I was on the phone yesterday with India or Jakarta or Micronesia -- wherever Apple goes now for its low-cost phone tech support staff -- registering a complaint about my two-day old MacBook whose keyboard didn't work. It worked intermittently. Or it failed intermittently. Pressing on the keys didn't register anything. Twenty minutes later the keys worked. An hour later, they stopped. The man on the phone wanted to reprogram the settings, but that didn't sound right to me. I said I wanted someone to look at the brand new machine.
"You can go in today, m'am," he said. "There is an Apple Store in New York."
"It's the middle of the night where you are," I said, "but it's the end of the day where I am."
"The store is open tonight, m'am."
But it was about to be Saturday night. I had no plans, but I was not about to admit, even to a man I didn't know in Indonesia, much less to myself, that getting my computer fixed was the best offer I had. "I'm busy," I said.
"What about tomorrow, m'am?"
"There's supposed to be a blizzard."
"A what, m'am?"
Of course. No blizzards in Bali. "It's like a mini-tsunami," I explained, "but with snow."
"That sounds very bad, m'am. Are you free on Monday?"
"Yes. Where's the store?"
"Let me see. You're in New York? We have a store in White Plains."
"No, I'm in Manhattan."
"I'm sorry, m'am. We have no store in Manhattan."
"But it's called New York. New York, New York. Look under New York City."
"Oh yes, I see, we have a store in New York City. There is one on Fifth Avenue. Is that near you?"
"It depends. What's the cross street?"
"That's not possible. Fifth and Madison are parallel."
"Sorry, m'am, I will check for you. One moment, please."
Long story short, as soon as I hung up, with my Monday appointment, the keyboard quit. It started, it worked up a head of steam, so to speak, and conked out an hour later. I called back the man in Kuala Lumpur, and threw every ounce of dignity I had to the wind. "I need an appointment tonight," I said. What did I care if he knew I was a social outcast? At that point, I didn't care if the store was at the intersection of Fifth and Madison, I wanted a keyboard that worked. What if I had to send, say, an emergency email, and the keyboard chose that 20-minute period to go on strike? My appointment was for 7:20 PM.
I took a cab from the Upper West Side, and when the traffic stopped moving on 5th Avenue, I got out at 62nd Street and huffed the rest of the way to 59th, not certain what building the store was in. But as I approached the tall, icy GM building in the dark, the black Apple logo appeared to be floating over the plaza, and I knew I was in the right vicinity, if only I could figure out where the entrance was. On the plaza close to the sidewalk, a great crush of people seemed to be appearing and disappearing in one spot, but I couldn't see a door, much less a structure, until I became part of the wave of humanity being sucked into a clear glass cube that drew us down a winding glass staircase that wound and wound around until a vast retail panorama spread itself out at our feet.
I grew up in the city, and it's impossible for me to see the GM building, a dreary, white with black-accented skyscraper, without three distinct memories:
1. The original FAO Schwarz used to be in the building that's now Bergdorf Goodman, across 59th Street from the GM Building, and I used to go there alone to play in the store on Saturday afternoons when I was nine and 10 years old, alone because none of my friends' parents would let them go with me at that age, and alone because my parents eventually gave into my desire to hang out in the store -- alone. (Clearly, I was in training to be a writer, a loner, someone with nothing to do on Saturday nights.)
2. Before they built the GM Building, a grand old hotel, The Savoy Plaza, stood on the site. On some of my early trips to FAO Schwarz, I saw people with picket signs protesting the destruction of the hotel, and it seemed like a sweet, noble thing to do, to care that much about a building.
3. In its early days, the GM Building had a famous restaurant on its lower level called The Auto Pub, and it was a favorite watering hole of my parents, whose marriage began to seriously fall apart when I was a senior in high school. One night they went there for dinner and half a dozen drinks, and my mother told my father it would okay for him to leave -- leave the marriage, leave the family -- and when they were done with that cheery chat, he invited her to ride home with him on his motorcycle. (He was an eccentric businessman, not a Hell's Angel.) Knowing he was drunk, she declined. When he didn't come home in the morning, which he frequently didn't, it didn't concern her. But it did concern her when the police called to say that he was in Lenox Hill Hospital after a motorcycle accident the night before. From the proud woman who had given him the boot, she suddenly became a cloyingly devoted wife-at-his-bedside while he recovered, and that was even more upsetting than the possibility of the end of their marriage. He was not badly injured, but the accident postponed his departure and ratcheted up the misery for all of us.
Anyway, that was all a very long time ago, and they are both in the great Auto Pub in the sky, but as I looked down at what had replaced the dark, cramped childhood landmark -- the low ceiling in the restaurant, the tiny tables with actual car seats as chairs -- I nearly gasped. It was a vast, austere, wide open space -- New York's version of the Grand Plains. At the bottom of the Cinderella staircase, there must have been 400 people and half that many computers and iPods and headsets and speaker systems welded to tables, available for touching, fondling, looking at, playing with, listening to -- and buying. I had an appointment to get my computer fixed at Lourdes, at St. Peter's on Christmas morning, O'Hare the day before Thanksgiving. It looked like there were 200 people ahead of me, clutching their sick laptops at the Genius Bar.
When I left an hour later, with a new computer -- the keyboard issue is a big problem with the new MacBooks, and the Apple people don't know how to fix it yet, so be sure to complain early and ask for a new machine -- the crowd was larger, even more eager. "It's open all night!" one man said to his son. A German couple whose baby was strapped to the father's chest had a bagful of electronic goodies, purchased cheap with Euros. There were wealthy South Americans snapping up NanoPods and poor people writing email and rich people shouting orders on cell phones and 100 young people in bright red T-shirts directing traffic and collecting credit cards and offering insights about hardware, software, and shareware.
It was Saturday night and the joint was jumping. This is what New York, and our Brave New World, have become: Studio 54 minus the drink, the drugs, and the music. Las Vegas for computer geeks. The Auto Pub minus the cars, the martinis, and the shrimp cocktails. All of it supported by people on the other side of the globe working for peanuts while we shopped and slept and no longer desired to dance the night away.
Rockefeller Center and NBC are nine blocks down Fifth Avenue, but the eight-week-old Writers Guild strike meant that the Saturday Night Live studio was dark. But it hardly mattered there beneath the glass cube on 59th Street, on the site of the place where my parents decided to end their marriage. Who needs television writers, I ask you, when we are all writers now, and when, with the right 3-ounce hand-held camera and YouTube, we can all be producers and directors? My broken keyboard and my email addiction had conspired to lead me to the hippest, coolest, most happening place in town. The real losers -- hey, not me! no more, no way! -- were all the people who weren't there.
Elizabeth Benedict's most recent books are Almost, The Practice of Deceit, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers.