All it takes is one computer salesman to change things

And it’s not who you’re thinking about.

In early 1987, my parents had said that as a 16th birthday gift they’d get me a personal computer. I had always shown a general interest in computers here or there, not anything pressing in terms of programming or the like, but in the random appreciative sense I had when futzing around with one at school or via a friend or relative’s. I’d ended up subscribing to Enter magazine somehow and had a general sorta sense of things, and, well, I’d seen WarGames a few times. Then there’s Tron of course but we all know about Tron by now.

That school year, my junior year at Coronado High, I’d taken a typing class in the first half and was working on a computer class in the second half — honestly don’t remember what was being taught now, but probably some basic word processing stuff and the like. Can’t remember if I’d really done any work on Apple products by then, though I’m sure I did, and I’m also sure I didn’t understand the distinction between PCs and DOS and Apple and System or anything like that. A computer was a computer, surely, which shows you how ultimately shallow my understanding was even with those magazines I read and so forth. But I sure knew about the Apple ads, of course. I’d seen that Super Bowl, that commercial, the whole nine yards.

But that underscored something, namely a certain disinclination for the technical. Not completely so, but at a certain point when growing up my explicit interest in studying and school had switched from math classes to literature and history courses, where learning science got, well, too scientific. AP English was always going to be a breeze, AP Physics, not so much (great class, though, was taking it that same year). So the idea of a computer at home was exciting but in many ways I was just coming into the subject much the same as my parents were, not totally sure how or where to start. And I was the one that was supposed to be the expert in the house.

With the help of friends, my parents pulled together some magazine articles and the like listing recent recommendations, what to get and what it would be suited for. I remember feeling a bit numbed reading about all these ‘PC clones’ and the like, but there were things about Apple as well. Eventually the day came when we decided to go over to the local Navy Exchange, my father and I, and check out their computer section off the main floor, a separate room. It made sense to shop there — lower prices and all — and my dad must have figured it would make for a smoother experience.

I don’t remember how it happened but eventually we got into a big discussion with one of the salespeople. Still remember him vividly in terms of appearance — tall, slim, African-American, glasses, perhaps a mustache but I’m not totally sure, very enthusiastic without being overbearing. At least to my memory, maybe in the moment it was different, but I remember feeling a certain sense of trust overall. There was a lot of discussion and back and forth over many things, and I recall him telling us that, yes, in terms of price, a PC was certainly a better option.

But at the same time, he either figured out or I volunteered that non-technical part of me, the part that didn’t need to tinker so long as the tools to hand worked well enough for the purpose at hand. And he did like Apple, quite a lot. A fanboy, or a salesman knowing that the greater cost couldn’t hurt his standing? A bit of both perhaps but I’d still volunteer the former, and I don’t remember him denigrating the PC approach at all. But above all I remember him smiling, his gentle enthusiasm, his clear sense that though it would cost more, there was something to an Apple, and especially to a Macintosh, that would probably work for me wonderfully well.

It was enough and I decided on a Mac, going for a little ol’ 512K enhanced, not first generation of course but not that far along, just three years after the debut. We got a few Kensington accessories to go with it, purchased it and a printer to go with it and set everything up on my desk in my bedroom at home. Once it was all turned on, all I had to do was play the cassette tape included with it as a tutorial and start playing with the system disks to see what would work best.

And I was off.

Twenty four years is a long time, no question. Some things don’t change, though, the desk in question being one of them. Had that since I was a pre-teen. What’s on the desk has changed some over the years, though, starting in 1987 in particular. One thing really hasn’t, though, and that’s been an Apple icon in the corner of the monitor on it, whatever the monitor, whatever the computer, whatever the dwelling, whatever my personal situation.

It didn’t have to be. But having made my choice, as time went on I just thought, “Well, yeah. Of course it’ll be Apple. Why wouldn’t it be?” It was just what I needed, every time, every step of the way. It didn’t do things other computers might do better, sure, but if the choice was gameplaying versus, say, writing — well, I really wanted to write, I liked to write. I enjoyed the occasional game well enough but no chance for it up against me wanting to write a paper or work on a story idea or, a few years after 1987, finally hook up a bit to the Internet and figure out what was out there a bit more than the vague things I remembered from Matthew Broderick talking to Joshua or the like.

And so here I am. And it’s obvious why this is all coming back in a rush today, this sense of a defined and gamechanging moment from those years ago and the retrospection now. There’s going to be so much written and talked about over the next few days — hell, a lot more than that — that I’m not interested in adding much on that front. I didn’t know Steve Jobs, I try not to hero worship, he was no plaster saint and I trust he was aware enough not to regard himself as one or his company as some blameless and always benign force. But the sense of how vast and also how specific the changes he oversaw bore fruit is such that I can’t but take it all in.

The impact of someone, then, isn’t necessarily in the person’s own decisions but how others communicate them. When he could and did, Jobs would happily speak to the world; when it was 1987 he wasn’t even part of the company. But John Sculley sure didn’t inspire me either. A friendly salesman at the Navy Exchange on North Island Naval Air Base next to Coronado did, though, and the chain goes back from him a long but clear way to that guy who tinkered around with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne and then tried to figure out what next after that.

Multiply that by countless amounts and that’s what’s being felt right about now. The Twitter feed’s choked, the Facebook updates are thick and fast, and so forth. I learned about it on an iPhone, I typed all this via my MacMini looking at my Apple LCD display. As clear a presence in my day to day as anyone could be that I’d never met and now will never meet.

One hell of a legacy. Thanks again, whoever you were at the Navy Exchange in 1987. May Steve Jobs rest well.

Steve Jobs, 2011

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