CLEARWATER — When he was 16 years old, Martei Plange moved here from Ghana, where people make an average of $670 a year. Last May, he graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in electrical engineering, hopeful for a position that would pay him that much or more in a week.
Now, though, the 25-year-old Martei has one part-time job stocking shelves at Publix and another parking cars for Courtesy Valet.
The other day, at Ruth Eckerd Hall, he stood by the entrance dressed in all black, before a show called Red Hot Hollywood geared toward an audience of the aging members of the Greatest Generation.
A gold Lexus sedan pulled up. He parked it.
A silver Lexus sedan pulled up. He parked it.
A black Lincoln SUV pulled up. He took a woman's wheelchair out of the back and then helped her out of the passenger seat and into her chair. "Enjoy your show, ma'am," Martei said.
He's far from the only recent college grad right now who's having a problem getting a job in his field. He's far from the only person who is underemployed. He's not that unusual in this so-called jobless recovery.
Except for maybe this:
"In a lot of countries, you're restricted in some way, but here you don't have that," he said after all the cars were parked. "You can pretty much do whatever you want to do. You can pretty much get anything you want."
Anything, you suggest to him, except a job in his chosen profession.
"But I have a job," Martei said with a smile. "I have two."
• • •
The American Dream is in trouble.
That's according to a study released last month by the Institute for Politics and the American Dream at Ohio's Xavier University.
Sixty percent of the people the institute polled believe it's harder for them to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents. Sixty-eight percent believe it will be harder still for their children. On a scale of 1 to 100, Americans put the current condition of the American Dream at 45.
The people who believe the least in the American Dream, the study found, are white, middle-aged women who live in the Midwest. They tend to associate the idea of the Dream with financial stability.
The people who believe the most in the American Dream, on the other hand, are nonwhites and immigrants. They tend to associate the idea of the Dream with opportunity.
"The American Dream," said Mike Ford, the founding director of the institute at Xavier, "is such a core part of our national lore, and yet it was created by and is sustained by non-native Americans. It's not a dream by America. It's a dream about America.
"It's about values that people bring here," he said, "not that they get here."
• • •
Before coming to Pinellas County, Martei (pronounced mar-TAY) grew up in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana's biggest city. His father got a scholarship to study in the 1940s at Tuskegee University in Alabama but returned home after he finished because he didn't like being an African man in the American South. Martei grew up on his father's poultry farm, putting eggs in incubators and the chicks in boxes to sell.
He moved here in 2001 with his stepmother and his brother after his father died. When he was going to Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, he worked at Publix as a bagger; later, when he was going to UCF, he worked at Publix as a stocker. He majored in electrical engineering because he's fascinated by emerging technologies and because he figured it would help him even when times turned lean.
In his apartment in Orlando, he read the Wall Street Journal and watched CNBC, Googling the companies he saw scroll across the ticker. He researched companies like SunPower, Siemens, Boeing, Florida Power & Light. He sent e-mails to CEOs and was surprised to learn that they often responded more quickly than the people who worked in human relations.
"I'd go and apply, apply, apply," he said.
Companies had fewer positions. Positions that used to exist no longer did. He wasn't what they were looking for.
So he returned to St. Petersburg last summer and went back to stocking at Publix. He added the valet job a few months ago. There are some days he works from 5 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon at Publix and from 4 in the afternoon to 11 at night doing valet.
He lives off the money he makes from Publix. The money he makes parking cars he saves for grad school.
His valet boss says he's "reliable, professional and dependable," and his co-workers love sharing shifts with him. "He works," Dave Carey said at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"I actually love it," Martei said. "You get to meet a lot of people, you drive great cars, and you go to so many places. And you're always running and moving. It's like a free workout."
In his garage apartment on a brackish canal by Coquina Key, he keeps Gatorade in his fridge and pasta and long grain rice in his cupboard, all bought in bulk and buy-one-get-one-free.
He fishes around town, for trout, redfish and snook, and puts them in Ziplocs in the freezer for later.
And then there's his garden.
• • •
It started last fall when he asked the woman who prepares the salads at the Publix where he works if he could have the seeds from the red and yellow peppers.
He planted the seeds in an inflatable children's pool he filled with soil and put on his porch.
Outside, with a machete, a shovel and a hoe, he cleared his small side yard with his landlady's permission and made five rows of fertile dirt.
One class he had in Ghana, he said at Ruth Eckerd Hall, waiting for the show to end, was agricultural science. He learned how to keep an animal healthy while making it grow and how to take a seed and turn it into food.
For his garden here, he got mulch from a nearby recycle yard, he started collecting rain water in three blue barrels, and he put mothballs in old yogurt cartons and set them out to keep away the squirrels and the rats.
Right now, he has beets, strawberries and sweet peas. Before, he had cantaloupes and cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, but the cold killed them.
A few months from now, though, Martei said, his garden will be full again, with beans and watermelon and corn.
"I get the seeds, and I sow them," he said. "It rains one day, and it's sunny the next."
• • •
The show ended and a short line started to form at the valet station. Martei ran to get a gray Subaru. He ran to get a gold Lexus. He ran to get a silver Cadillac.
"Thank you, ma'am," Martei said.
"Have a great day, sir," Martei said.
One woman went and got her own car because she had a spare set of keys in her purse and she didn't want to stand in line and wait, like everybody else, even for just a little bit.
"Give me my keys," she sniffed.
Martei got no tip from her. From other people, though, he got a dollar bill here, a dollar bill there. For the grad school fund.
"To be honest with you," he said, at the end of his shift, "I feel like I've lost a year in my field, a year of experience. But there are so many people in worse positions."
He became a citizen last year.
"A lot of people," he explained, "wish they could be U.S. citizens."
After grad school, when the economy hopefully gets better, he's confident he can get a job he wants.
Eventually, though, his American Dream leads back to Ghana. He wants to start his own solar company there. He wants to start a family, too, and to raise his children there, not here. He wants them to know their history and their culture, he says, and he wants to pass on to them the same humility and "surviving spirit" his father passed on to him.
He thinks he can do that in Ghana in a way that he can't in America.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.