Read more stories form the road at www.nathanvass.com.
It’s that kid again, the one with the observant eyes. I’ve had a chance or two to chat with him in the interim. He is Amad, eleven or twelve, dressed in ordinary, low-profile garb. No flashy bling or starched denim–just a regular dark gray hoodie, not baggy, and jeans that fit. Amad’s coming home from school–it’s late afternoon on the 4, several hours after the schools have let out. Absent-mindedly I wonder what he was doing hanging around for so long before going home.
“Hope it was a good day at school,” I say.
I like to engage the young folk, to give them the example that yes, strangers can and do talk to each other. As a youngster, such opportunities can be strangely absent, particularly if you’re not employed; you may spend years of childhood and adolescence talking only to peers and adults in environments you already know.
“It was alright,” he responds.
“Kinda late to be gettin’ outta school.”
“Yeah. I stayed late to get my homework done.”
“Oh, right on.” My mind was in Parent Mode, automatically assuming he was up to no good. “That’s a good idea. Get it out the way.”
“Yeah, then I can jus’ go home, don’t have to worry about it.”
“Don’t have to worry about it, exactly. And it makes more sense, do school when you’re at school, then go home forget about it. Like keepin’ home life and work life separate.”
“Plus it keeps me from procastinatin.’ And it’s easier to think about school when I’m there.”
He’s young, but his mellow and open demeanor suggests he knows more than he’s letting on; an intelligent humility in which you almost feel outmatched. I like feeling outmatched. It means I can learn something.
“And then maybe you don’t have to carry all them heavy textbooks around,” I’m saying.
“Oh we don’t carry no textbooks anymore.”
I’m incredulous. This is news to me! “Hang on. What?”
“Yeah, it’s all digital now. You download it at the start o’ the semester. Put it on your iPhone. They give us all iPads to use during class.”
“I don’t believe it. They’re givin’ people iPads? Man, I musta carried twenty pounds a textbooks every day…”
I suppose I sound like my Grandmother once did, when she told me how she rode a wagon every morning to school. Amad and I marvel at each other in shared amazement. They don’t even turn in papers anymore, he continues. You just email your teacher. Compared to my experience it seems like unadulterated decadence…and a continuation of generational disconnects going all the way back to- well, you can imagine a Australopithicene father complaining to his son about everything he had to do before there were stone tools. To myself I wonder, what’s normal to Amad? What will he tell his children? That he had to lug around those clunky iPhones every day, which weighed almost five backbreaking ounces?
“I wonder about cars and driving in the future,” I say. “Hope I can keep this job!”
“Man, the way things are going soon people won’t even walk.”
“Oh, don’t say it!”
“Man, in twenty years this job won’t even exist.”
“I’m a miss it though. I love it so much.”
He can see how much I mean it, and speaks as if compelled to say something in response. “Yeah, but you’ll still need a bus driver for, for the, uh, the,”
“Yeah! That’s the word I was gonna use. Interaction.”
“I sure hope so,”
“‘Cause people be wantin’ the customer service,”
“The back and forth between real people.”
“Yeah, uh mean, you gotta have that.”
I paused, slowing down for the switches as we crossed Broadway and Jefferson. Then I said, “man, I am happy to hear you say that. It is important.”
It was clear he thought this was a crucial component of life. How did he know that? What was normal to him, I had imagined, must be a world in which information and communications technologies reign supreme, a part of every action in life and a wonderful time-saving, streamlining–and alienating–buffer for all everyday activity. I was not quite correct. Somehow, this boy, despite the wall-to-wall technological barrage he’s growing up in, understood there is something undeniable about tactile, direct human interaction. It doesn’t matter how much technology there is. We humans possess a profound yearning to reach out and touch each other. The elemental straightforwardness of it. The buried desires, dreams of validity and self-realization touched by the sound of a voice facing you, by the awakening glance of eye contact. Somehow it feels natural to keep that flickering flame alive.