Bus 21 all the way to South London. There are some engineering works at my usual train station which force me to take a one-hour ride home. The kind of trip you do with some snacks and a good podcast to listen to.
I felt like working on an article for the blog so, instead, I began typing. Breaking down a story into words, sentences and later paragraphs that may become a blog post someday.
Sitting on the upper deck, I’m travelling shoulder to shoulder with an old man. He taps on his smartphone — one of those with a folio cover — and as you do, I don’t pay much attention to him. You want to respect the little privacy we have left sitting on those narrow bus seats.
As I was tapping on my iPhone’s keyboard, frantically to his eyes, I felt observed but it didn’t bother me much. It’s not the first time you peek at other’s passenger tablet to see what they’re up to.
“Excuse me”, he said. Like a trained dog I stood up to let him alight at the next stop. I didn’t look at his face nor I stopped fidgeting with my phone. He grabbed my arm and now, looking eye to eye, he asked: “do you know about phones?” He was showing me the large smartphone on his left hand. “This kind of phone”, he clarified.
This kind of phone
This guy needed help. Apparently he wanted to send an address on a text message to a person and didn’t know how to do it. He explained that he knows how to reply to but not how to send a new one. In the shock of the situation, and with other passengers looking, my only reaction was to tell the truth. “Oh yes, I can help you with that”, I replied.
I’m not a liar, but I knew that wasn’t exactly true. By the looks of those multicoloured tiles I knew that was a Windows phone. Just like the ones I’ve never touched before. Now it was too late to back off. He was reaching in his pocket for a Tesco receipt in which he had written with a pencil the address and number that needed to go on the text message.
“Tap on that button” I said. My first attempt to find a homescreen was fruitless. He knew what I wanted to do and he guided me with the slow movement of his finger. “Here” — pressing hard and slow on the glass to ensure that SMS app tile would launch. “I know the text messages are here”.
Writing a new text message is an easy task. The real issue was finding the plus symbol to create a new text message on that high-contrast interface without any descriptive label. As soon as we found the ‘To:’ label I encouraged him to type in there. At that point I considered offering to type the message for him but I was too late to react and too confused to know what was best. In hindsight he only needed a little encouragement to discover the tricks of that smartphone and be able to text solo next time.
My bus neighbour did know how to type. As he hunted and pecked one letter at a time with his right index finger I realised that he was acquainted with a Qwerty keyboard. Unlike the unruly SMS-speak of teenage WhatsApps, he took care to punctuate and capitalise as necessary. “What would you like to type now?” — “Tottenhall Road”. “Is that Tottenham Hale?” — “No, it’s TottenHALL, like this” — showing me the Tesco receipt with his annotations. “How do you delete?” He found the backspace before I could say anything other than “that’s right”. Then, he carried on, slowly, capitalising the letters on the post code and changing to he numerical keyboard with certain rhythm, at his own pace.
I'm the one learning
Although we were almost done I notice some anxiety in him. He was looking more and more confident and I was now comfortable talking to a stranger. What’s wrong? He looked out the window not wanting to show his worry. Something bothered him. Distracted by the texting he had missed his stop. He looked to the buildings to his left again and decided to stay with me. We finished what we started. It only took some seconds more to tap that ‘Send’ button. I confirmed with “that’s been sent now”. He closed the folio case, held the phone close to his chest and we both looked at the traffic ahead in silence. He had learned something new he would remember next time. At that moment I didn’t realise it was me the one learning something far more valuable.
He thanked me and stood up to leave at the next stop. He had definitely missed his and would now have to take the same bus on the opposite direction. When I sat down again I looked around. Other passengers were only looking at their bright touch screens, not bothered of what had happened a moment ago. They couldn’t care less. I would do the same.
Still confused, I moved to the warm spot were the old man had been sitting and began writing this post. I wanted to capture what had happened immediately. The first word I wrote is still at the top of this post: solidarity.