Not Quite a Genius: My Year Working at Apple's Flagship Store
In his new book, Funny or Die senior writer Nate Dern remembers some of the more challenging customers he dealt with at his old job.
Photo of Fifth Avenue Apple Store via Wikimedia Commons.
The following is excerpted from Nate Dern's Not Quite a Genius, out August 8 on Simon & Schuster Inc. You can purchase it here.
In elementary school, I didn't feel like one of the smart kids. Chris Shrek was one of the smart kids. He never had trouble with big words when he read aloud in front of the class, and he always finished his multiplication quizzes before anybody else. I wasn't bad at school, but I wasn't great at school. I was just fine at school, and I was fine with being fine at school.
Then one day we all had to take something called the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and I tested in the 99th percentile. The main consequences of this were that I had to leave regular class to go to Gifted and Talented classes with Chris Shrek and the other smart kids, and my parents maybe realized I was smarter than some of my goofy antics had previously led them to believe.
"Nathan is a little genius," I remember my mom saying to a relative on the phone. And to a cashier at the supermarket. And also to a stranger at a gas station.
After getting told that I was Gifted and Talented by teachers at school, and after hearing my mom tell people that I was a genius, I slowly started to think of myself as one of the smart kids. I liked being one of the smart kids. Each time you got a good grade, it was like the teacher was patting you on the head and calling you a good boy. Good grades are to students as doggie treats are to dogs. See? When you're a smart kid, perfect analogies like that just come to you. It's great.
I struggled in college, and it made me think maybe I wasn't one of the smart kids after all, and my 20s seemed to confirm that doubt. My 20s were a slow and steady mental ass-kicking of again and again being taught life lessons that ended with some version of the epiphany, "Huh, guess I'm not as smart as I thought I was." And you can keep having that epiphany, because you can always be a little dumber than you thought you were the day before. Zeno's paradox, except instead of halving distances, you're surprising yourself with incremental increases in stupidity. It's fun.
This lesson was beaten into me through the variety of ways I failed at day jobs. Since I didn't immediately get my dream job out of college—like I assumed was a sure thing for a lil' genius like me—I conditioned myself to say "day job" when referring to whatever source of income I had at the moment, a subtle way of indicating that while yes, this particular line of employment is what I'm doing to pay the bills, I have far grander ambitions that I expect to be realized soon. I recommend you try it the next time someone asks you what you do. "What do I do? Well, for my day job, I'm the CFO of a midsize plastic-plant company that specializes in inoffensive office decor. But that's not my passion, you know?"
I moved to New York City after college to try to "make it in comedy" and get the sort of job I wouldn't call a day job. Since Lorne Michaels wasn't waiting for me when I landed at JFK, though, I needed a day job in the meantime.
My string of post-college day jobs started at a running-shoe store on 14th Street near Union Square. Since I'd been on the track team in high school and college, I figured I was qualified to sell running shoes. Protected by a sheen of naïveté, I walked into a shoe store called JackRabbit and asked for a job. The person in a position to make that decision happened to be in that day, an ultra-endurance athlete and store manager named Chris Bergland. He offered me a job on the spot. I started that week.
A little over a year later, following a stint in England for grad school and an even briefer stint as a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, I found myself once again looking for a day job in the Big Apple.
Though my sheen of naïveté remained, its job-gaining powers had faded. I walked into bars and coffee shops, and instead of being offered a job on the spot, I was offered nothing but the favor of having my résumé taken to be "kept on file." Years later, a waiter friend of mine revealed that restaurants have no such mythical résumé file, other than a trash can or, if they are environmentally conscious, a recycling bin.
I made dumb sketch comedy videos with my friends in between catering temp jobs that my roommate and friend Isaac, an aspiring filmmaker, helped me get. Realizing that the temp game hustle was not for me, I decided to go corporate and apply through online job portals at big companies with reputations for being "OK places to work." Whole Foods and Starbucks didn't get back to me. Apple did.
Unlike that at the running-shoe store, the Apple vetting process was lengthy. It started with an online application and was followed by a phone interview, then a big group interview, then another phone interview, then an individual in-person interview. I thought I was going to get the job, but then a phone message from the recruiter revealed that I still needed "to sort something out."
"Nate, is there anything you want to tell me?" he asked over the phone, like a mother to a son she walked in on eating Buffalo wings on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night.
I thought about telling him that in third grade I scored in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but it didn't seem like that was the sort of thing he was going for. Plus, I'd probably already told him that. "I don't know what you're talking about," I said. His coyness was drawn out for several more confused exchanges before he finally broke.
"Nate, we saw the video," he said. He was comporting himself like he was Leon Jaworski sliding the Smoking Gun Tape across a table to Nixon. Only I wasn't being tricky: I just honestly still had no idea what he was talking about. I said as much, and with a disappointed sigh, the recruiter revealed that he was referring to an online sketch comedy video I'd appeared in months earlier called "Evil Genius Bar" made by some friends of mine on the comedy team LandlineTV. The recruiter told me I would need to "scrub the video from the internet." I told the recruiter that wouldn't be possible. He said he was "sorry to hear that" and hung up. I figured I didn't get the job. Three weeks later he called me back as if that exchange had never happened and offered me a job anyway, with the parting words, "Congratulations! And no more Apple comedy skits, OK?"
