Jack Tame: Degree of hope found in land of opportunity

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Columbia University janitor Gac Filipaj at graduation. Photo / AP
Columbia University janitor Gac Filipaj at graduation. Photo / AP

Gac Filipaj cleans bogs for a living. Not just any bogs, mind. Privileged bogs. Ivy-league bogs. Between the corridors and walls of one of the world's finest learning institutions he works a regular late shift, sweeping and cleaning until 11pm most nights. Occasionally he'll do 15 hours on the trot.

Privilege doesn't actually matter much in the world of public toilets. Filipaj might be surrounded by some of humanity's finest minds, but at his end everything looks the same. Dust is dust, brooms are brooms, bogs are bogs.

He's been doing it for a while, now. When the former Yugoslavia capitulated in the early 1990s Filipaj seized an opportunity to get out and move to New York City. He moved in with an uncle. He learned English. He got a gig as a restaurant busboy. And after a few years he took a job at Columbia University, as a subtly titled "heavy cleaner". Oh, the connotations.

Today, Filipaj saves money by not owning a cellphone. He doesn't own a TV, either. He bought a laptop for the first time last year. Before that, he wrote everything by hand. He lives in an apartment in the Bronx and commutes to Columbia for work. Twenty years since he left, he still saves and sends money home to his family in Montenegro.

It can't be much, you'd have thought. Especially not compared to the money America's biggest bank threw away this month. JP Morgan Chase publicly announced it had lost a cool US$2 billion ($2.6 billion) in a bad trade. The fallout continues and could cost it another billion by the time it dies down.

It's an astonishing figure, an astonishing mistake. Astonishing, too, to realise that even after the economic meltdown of 2008, any bank or trader - no matter how big - is still legally allowed to gamble so much money in derivatives. JP Morgan's traders had opportunity, and they abused it.

Sometimes it's all too easy to have a crack at America, especially from afar. I'm the first to admit from a New Zealander's perspective the old tall-poppy stuff is ingrained and sometimes irresistible. It's easy to stereotype, to generalise, to mock. It's easy to label Americans as a bunch of gun-toting, sweatpant-wearing, passport-shunning, global-warming, reality TV-worshipping, warmongering, narrow-minded fatties. And many of them are.

But it's even easier to forget what a ticket to this place can be.

What glorious, life-altering, life-defining opportunities can happen to anyone. Filipaj had a chance. He left a brutal war in Eastern Europe to clean up halls and bathrooms in America. It wasn't glamorous, but it was a ticket out. A ticket in the world's greatest lottery, the American dream.

And in the same week that JP Morgan lost more than $2 billion through an unregulated, risky trade it should never have had the opportunity to make, a 52-year-old Eastern European man graduated from one of the world's finest universities with an honours degree in classics.

After 12 years of balancing education with labour, Filipaj swapped the cleaning overalls of a Columbia University cleaner for the blue robes of a Columbia University graduate. He beamed. He pulled thumbs up for the cameras and his boss gave him a big hug. Yes, it was a lovely moment, in America, this land of opportunity.

- Herald on Sunday

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