My dad piloted our rental vehicle southbound through a windstorm and into a vast landscape of Americana: deluxe roadside rest areas, never-ending used car lots, enormous neon signs, epic-sized malls and their requisitely epic parking lots.
Forget Texas, everything in America is big, period.
It wasn’t long before we reached our destination: the Apple Store at University Square, an open-air mall of highbrow retailers in Seattle.
It was late on the eve of the release of Apple’s latest technical contrivance: the iPad. I hauled a plastic chair over to the glass store-front and prepared to settle in for a long night.
One other person was there. Dressed in a sweatshirt, toque, and shorts, John Knight was hiding from the cold wind behind a potted tree and a corner of the store front.
John was one of those traditionally amiable Americans.
He had that no-bullshit niceness that only Americans have, that open, unguarded friendliness that we Canadians absolutely lack. I instantly liked him.
“You’re reserved? What are you doing here? Just go and get some sleep, man. You’ll get one for sure!”
John was referring to the fact that weeks ago I had registered with Apple to buy an iPad at this particular retail location.
Flying solo, I hadn’t had to negotiate with anyone on the matter. Nuptial bliss, however, had delayed the decision-making process for John. As a result, he’d missed that boat.
And so there he was, camping out in hope that Apple had iPads to spare.
He was already 6 hours in to his wait when we arrived.
And, this being America, he was already a media darling for that.
Passers-by stopped to say hello to him and comment on how they’d seen him on TV, or read about him on a news website. They shook his hand and wished him luck.
The storefront, a solid expanse of glass, was shrouded by a black curtain. But it didn’t reach the store ceiling.
Visions of fan-blog glory in my head (“the world’s first look at the iPad!”) I stood on my plastic chair and raised my iPhone up to snap a picture of the store interior.
A truck door slammed behind me in the parking lot and heavy boots approached.
“What do you think you’re doing?” a voice boomed. I turned to face an enormous, bald, handlebar-mustachioed man with a well-practiced scowl. He sported Seattle PD threads.
“The curtains are there for a reason! So why don’t you just…” his voice trailed off as he scavenged the depths of his cop-cranium for that just-right crowd-control phrase: “…stop?”
I assured him I would. There were no iPads on display, anyway.
The night was long. And dark. And cold. A few more people showed up.
One guy, a publicist named Tom Biro, maintained a Twitter conversation with folks in line at New York’s 5th Avenue Apple Store, regularly reporting on news from that coast. Like the quality of cracks in Manhattan sidewalks.
Yes, it was a long night.
Inside we could hear the Apple Store employees working. Every once in a while they’d peek out at us to measure our numbers or take our picture to send back to Apple HQ.
At one point they bribed us with bottled water not to mob their pizza delivery boy.
When a nearby Starbucks finally re-opened at 5, there were about 16 of us shivering there in the cold.
Around 6 the action began. More people arrived. Lots more people. They gazed/smirked/giggled at those of us who had been there all night.
Just after 7 some Apple Store employees in blue t-shirts began to emerge and communicate with us. They placed a supply of coffee and water on a nearby table.
Then our tired, tight-knit group of overnight buddies was abruptly split into the haves and have-nots. The blue shirts set up some ropes and signs to segregate those of us who had reserved an iPad from the others.
John mock-scowled across the sidewalk at me (at least, I think it was mock). I’d be the first one in the door.
By this time the lines were long. At least 3 hundred people populated my reserve line; another 100 or so kept their fingers crossed behind John.
Media from around the world was mingling, hassling us all with inane questions: how many Macs do you own? When did you get here? What is the iPad?
Inside the Apple Store, behind the black curtain, we could hear employees rallying with cheers and howls. The crowd inside sounded as large as the one outside.
Then suddenly, from somewhere around the back of the building, a war-cry erupted and a line of blue-shirted Apple staff stormed our scene. They ran, single-file, in a seemingly endless line past us, cheering and slapping our hands.
I asked the blue shirt guarding the door how many people were working at the store that day.
“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “But it’s at least a hundred.”
Some of the blue shirts stayed outside with us, but most went back inside to continue preparing.
Just after 8 they pulled the curtain down. And there it was behind the glass: an iPad, suspended between the ceiling and the floor by wires, like a torture victim on a gilded rack. It displayed an endless video loop of sales propaganda.
Our collective drool dripped down the window pane and froze on the cold pavement below as we gazed upon the iPad’s Jobsian splendor. It was so close…
We could see a mass of blue shirts at the back of the store. They cheered loudly as they watched some sort of motivational video on several large screens.
Then they turned to face us, battle-ready. They waved, smiled, and clapped their hands at us through the glass.
By this point, I was freezing. I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. My back ached from shivering. I could feel my eyes puffing from lack of sleep. I was hungry.
Inside, the blue shirts began to form two lines that lead from the door all the way to the back of the store: a long hallway of clapping, cheering, smiling bodies.
“It’s almost time,” the blue shirt guarding the door told me, smiling a bit.
Suddenly, I really had to pee.
Then the glass doors opened. Noise and a warm wind wafted out, sort of like when you’ve been underwater for a long time and you spring above the surface to catch a breath.
The blue shirts were cheering, waving me in, smiling, hooting, yelling.
It seemed that the blue shirts expected me to charge down the line like a steroid-frenzied linebacker. But, c’mon, I’m Canadian.
Why didn’t they let John in first? He would have performed so much more suitably.
I stepped gingerly along, gazing into the wild eyes of these people who had suddenly turned into an ebbing, flowing wallpaper of blue noise.
Then one blue shirt raised his hand to high-five me. Then they all did. And I walked down the row of them, to a constantly repeated refrain of “all right!”, “congratulations!” and “right on!”
It seemed to go on forever.
I was paired up with one blue shirt as a “guide.” He was a young man who admitted he didn’t know anything about iPads. He’d only first seen it about half an hour ago, and only been allowed to play with it for about 10 minutes.
He led me to the long desk at the back of the store, and there they were behind it: boxes of iPads stacked against the wall.
My blue shirt told another blue shirt which model I wanted. The second blue shirt nodded, looked at his watch, and then smiled apologetically at me.
“Sorry,” he said. “I can’t give it to you for another 3 minutes.”
My blue shirt led me away from the iPads to a rack of accessories. “Let’s see if we can find a case for your iPad.”
By now the river of blue shirts from the door had leaked apart to become a broad ocean spread throughout the store. Dozens of people milled among their waves. People were taking pictures. Camera crews were interviewing babies. I saw a couple hugging warmly in co-congratulation.
The air was electric with an over-amped consumer current.
Suddenly a particularly loud cheer exploded from the front of the store.
John was in. 15 hours after he’d arrived at the store, John was walking in to buy his iPad. He raised his hands in the air and waved at everyone.
Within a minute he was headed back out, an iPad under his arm, no doubt headed home for a long, warm nap.
My blue shirt looked at me. “Let me see if I can get you your iPad now.”
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 9, 2010.