LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Nowhere do Thoreau’s words ring more true than in the belly of a shopping mall at 6 a.m.
Heretofore, my forays into early-morning retail have all been centered around a search for Black Friday deals or, more accurately, my wife’s search for Black Friday deals. Usually, these excursions were less than entirely my idea. However, my trusty Apple Watch has slowed to a crawl as of late, and the aforementioned wife gave me an Apple gift card for my birthday last week in anticipation of the newest version hitting the market. “Pre-ordering” the new watch would have delivered it to my door somewhere around the end of October, but the helpful hipster at the Apple store assured me that there would be several watches for the taking at the “launch event” beginning at 6 a.m. on Sept. 21.
And so it was that I found myself steering the Subaru into a surprisingly empty parking lot at Oxmoor Center well before sunrise. Inside, I initially found only mall-walkers and little of the hubbub I was expecting. Eventually, I came across a small group of 15-20 people lined up past the Apple store, corralled by a lone security guard who was so clearly excited by this departure from his normal routine that he was protecting the entrance to Tumi Leather like it was the White House Situation Room.
“Launch Events,” it turns out, ain’t what they used to be. In days gone by, store employees tell me, hundreds of people would camp overnight to secure the latest gadget from Cupertino. Today, whether it’s due to maturing technology, improved competition, or just the normal cycle of novelty, Apple’s crowds have dwindled to a shadow of their former selves. The enthusiasm of the Apple staff is undimmed, however, which lends a certain “Sunset Boulevard” feel to the whole experience. The adoring fans might be harder to come by, but just like Norma Desmond, the Apple employees are still ready for their close-up.
Apple turns out a small army of fresh-faced young people in matching shirts and glasses for these events. They work the line relentlessly, doing everything from answering questions, to pushing snacks and water from a cart that looks like it just rolled off a Delta aisle, to just making general chitchat. One of them parades down the line with his home-built robot, which rolls and spins along at the command of his iPhone. He seems to have assumed that anyone who would show up at 6 a.m. to stand in line for an iPhone would be fascinated by his endless explanations of how he wrote the code that changes the robot’s LED from a yellow square to a red heart. His assumption, of course, is entirely correct.
The one question none of the employees seems to be able to answer is when anything is going to happen. At “some point,” they promise, they’ll come down the line to offer “reservations,” which will essentially let you know whether the phone or watch you want is going to be available when you get to the front of the line. When that will happen, or when the store will open and actually start selling things, seem to be answers that are yet to be revealed unto any of our young heroes in the long-sleeve t-shirts. It’s as if they’re all waiting for Steve Jobs to appear in ghost form like Obi-Wan Kenobi and whisper, “It is time.”
Meanwhile, the line is growing steadily and it’s beginning to turn into an appreciably large crowd. At some point, one of the Apple “Geniuses” comes down the line to geek out with customers over various iPhone features. Up until now, I’ve been steadily assuring myself that I’m cooler than the rest of this bunch, so I sit in silent judgment, until I can no longer resist showing off the pictures I took of my daughter in Paris using the “portrait” mode. Before I know what’s happened, I find myself in a heated debate with the store employee over whether it’s possible to turn off the portrait effect after the fact or something similarly arcane. What the hell has happened to me? I have become what I beheld, and I am not alone. Looking down the line, the natives are beginning to get restless and argumentative. This, then, is why the employees were pushing the oatmeal bars off the airline cart so aggressively. This isn’t their first rodeo, and they’ve apparently learned the hard way that hell hath no fury like a geek whose sugars are low.
Just when it seems as if the crowd might suddenly morph into something even our earnest security guard cannot control, the event truly begins. The person who seems in charge of the entire affair, or who at least brings the most enthusiasm to bear, appears at the front of the line and begins to whip up the crowd with applause, chants, and call-and-response cries of “Who’s ready for a new iPhone XS?!!!!!” It occurs to me that this is what pep rallies look like on the nerd planet.
The line begins moving, and at last I’m the next one up to enter the promised land. At this point, I’ve given myself over to the spirit of the day, and the excitement is actually palpable. As ridiculous as it might sound, it feels exactly like that moment when you’re standing on the loading platform of the roller coaster and the next train is pulling in. Maybe the days of overnight campouts have come and gone, but Apple still delivers an event where kindred spirits can spend an early morning sharing the excitement of having the latest and greatest gizmo that really does make your world a little different.
I enter the store, and then, as quickly as it began, it’s over. I walk out the door proudly clutching a long white box containing the object of my desire – a brand new Apple Watch Series 4, space gray aluminum, 44mm, GPS plus cellular, with a black sport loop band. One of the Apple employees spots my expression and says, without the slightest trace of irony, “Congratulations!”
We get each other, he and I. Congratulations, indeed.
Bill Shory is the news director at WAVE 3 News.