I was hired as a Family Room Specialist at the Apple Fifth Avenue location, an underground store you enter via a cylindrical glass elevator on the southeast corner of Central Park. A Family Room Specialist is close to being an Apple Genius, but not quite. Instead of doing tech support for computers, we divided our time between fixing iPhones and teaching lessons. Except there wasn't much we could do by way of actual repair, so the job mainly consisted of explaining to people that AppleCare did not cover water damage. One such interaction entailed me explaining to an Eileen Fisher–clad customer that wine damage counted as water damage, to which she replied, "Well, then you should call it liquid damage."
Since the store was near the Upper East Side, most of the customers I interacted with were old, rich Manhattanites who had bought an Apple computer because they looked prettier than their less expensive PC counterparts (my co-workers on the overnight shift told me that the bulk of their clientele were drunk tourists coming in with iPhones with freshly smashed screens, which all in all sounded like a tougher crowd to deal with). A common task was to explain to someone how to use his or her email, which often started with an overview of what email was. "Think of it as electronic mail!" was not much of a clarifier.
I assumed I was a good teacher. On my first shift, I powered through a lesson with an earnest bearded white man named Walter. He was excited to send electronic mails to his children, who lived in Ohio and California. The illusion of my teaching aptitude was shattered around my fourth shift when Walter showed up again for the same lesson, having forgotten everything I'd taught him. I realized that I wasn't teaching old people how to use email so much as I was helping old people check and send emails at regular intervals. They visited the Apple store the same way they might visit their local post office to check their PO box.
"What is this? L.L. Bean? Why are they emailing me?"
"It looks like you're signed up for their mailing list."
"What? I never signed up for that."
"Well, it's possible the last time you shopped at L.L. Bean, you gave them your email address."
"What? That's not possible. I wouldn't have signed up for this."
"OK, well, I can show you how to unsubscribe if—"
"No, leave it. I might want to look at this later."
There were exceptions. I helped one woman named Natasha create a blog about fashion. We even took a selfie together, an Apple employee no-no, which she posted to her blog along with a short write-up about my hair and glasses (it might have been a fashion don't, I'm not sure). Weeks after she stopped coming in for lessons, I checked on her blog, and she had been updating and adding to it. It made my proverbial glowing Apple logo grow three sizes bigger.
Once a ten-year-old boy named Roger came in for a lesson or, in other words, babysitting. As youth tend to be, Roger was great at computers. All of our standard lessons were beneath him. To pass the time, I decided to show him the hardest computer program I knew, Apple's nonlinear video editing program Final Cut Pro. Whereas my older clients were afraid they'd break the computer if they pressed an unknown button, Roger charged fearlessly forward. He wasn't afraid of making mistakes. Rather than ask what something did, he would click on it, see what happened, and then adjust. In the time I could have explained to him one command, he had already tried five and moved on. It was a demonstration as to why ADHD might be an evolutionary benefit in our media- and technology-saturated modern world.
Toward the end of the year I worked at Apple, I started to have the same angry customer week after week. Let's call her Edith. The source of her fury was her notion that her computer's operating system had been designed idiotically as some sort of personal affront to her. She never remembered that I had been her teacher the week before. Each week started the same.
"So, are you a Genius?" Edith would sneer.
"Not quite," I'd reply with a practiced smile. "I'm a Family Room Specialist."
Her eyes would narrow with suspicion. She'd look around at the other customers with envy, assuming that their Geniuses were doing superior jobs answering questions compared with the non-Genius seated with her. Each week she'd leave without a thank you, disappointed.
As the weeks passed, I became fascinated with the particular computer concepts that were difficult for Edith to grasp. For example:
- The metaphor of multiple windows open in front of one another was confusing to her. She saw a single screen and anything not visible had disappeared. The idea of windows being layered behind one another made no sense. It was almost as if she was an infant who had to relearn a sort of digital object permanence. The metaphor of an actual physical desktop with multiple pieces of paper that could be shuffled and placed in front of or behind other pieces of paper did not translate.
- Every digital entity was a "file." The difference between files, folders, documents, programs, applications, software, operating systems, and browsers did not make sense or matter. Edith would ask questions like "Where are my files?" or "Will my computer keep my files safe from viruses?" or "Can I use this to look at my files?" and in each instance "file" meant something entirely different.
- The difference between email, the Internet, and "the Google" was nebulous in her mind, and she seemed suspicious that I was lying to her when I explained that they were different. She persisted in using the terms interchangeably.
I tried to be patient with Edith, but it was frustrating to see her so clearly disappointed with our interaction time and time again. I tried different metaphors each week. Some days I let her do all the driving herself, keeping my hands away from her trackpad or keyboard.
Some days I took over, thinking that if I showed her the right way, she might finally get it. Nothing worked. My ongoing lessons with Edith were starting to feel like Stand and Deliver meets Groundhog Day with a sad ending.
Eventually, running out of ideas, I decided to try something I'd never tried before. I was going to lie to Edith. I was going to tell her that I was a Genius.
"So, are you a Genius?" she asked with grave concern in her voice.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
Her face relaxed with relief. "Oh, thank goodness." She was happy and convivial throughout our lesson. She listened to everything I said and applied herself. I watched as the concepts started to click. For the first time, she didn't seem afraid of her computer.
As our hour together ended, she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "You were great. Last week my lesson was with someone who was, between you and me, not quite a genius."
She patted me on the head and left. Normally I'd think of that as a little condescending, but I didn't care. That head-pat made me feel like I was the smartest person on earth.
I quit after about ten months, which was more than enough time to get plenty of fodder for some Apple comedy skit ideas. Hit me up online if you're interested in being in one.
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From NotT Quite a Genius by Nate Dern. © 2017 by Nate Dern. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.