In the immediate hours following the death of Steve Jobs, just after sunset in New York City, the Apple Store just south of Central Park has been hit by a graffiti artist. The glass facade of the store is now covered up with clunky off-white slates for ongoing construction, and on one of the temporary side walls some admiring artist -- a pilgrim, a mourner -- had snuck up with a can of black spray paint and scrawled, totally undetected, a phrase that stood as the most authentic and fitting symbol of grief, remembrance and respect for the legendary CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. Accomplished while store employees and hired security guards roamed around the building's exterior, the artist managed to tag the Apple store and escape unidentified with these simple, beautiful words:
Though on its own this graffiti tribute is a sufficiently poignant statement, what happens next pushes it into a kind of poetic perfection:
After the graffiti is discovered, one of the security guards at the store walks into the main lobby of the building to inform the property manager, a big man with a short haircut and thin, wire-rimmed glasses who is responsible for the larger plaza and cluster of buildings where the Apple store resides. The security guard gives this hulking property manager the bad news, and the property manager's face turns sour.
“Where?” he asks.
The security guard points out toward 59th St. and 5th Ave., to the side wall that has been tagged by the graffiti artist. Muttering to each other the whole way, they walk out to the defaced wall to survey the damage. The property manager, in his freshly-pressed black suit and freshly-shined black shoes, looks at the graffiti, takes in what happened and drops his head to his chest, defeated.
"I fucking hate this store," he says, and then sulks back inside.
For much of the time after Steve Jobs' passing, there was a weird calm both inside and outside this iconic Apple flagship store: There were not really many mourners or pilgrims, nor did any iPhone-light vigils break out. Indeed, bored-looking journalists and cameramen outnumbered the aggrieved by a ratio of about 10-to-1 -- unless, of course, there was an entire gang of unseen graffiti artists darting about in the shadows of that cool October Midtown Manhattan night.
The employees of the store, meanwhile, in typical, brutally-efficient Apple fashion, were strategically eliminating the redundant and the unnecessary: Janitors almost immediately swept up and trashed flowers that had been left for Jobs on the stairs leading into the store and in the nooks and crannies of the store itself; noisy construction on the building's glass facade went on uninterrupted by the evening's news; blue-shirted Apple employees broke down exhibits and packed away accessories in preparation of the nightshift.
It was an eerie status quo. This particular Apple store is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and, improbably, defeated the Statue of Liberty for fifth most photographed building in all of New York City. It had not emptied out, nor become silent or funereal, nor did it groan under the weight of unexpected masses of stunned, disbelieving lamenters. Rather, a sense of an eerie calm came from the steady flow of out-of-town shoppers from around the world, coming into and going out of the store, playing with the tablets and laptops and smartphones and music players on display, taking pictures at the Genius Bar, queueing in lines at the cash register that were still almost 30 people long at midnight on a Wednesday.
Was this huge group of people so late at night uncharacteristic for that Apple store just below Central Park -- perhaps a tribute to the company's late CEO?
"It's actually a little less crowded than usual," an Apple employee told me, shrugging his shoulders. "Business as usual."
And then, immediately, he changed tones:
"Can I help you with anything?"
These two episodes -- the sneaky, fearless graffiti artist who upset the establishment, and the ruthless, shark-like focus on perfection and quality even in the face of extreme adversity -- illustrate the brilliance of Apple under Steve Jobs. He combined a famously obsessive attention to detail with a sixth sense for industry disruption. On the night of his death, that spirit continued at the Central Park Apple store, in both his former employees and his forever fans.
As the news trucks rolled away and the flood lights were switched off and loaded up, the real grieving began. An ad hoc shrine of sorts developed on the plaza steps outside the Apple store. First one bouquet was left (flashclick flashclick flashclick flashclick), then another bouquet was left (flashclick flashclick), more bouquets, then a heartfelt placard (flashclick), then some candles, more flowers, a picture of Jobs in a frame. Someone positioned a big green uneaten Apple at the top left of the shrine; sensing un-Jobs-ian disorder, a gentlemen took an apple out of his bag, unpeeled the Saran wrap, took a big bite out of the apple's upper corner, and placed it down on the top right of the shrine to balance things out.
At any given moment, there were anywhere from a dozen to 30 onlookers and passersby surrounding the shrine, taking photos, adding flowers and memorabilia and tokens of appreciation, writing their remembrances in a notebook that someone had left as a kind of open forum where people could record their gratitude on paper. Some wrote paragraphs and signed their names, others wrote single sentences of simple appreciation. One teenage boy, in a large red T-shirt and baggy jeans, who looked, quite frankly, to be up past his school night bedtime, waited patiently in a line that had formed to write down his thoughts. When it was his turn, he pulled up his jeans and bent over the notebook, took the small golf pencil in his hand and wrote across and down an entire page, ignoring the conventions (just like Jobs might have!) of capitalization and grammar and ruled lines and penmanship:
"THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING STEVE," he wrote, "YOU WILL BE MISSED BUT A PART OF YOU LIVES ON."
"What's with the crowds?” a woman walking by the shrine asked me.
I gave her the news.
"That's fucking awful."
She shook her head and walked away.
It is perhaps fitting that the crowds never seemed to top fifty, that no large-scale vigil ever formulated in New York City at the flagship store. Yes, it is altogether sweet and proper that the real mourning did not take place en masse in person, but rather in a flood of updates on Facebook and Twitter and blogs and websites -- content platforms made much more accessible and whose existence and continued success were made possible by the trailblazing products and innovations of Apple under Steve Jobs.
I never considered Steve Jobs a hero of mine -- his name never popped up when I was filling out absurd questionnaires, or answering those awful interview questions, or even thinking, in my quieter moments, of men and women whose lives and careers I admired. I suppose in retrospect, however, that looking back on his life has crystallized the fact that Jobs more or less possessed all of the qualities I value in my heroes: creative, world-changing, bold, intelligent, eloquent, universally respected by fans and detractors alike. He had flaws, of course, and they were well-documented, but his myriad accomplishments that span over thirty years of innovation null and void all of those comparably minor defects in these initial hours. We have lost an iconic, inimitable innovator and icon.
In retrospect, I will always remember where I was when I heard about the death of Steve Jobs. In what I am sure should be marked as an historical bit of irony, I learned of Jobs' passing not on my HP computer, but via text message on my iPhone. When I found out, I was busy struggling to determine why my PC would not connect to the Internet all of a sudden, and so a frantic text message was the way the news first reached me.
I was stunned. I punched a couch cushion. Even though he had been sick for a long time with a cancer that normally kills its victims very quickly, there was something about Steve Jobs that made him seem so robust and indestructible. Or rather, he had become more the idea of a tech CEO than an actual living, breathing, vulnerable one, having more in common with Bart Simpson, who never ages, than with anyone real on TV.
But it's more than the text message -- the ding and the vibrate of my iPhone 3GS, the rightward swipe, the left-aligned white-on-white speech bubble with the awful, awful news. I will remember those two scenes of the graffiti and the ruthless perfectionism in the face of sentiment at the Apple store in New York City, both of which seemed to define and capture so well the genius and legacy of Steve Jobs. Creation and destruction, creation and destruction: Steve Jobs has died, but what he created -- both his products, and a kind of brilliant, unceasing, unending, analytically creative and creatively analytic work ethic that heretofore seemed non-existent -- still lives on, both in the world at large, and, for a few brief, cold, dark hours in New York City, at a Central Park Apple store that stands as a glimmering shrine to his life's work.