Helping Hands

There is one main bus service in Sydney, which connects the main areas, but all the other small unimportant suburbs use smaller private bus services. I normally use the main state run bus service, but occasionally when I have to go to my field site- which is a park, really- I have to take one of these smaller bus services. The problem is that hardly anyone uses these buses, except for school children and old people who presumably can’t or don’t want to drive anymore. These bus services constantly grumble about “transporting air”, referring to the fact that at any given time, the buses are more likely to be empty than not. I can bear witness to that, every time I board one of these buses, there’s at most 10 people, and the number goes up a bit on Thursdays, which is when the old people get their pension payment.

But these smaller buses often go through the small suburbs and which means that usually the passengers know each other, and there’s a sense of community about travelling in them. People greet each other by name, they exchange a few words with the driver, exchange gossip, etc etc, a phenomenon that is never encountered on the busier State buses. After a couple of days of travelling, I could recognize regulars myself and even got an odd nod of recognition. The bus drivers themselves behave differently. While the State Transport bus drivers wouldn’t dream of holding the door open for one more second than necessary, or hesitate at the stop even if they see you racing for the bus, the local bus drivers frequently wait for people to get on. And if it means making an unscheduled stop in front of some old person’s house just to save them the trouble of walking a few steps, so be it. And since most of the regulars were old, it wasn’t hard to notice their problems. Like getting off the bus. Like carrying around shopping bags.

So it was no surprise to me to see the Helping Hands make an appearance in this community. The Helping Hands is still an experimental device, but its already revitalized this community. I tried to find out how they worked, but what little i could find was not very clear, so I don’t know how they work exactly. Basically it consists of a ribbon like structure that can be worn around the waist. On the free end, there’s a hand like structure. There are two types, one with four prongs and the other with three, but other than that, they are identical. Both the prongs have a rubberised grip. When the Hand is active the ribbon is unwrapped from the waist, and the ribbon becomes stiff but flexible. The person with the Hand usually has a headset of sorts that is used to direct the movement of the Hand. I reckon it works something along the lines of that bionic arm that was in the news recently, but I believe this is far more experimental and radical.

I saw the Hand in action quite a few times, and its brilliant, people who previously would have taken ages to even disembark from the bus started using the Hand to balance themselves and get down easily. One guy was famous for using the Hand to hold and turn pages of his book during the trip. I spoke to him once, I think it was after the media and the schoolkids started calling them “tails” or even monkeys. The kids used to make mocking comments all the time, sometimes even within the earshot of their targets, and it always bothered me. I asked one of the old men if it bothered him. He said that it used to in the beginning, but considering the new lease of life that the Hand has given him, he simply didn’t care anymore. He also told me that he’d once scared the living daylights out of a particularly annoying brat by grabbing his leg with the Hand. I observed all the different and inventive ways the Hand was used by those who really needed it, and it never ceased to amaze me. But my field work ended soon after that conversation and I kind of drifted off.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I had an opportunity to go back to the park where i worked and took the old familiar bus route. But to my surprise, nobody seemed to using the Hands anymore…apparently the trial wasn’t as successful as the makers wanted, and the experiment had been abandoned. Still, life goes on. It always does.

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