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The Genius Bar

3:00 PM, Oct 11, 2011 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Steve Jobs, as everyone knows, died last week at 56.

Steve Jobs

 As a Mac man—and I don’t mean McDonald’s—all my days on a computer, I feel a debt of genuine gratitude to Jobs for developing and manufacturing products that come with an absolute minimum of jigeroos. iMacs, iPhones, iPads, Jobs’s refinements of all these, while he was the head of Apple, were never-ending. Apple products cost more than competing items, but they hold up better, and thus bear out the apothegm—so comforting only when it proves true—that one gets what one pays for.

Eulogistic claims followed Steve Jobs’s death that he was an authentic American genius, the Thomas Edison of our day. This was understandable hyperbole. The computer and its affiliated toys—cell phones, tablets, notebooks, and the rest—have gone a long way to making access to information and communication easier, in the way that the motor car was a grand improvement over horseback and carriage. But neither the digital nor the motorized vehicle revolutions has been absolutely fundamental in the way that Edison’s development of electricity for industrial and domestic use was. In my amateur’s ignorance, I would say that Steve Jobs was less an inventor than a perfector, less a genius than an impressive designer and thoroughly admirable industrialist.

Except for one realm in which I am now about to claim genius for him. He once stuck one of the cheapest men I have known with a dinner check in New York for more than $400. The man never got over it. The fellow was himself what I call a “small-advantage man,” the academic equivalent of the sort of man who moves his savings account from one bank to another to get the free electric blanket or toaster. While he didn’t mind spending on himself, this man would con publishers out of review copies, glom vast quantities of jiffy bags from the office supply depot, keep check on the market value of his first editions of second-class novels, take advantage of a handicap parking sign years after his temporary handicap had long since expired. The pleasure he took in these small advantages was deep and abiding.

He happened to have gone to dinner with Steve Jobs because of a family relation, too elaborate and boring to go into here. He mentioned Jobs’s sticking him with the check to me perhaps 10 times, always with a look of befuddlement crossing his face. He never explained exactly how Jobs did it—perhaps he never grasped the actual mechanics of it himself—leaving me to re-create the maneuver in my imagination.

I imagine a scene of great general bonhomie in a crowded and noisy New York restaurant. Whether Jobs or someone else at table with knowledge of currently fashionable restaurants chose the place is not known, but I suspect it must have been Jobs. I see the waiter viewing Steve Jobs as the man at the table with most authority, an old and trusted customer—the fellow to whom the sommelier pours the first sip of wine for him to taste and pass judgment upon.

Such a man orchestrates the meal, and Jobs in my mind does so here. Heedless of the prices on this costly à la carte menu, he orders a copious dinner: cocktails, starters, ample entrée, a good bottle of wine, salad, dessert, and coffee, disdaining only a cognac at the finish. Then, before the check arrives, after exclaiming to everyone at the table how much he has enjoyed himself, Jobs announces he has a fairly important meeting and really does have to buzz off. I see him press a corner of the expansive white napkin delicately to his lips just before rising and taking his leave. I prefer to think of him patting the small-advantage man on the back as, smiling, he briskly departs the restaurant.

The waiter sets the check before small-advantage man, the oldest male at the table. His eyes squint as he attempts to grasp the sum of the check; a vein appears on his forehead. His fingers tremble as he removes his credit card from his wallet. His mind boggles as he contemplates the immensity of the tip required.

Steve Jobs, meanwhile, is out on the street, entering a cab. As he bangs close the door—Eureka!, it hits him how to make the iPhone even smaller than it now is, so that it can fit into the key pocket of his Levi’s, and to do so while adding to it at least four additional gigabytes of memory.

Genius, the entire performance, pure genius. 

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