Field Notes: Questions for Harry

A Chicagoan of 75 years tests his immunity to the allure of the digital age.

The digital era descends on the elderly and poor in a way unrecognizable to the well-off natives of the Internet age. I get the perspective of a retired, part-time magazine vendor and lifetime Chicagoan named Harry.

I meet Harry at the entrance to an El stop in a quiet northside neighborhood two miles west of the lake. Harry is a soft-spoken man with plenty to say. He is distinguished by a crop of bold white hair against olive-toned skin, brown eyes, and a prominent nose. He outfits himself in slacks and a plaid button-up. A bald eagle watches sentry alongside an American flag from the front of a tan ball cap on his head. Around his neck is a thin chain, from which hangs his vendor permit and a few membership cards to grocery stores and pharmacies.

Now 75, Harry was born in Chicago to a Jewish mother and father with Spanish and Anglo heritage. He has lived in the same neighborhood for nearly fifty years, occupying a house with his brother and two sisters. Harry was one of 17 children in his family. “We never knew we were poor,” he tells me. “But we shared everything. We had one bike between us, and we’d have to take turns on it.” Harry sells magazines outside the train station where we met, to supplement government assistance and a meager pension. “I’ve made a lot of bad decisions,” he says about his financial history, “but I’ve learned from them.” Harry maintains a debt of several thousand to creditors after racking up charges on a credit card he signed up for in response to a mailing that arrived at his house. A penchant for gambling runs in his family, disrupting the family finances from his father on down to several brothers. Harry never took to it, he tells me.

“I don’t get it. It’s just a phone,” Harry says before our interview, as I explain my interests to him. Then again after the interview, as we step out of the cafe into a mild late-summer evening, he repeats, “I don’t get what’s so important.” Harry rarely uses a computer and expresses little need for the Internet. Around five years ago, Harry purchased his first mobile phone. He lost that phone and it was never recovered. Harry recalls going through the trouble of returning a mobile phone to a women who left it on a bus seat next to him. It was his sister, who was on the bus with him and “is better at that sort of thing,” who used the forgotten phone to access the owner’s phonebook and call to get an address where to return the possession. “I don’t know why people hold on to someone else’s phone,” he concluded, pondering the permanent loss of his own device.

Harry’s current phone is a basic model, capable of texting, calling, and taking photos, but not accessing the Internet. “Is that where you type?” he asks, when I query him about his texting habits. “I’m no good at that,” he comments, adding, “This is me…” He raises both hands in fists, extending the pointer fingers of each, wrinkles his face into a strained impression, and bobs in hands up and down, selecting his imaginary keys one by one. There is no hesitation when I ask who he spends most of his time talking on the phone with. The woman is a family friend “of 40 years,” a photographer who shoots weddings, who we will call Sandy. Frequently her photography clients are large Indian and Muslim families, according to Harry, who offers her help “now and then” with the odd task. Sandy drives for a food delivery service on the side, to make ends meet. “I mean, I like talking to her. But she can talk so much nonsense. I eat up all my minutes just on the phone with her. Otherwise I could make them last.” Harry’s service plan costs him $59 every month, for which, he tells me, he receives 500 minutes of talking time. Harry is unsure about an allowance for texts on his service plan. I did not ask him about whether he was receiving data for Internet use. Harry tells me that Sandy wants him to get a smartphone.

“You definitely need them these days,” Harry repeats before and after the interview, referring to the mobile phones I keep asking about. “Why do you say that?” I ask each time, “Explain to me what you mean.” Harry’s responses reflect a general sense of change in society to which he is, to an extent willingly, not a part. He sees it in the people who pass by him as he stands outside the El station, holding out magazines. “High-tech zombies,” is Harry’s term for them, their eyes directed toward screens, ears plugged with headphones, voices speaking to absent conversants. All provide a distraction from his sales pitch. It is there on the rare occasions that he sees his nieces and nephews, who live out of state. “They’re just on their phones, texting, talking, and I don’t know what,” Harry laments. Reaching a hand to the right pocket of his slacks, he tapped on an object resting inside. Harry returned his hand to the table and lifted his mug of tea and met my eyes, waiting to hear what I’d ask next.

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