out: lithium is particularly abundant, and as a key ingredient of cell phone batteries, it attracts huge demand.

So my geologist cabbie is clearly wasting his knowledge driving a Dulles taxi, a man displaced for economic reasons, and maybe also because of the war. I’ve seen this all over Europe, in hotels, taxis, construction, and all the other jobs that the locals won’t do. I’ve seen it in Canada, in the States. Somalis, Iraqis, Vietnamese. And now we see the same exodus from Spain, from Greece and Portugal. Graduates going abroad for any job.

It’s difficult for any European not to be fascinated by gun stores in the US,  not least because every day on the news there are reports of gun crime. This week some looney in LA went on the rampage: first he shot a woman and then he fled, carjacking and killing along the way. Last week it was a rogue cop, also in California. The TV says he committed suicide, but he was actually in the process of being roasted alive.

The emerging pattern is a kind of American suicide bomber, a crazy man who kills before putting the gun to his own head. By and large, these mass killings are of innocents, often youngsters or children.

So I went into a store that claims to stock six thousand guns. And I believe they do! Sig Sauers, Berettas, replica World War II Mausers, Glocks, the lot. And of course the semi-automatics that America is currently debating.

In front of me, a lady asks to see a revolver. The clerk pulls it out, removes the trigger guard and hands it to her. She’s clumsy, clearly not used to holding a pistol. The man says “If you don’t know how to use it, don’t buy it.” She protests. But the gun goes back into the display.

I get talking to the salesman. Turns out he’s got a master’s as well. This one in history.

“What period of history?”
“Mid-East. 1970s.”
“Wow, that was a busy time out there.”

He explains he wants to catch terrorists, his specialty is intelligence analysis. “But,” he explains, “since the federal government budget cuts there ain’t no jobs out there.”

We discuss espionage a little, I’m reasonably well primed from my research on Atmos Fear. The gun salesman isn’t into satellite stuff.

“I like to piece stuff together.”
I repeat something I read in Business Week, about how drone targeting is selected. You can detect the AK-47 going off, but not the reason why. And the US is lacking in human intelligence, in HUMINT.

“The US sucks at HUMINT,” he says vehemently, and looks to me for assent.
“I ‘m a guest in your country, so I wouldn’t like to comment.”
“It sucks!”  he repeats.

I ask if he’s ever visited the area he’s interested in.
“No.”
“And do you speak any Arabic?”
He doesn’t.

There are dozens of young American men like my new friend, with a vision of destroying the Muslim terrorists. More than a vision, for this guy, it’s a calling.  So what about the semi-automatics? How does he feel it’s going to go?

He thinks for a minute.

“I can reload six magazines in under five minutes.” The inference is that any competent shooter will do perfectly well, so to speak, without needing automated assistance. It’s a hot topic, and a couple of other guys chip in, no doubt picqued by the guy with the funny accent asking dumb questions.

They agree the proposed changes don’t have a hope in hell. Even the Democrats won’t pass them. And I believe they’re right.

And in the midst of this job crisis, which shows little sign of going away, both in the US and Europe, you can’t grow a fish without filing an inch of paperwork. Latest numbers? The United States now imports 91% of its seafood.

Catch of the day: tilapia in Pan Thong province, Thailand. Most makes it's way onto the US plate.

Catch of the day: tilapia in Pan Thong province, Thailand. Most makes it’s way onto the US plate.

My menu contained the usual range of bar food, mainly centered on fries and burgers. But somewhere in its nether regions, it did advertise the catch of the day, grilled or blackened. Oh look, fish! I brightened up.

“Excuse me, what’s the catch of the day?”
“Tilapia.”
“Hmmm… that’s not too hard to catch, is it?”
The waitress grinned. “No, not really.”

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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