My Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

October 5, 2011

I’m a very lucky man to have encountered Steve Jobs on several occasions while being a fan of the company’s retail stores. He showed up at my very first grand opening, the Palo Alto (N. Calif.) store. He walked over from his home just a few blocks away, snuck inside and hung out in the corner trying to be inconspicuous. He was loathe to make the event about himself, instead of making it about the store experience. At the San Francisco store he was more outgoing, proud of the store as he pointed out its features to political dignitaries. At the Fifth Avenue (NYC) store, he was positively gregarious—at least for Steve Jobs. He seemed to revel in walking among the tightly-packed crowd of first-day visitors, smiling widely the entire time. I also got to shake hands with him a couple of times, but we never had a real conversation. Nevertheless, from visiting and studying the stores he created, I feel like I know some part of him, and that I’ve been inspired and educated by him.

My everlasting image of Steve will be the day he stared me down—and I didn’t even realize it.

I was early in line for the Santa Rosa Plaza (N. Calif.) mini-store grand opening in October 2004. I took some photos and videos, and then drove an hour back home. A couple of hours later I thought of driving another hour the other direction to get a look at the Stanford mini-store, which had opened that same morning.

When I arrived I took some photos of the outside, and then stolled inside to notice Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson talking to the father of a store employee. Steve was in earnest, talking about some topic as I snapped a few photos of the trio.

Then I turned away from the group, both drawn by the odd floor and stainless steel interior, and not wanting to intrude on Steve’s conversation. After taking a few photos of the various store features, I went to the back of the store to take an overall view towards the front. Looking through the viewfinder, I lined up my wide-angle lens to show the milky white floor, the steel walls and the one-piece, all-white ceiling.

I then wandered over to the new EasyPay point-of-sale terminal that was a major feature of the mini-stores. An employee had just processed a transaction, and was now rummaging through a pull-out drawer for one of the famous Apple draw-string backpack shopping bags. I immediately put the camera to my eye and snapped off a couple of photos.

And as I snapped, my other eye was aware of a figure coming straight towards me. I turned at the last moment and noticed—it was Steve, and he was right on top of me. “No photographs, please,” he said while holding up a finger. Stunned, all I could say way, “Thank you, Mr. Jobs.” I then retreated outside to get my wind back.

But the real wind would be sucked out of me later when I arrived back home and began looking at the Stanford store photos I had taken.

As I loaded the digital photos into iPhoto, I noticed the frames I had taken from the rear of the store, and how they showed all the new features of the store. So I immediately double-clicked on one to prepare it for posting on my IFO Web site.

And there, in the very middle of the photograph, standing with his arms crossed, was Steve Jobs, staring directly at me. Not to the left, not to the right, but right into my lens. It was both disturbing and mesmerizing at the same time. He had been looking at me while I was photographing his new store, but I didn’t even realize it.

I’m not sure if Steve knew who I was, or that it had been me who posted a sneak photo that revealed the new mini-store design weeks before the grand opening. Either way, I read it in his expression—why are you taking photos of my store?!

That stare, not unfriendly but definitely pointed, has been my gift for the past seven years. I rarely looked at the original photo, but I could always see it clearly in my mind.

All these years, I feel as if I’ve been traveling with Steve on a long journey, with stops along the way to see wonderful things. He has inspired and planned the journey, and I have always been pleasantly surprised at the attractions he picks to visit. Like everyone else, I have always looked forward to Steve’s next surprise.

Now, I’m still traveling, but without him. It’s terribly unsettling, and terribly sad. I’m scared that perhaps the journey is over and there will be no more amazing things to see. I know there are others at Apple who will carry on the company’s culture and Steve’s imaginative work. I just wish Steve were still here to share the ride.

Update: For the curious, below is a full-frame version of the original photo, one of three frames I snapped from the rear of the store to show the new mini-store design. On the right you can see the open drawer at the EasyPay point-of-sale device that I photographed immediately after this photo—and where Mr. Jobs came over to me. On the left is a woman (blond hair) that I believe is Laurene Powell, Steve’s wife.

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