Hustling the cloud: McDonald’s hot spots and the internet jackals of the Apple Store

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Apple store. (Shutterstock)
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One freezing winter night in a Toronto Burger King, I couldn't get on the internet. The restaurant's free wifi simply wasn't working. Another guy a few booths over was having the same trouble on his laptop. We commiserated, but he told me not to worry.

Across Yonge Street, about a block south of Yonge-Dundas Square (Toronto's rough equivalent of Times Square), was the Eaton Centre mall. He said we could go use the wifi signal at the mall's Apple store.

Was he crazy? It was just after midnight. The mall was long closed. He said the stores were closed, sure, but there was a way into Eaton Centre, one door left unlocked for the overnight construction and cleaning crews.

Bear in mind that both of us were grownups, not teen skate punks. This guy was about 50 years old, with an East Indian accent and dressed in a rumpled J. Crewish ensemble and parka that made me think of a retail regional manager. I was well into my 30s, even if my attire was a little closer to a skate punk's than a regional manager's.

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Yet we slipped through the glass door on a shadowy side of the mall with the devious grins of kids getting away with something. Buzz saws, nail guns, and hammers echoed from areas under renovation. Workmen paid us no mind as we went up various escalators and wound our way to the Apple store. On that floor, some female cleaners were polishing the glass barriers that lined the walkways while others on break stretched out on sofa-like cushioned benches, their cleaning carts idling nearby.

It's a beautiful mall. In the daytime, the bird sculptures arrayed in "flight" against the curved skylight high above lend it the feeling of a futuristic natural history museum/cathedral. The Apple store fits in perfectly, looking like something out of the recent Star Trek reboot, a giant light box with cash registers.

As we plugged our laptops into a wall and got situated on a butt-busting marble (or marble-finish) platform under a stairwell near the store, my companion told me his story. He was unemployed but doing just fine on savings and unemployment. He was some kind of engineer, divorced, no kids. Sitting around at home was too much to take, so he liked wandering downtown, doing his internet job search amongst strangers.

When he asked me what my deal was, I told him I'd gone up there from America to learn the city, high and low, and to grow closer to a girl I hoped to marry. The internet was my native scout and guide, helping me save what little cash I had while showing me the most efficient routes to landmarks, bargains, adventures.

He gave me some fatherly adviceā€”I don't remember what it was, but it definitely wasn't the usual patronizing, gently scolding stuff that you'd expect from such a solidly middle-class guy.

Of course, getting a closer, longer look at him, I could see that he had probably been wearing the same clothes for a couple of days. His bleary but smiling eyes told me what his level tone wouldn't: He was kind of into the upheaval of unemployment and divorce, of living off the clock of urgent responsibility. Loitering in a mall at 1 a.m., for him, was nearly as freeing as riding a chopper cross-country.

Back home I had run into many such late-night nerd-drifters at the Apple store on 58th Street. An angry young black British writer had tipped me to the glories of 24-hour Apple joints one night, when we both found ourselves kicked out of the Grand Central Terminal wifi hotspot at closing time. 

58th Street was a revelation. So this was where all the weirdoes who used to fill the early-2000's Internet cafe on Times Square had migrated.

Under the supervision of highly tolerant Apple store Geniuses, folks could play with the latest MacBooks, iPods, Shuffles, Airs, iPhones, and iMacs (iPads were still a few months off) for as long as they could stand or lean at the waist-level display tables. Others who brought their own devices siphoned wifi while sitting on the stone bench encircling the store's Logan's Run-looking glass elevator.

My favorite stand-up regular was a wild Hispanic man who scoured YouTube for reggaeton booty-shaking videos. None of my business, except that he would watch the clips full-screen on the store's biggest iMac display, the speaker bass thumping while he ground his hips in the approximate space the dancing women's butts would have occupiedif the videos were holograms. Here was the only argument for 3-D that I could respect. On a similar theme, I once overheard a young, broke playboy arranging a booty call on one of the iPhones. Speaking above the store's iTunes-diverse muzak, he told the girl he was just leaving the studio.

Others conducted important business on the phones, shouting or sobbing or plaintively whispering. Been there, too: The day my MacBook and phone got stolen, I ran to the Geniuses before I thought to run to the cops.

This was the future a lot of dystopian sci-fi authors warned us about, where a private, profit-hungry corporation could make itself feel like Mom's house. I loved it. For the ridiculous amount of money Apple had raked in during its stellar iPod/iPhone decade, it was willing to let a few stragglers abuse their sample products, maintaining an aura of Californian liberality. All that was missing was a counter for dispensing sandals near the entrance, bowling alley-style.

On these weird late nights, actual Apple customers sat on bar stools near the Genius Bar, waiting like worried pet owners for their sick machines to come out from the back, fully restored. We, the internet jackals, never mingled with those credit card-wielding V.I.P.'s, but I figured any sensible abuser felt just as grateful toward the Apple true believers as I did. It was their insatiable lust for each new iThis or iThat which provided for us all. Both Steve Jobs and the booty-shake dude would be out in the cold without them.

In this one store, Jobs had given us a shimmering, utopian welfare state, where even those of us who would have had to sell blood to keep up with the iJoneses at least got to sample the glory. The idea being, I suspect, that we'd happily graduate to Apple loyalists whenever we got our shit together.