I go to the Apple store on the upper west side to replace a battery. The city is sparkling, almost too bright. We'd had an earthquake, which was almost comic, and a hurricane, which was almost not, but that was in the past. The present rolls on.
Walking into an Apple store is always a bit awe-inspiring. There is the vaulted ceiling, the feeling of transcendence. The monks all wear blue T-shirts. I am a disciple. I bought my first Apple computer in 1985. Upstairs, the store is austere, pleasant, the tables of iPads untouched like plates waiting for food.
Downstairs, where the genius bar is located, is packed with humanity. It's something of a shock, like there is a sale at Filene's Basement.
I wait my turn. The man in the blue shirt is an accelerated version of the usual cool, almost drugged affect of Apple employees. The battery needs replacing. He gets my battery. Directs me to the line. It's very long.
This is because of the huge business of Apple, the many customers. But it's more complicated. When I get to the front, I am presented with a credit card slip. One rarely sees these things anymore. In fact the only time I see them is when I pay for a take-out delivery with a credit card, and the delivery guy pulls one out and rubs a pen back and forth over it with my card pressed against his thigh. But here they are at Apple. It turns out the server for the store -- each store has their own server -- has burnt out. Apparently it happens now and then.
"I've been here two years at this store," says the guy behind the counter. "This is the third time."
Standing beside him is another guy, watching. There are a few of these trainees behind other Apple employees, shadowing. The trainee wears a black polo shirt, chews gum, watches quietly.
"How long will it last?" I ask.
The guy in the blue shirt, who is calculating the sales tax on his iPhone calculator, looks up at me and shrugs. "Who knows?"
It's two days after Hurricane Irene. Nature raised a fist to the city's face and then moved on to bludgeon others. But the streets are filled people who have come in from their summer homes where the power is out, their amazed stories drifting in the air. No power means no refrigerators. No fans or air conditioning. No water. And -- an amenity or a necessity, it's a fine line -- no Internet. At one point I find myself scanning Twitter for reports on life in black-out conditions, until, vexed at their absence, I realize that people with no electricity cannot Tweet.
"It's kind of spooky timing," I say. "Steve Jobs leaves, and right away this happens!"
We all laugh. Another guy in a blue shirt says, "He leaves, and the servers immediately melt!"
The shadow watches, listens, chews his gum.
"Someone will call this in later today for approval," says my Blue Shirt. He hands me the credit card slip; I'm reminded of the old taxi meters, where the ride began with the driver flipping a lever up, a heavy mechanical gesture.
We're in the era of service economy, but the image of a back room filled with people frantically working the phones to confirm transactions feels redolent of the older era of manufacturing. Of course some parts of the country and many parts of the world are still in that era; in New York, however, the nostalgia for that time is palpable. Coming to the store, I passed a huge banner advertising the TV show Pan Am, a Mad Men-style spinoff celebrating America's version of the Victorian era, starring (I was amazed to see) Christina Ricci. She once read slush for Open City, the magazine I edited, many years ago; her father was a Reichian therapist who practiced scream therapy and never realized that his otherwise soundproofed basement office had an air vent that led directly into her room. She's been an actor with, I think, a genuinely interesting streak of deviance. It seems odd to see her in a show whose pitch meeting might have involved a phrase like, "It's Charlie's Angels meets the Mile High Club!"
As I prepared to ascend the spiral staircase made of glass -- Steve Jobs oversaw the design of these retail stores, about which he was famously obsessive -- I thought, there is no escaping the physical world, even at Apple.
I thought of a picture I had seen in the last few days of Steve Jobs, emaciated and near death. It was such an upsetting photo. It appeared during the period of that weird outpouring of grief and fear that accompanied his resignation. I feel a pang of irrational gratitude to Jobs; I was an Apple person, a congregant, with every upgrade I lifted my arms in thanks. I'm rooting for a recovery.
In that photograph he was as skinny as Gandhi. For three decades he entranced us with feelings of power, ease and transparency. Especially transparency. It's weird to think that the mini-storage industry, for people who have too many things and cannot part with them, the era of cheap stuff from China, and Apple Computer's ascendancy were all concurrent, because one of Jobs' biggest gifts to us is the ability to remove the feeling of clutter. The transparency and the neatness that Apple promises and delivers feels tinged with irony now that Steve Jobs seems to be vanishing before our eyes. I walked up those stairs thinking of Kafka's story, "A Hunger Artist." When the emaciated Hunger Artist finally dies they replace him with a panther. Endings always change everything that leads up to them.
This essay originally appeared in N+1.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more