Field Notes: Herbert’s Bikes

A low-income Vietnam vet revels in the good life, projected through a smartphone screen.

Yesterday, at the bicycle shop where I volunteer, I met a man named Herbert. Our interaction involved a mechanism typical to modern communication: Looking together at the screen of a smartphone. Herbert’s impulse to pull out his smartphone, and his acumen in using it, interested me as a media ethnographer.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Herbert’s dark, deep-set eyes burrowed through me as we spoke. This is not to say his presence was intimidating. No taller than a parking meter, Herbert exuded an infectious, bubbly energy advertised by a toothy (with some members absent) grin. His high laugh tumbled out between his sentences like a rogue firecracker. On his sleeveless t-shirt he wore a small, blue and green button, displaying a leafy symbol which I could not identify, and did not find the opportunity to ask about. Neither could I identify his ethnicity, which I guessed to be Hispanic or Islander. “I’m retired: I’m 65!” he let me know later in our exchange, which was frequently interrupted by the arrival of new people at the shop. I greeted newcomers and sent them to mill about the rows of used bikes they had come to test out. Sixty-five or not, Herbert had the spunk of a rowdy teen, and the complexion of a make-up model.

After a few exchanges, we had spoken of Herbert’s tour of service and the challenge of returning home from war. More than war, Herbert wanted to talk bikes. “I had six bikes, but I just had three stolen from the apartment,” he said, spurting out his syllables like hot marbles. “I used to have one just like that,” he said, pointing to a flashy blue mountain bike resting on its kickstand nearby. “Here, look,” he commanded, shooting a hand into the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts. Out came a hand-held device – a smartphone – with a slick screen protector and a hot-pink rubber case. He adeptly slid his thumb across the lower half of the screen, awakening the device. A small silver scribble at the top of the device identified the phone with the Kyocera brand. With the same speed, he tapped a few locations and across the screen appeared a stack of photos. He thumbed the image of interest out of the line-up and held the screen between us: “See?” Sure enough, here was the same model of bike that leaned before us, backgrounded by the cement floor and cracking brick wall of an unfinished basement.

Here was a retired man with a few missing teeth, a sleeveless t-shirt, comfortable as he could be in a neighborhood many north-siders prefer to commute around. Older age? Check. Minority? Apparently. Low-income: Perhaps. A personality bursting at the seams? Certainly. I could not help but see in him a productive subject for my research. “Where’d you get your phone?” I ventured. “Got it from Boost Mobile,” Herbert answered. I followed up: “So you just walked in there, just a local store?” “Yeah,” he said. I tried to ignore the vacuousness of the question I had just asked.

I was interested in his payment method, knowing that different options were available to different effect. For example, many wireless providers offer unique service plans if the customer is willing to sign up for automatic monthly payments by providing their credit card number. Even more lucrative (for both parties) is if the customer is willing to sign a contract, usually two years, a concession from the customer for which the wireless provider is almost always willing to reward with a discounted or free phone. Of course, the requirement of a credit card along with a two-year commitment to monthly, automatic charges (of anywhere from $20 to $50 for an individual service plan) is enough to disqualify many low-income people from such a promotion.

Aspects of the wireless phone market in the back of my mind, I asked Herbert, the retired (and seemingly tireless) veteran, whether he had signed a contract. “Nope, I pay every month,” he told me. “And I have for five years.” I was genuinely surprised: “Wow, so you like the plan – it’s affordable?” “Yeah,” Herbert said. Then, his smile splitting a bit larger, he cocked his head toward me: “I pay for it with my Link card.”

A Link card is how public benefits are distributed in the state of Illinois. I suppose this was the straw that broke the back of my subtlety. “You know,” I said, unable to resist, “I am a student in graduate school and I study how people use their smartphones. How they get their phones and what they do with them.” “Oh, yeah?” Herbert said. He seemed unimpressed. “You seem to be a pro at yours – did it take awhile to learn how to use it?” But the man had already returned his gaze to the device in his hand, which he slid his thumb across again a few times, revealing a picture of an attractive woman with flowing black hair and a knowing smile. “That your daughter?” I asked, happy to let my last, admittedly uninspired prompt get swept away in the conversation. “That’s my wife!” Herbert said, turning back to look up at me, a twinkle in his eye betraying his satisfaction at my mistaken guess. Another swipe of his thumb and another bike appeared on the screen. “Ah, this one!” Herbert exclaimed, starting in. I kept my mouth shut and listened, meeting Herbert’s eyes again as they animated another tale of one of his beautiful machines, now lost to the thieves of north Chicago.

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