In 1999, I found myself suddenly without a job in my regular field (graphic design) and feeling lost. I was also going to a very bad patch, relationship-wise. To get me out of my deepening rut, my mother convinced me to take a job in the restaurant she ran at the time in midtown Manhattan, an extremely busy sushi place called Tsukiji Sushisay.
At the time, Sushisay was rated the best Japanese restaurant in New York City, and the popularity of sushi was exploding. So everyone showed up there. Woody Allen and his wife-who-was-his-daughter were regulars. Michael J. Fox came fairly often too, as did Itzak Perlman and Steven Spielberg. So many local sports and media stars used to come that eventually I barely noticed. Japanese 'celebrities' came too, whenever they were in New York. At first it was kind of exciting to see these famous faces. Soon enough though it just became part of the job. Some of those celebrities were nice and polite and down to earth. Some were obnoxious and inflated with their own sense of entitlement. (Funnily enough, Woody Allen was the former, and his wife was the latter.)
Nora Ephron once wrote in an essay that she had narrowed down the list of famous people she'd bother to stand up and gawk at in a restaurant to three names: Henry Kissinger, Mary Tyler Moore and (I think) Elvis Presley. (She wrote this in the early '70s.) I didn't have such a list, but I understood the feeling. Just because someone is famous, does not make them worth admiration, or even attention. I still feel like that.
Anyway. One particularly busy lunchtime, when the line of people waiting - most of them with reservations - was going up the stairs leading to the entrance and spilling out to the street, a tall gentleman wearing a black shirt, and his almost as tall blonde companion (his wife, as it turned out), came to the reception desk. I had the phone receiver in the crook of my neck, 2 waiters waving their credit card slips at me, and 2 lines ringing, so I was too frazzled to look up to see their faces. Somewhat rudely, I simply welcomed them and asked for their names, pencil hovering over the reservation book. When the gentleman matter of factly said "Steve Jobs", I almost dropped the phone receiver and, I admit, I gaped.
I realized right then and there that if I had a list like Nora Ephron's, the man standing in front of me right there would be at the very top.
His hotel had actually screwed up his reservation, making it for an hour later than he had wanted it. I panicked for a few minutes - were we going to have to make Steve Jobs wait? Thankfully my colleague Mera-san came to the rescue; he asked the people seated at the counter to shift over a bit to make room for 2 more chairs (I think he did mention it was for Steve Jobs), and after some maneuvering and squeezing, Mr. and Mrs. Jobs were esconced happily in front of Koyama-san, our best chef. Throughout, both were very nice and patient, not making any kind of fuss. When he was led to his seat he turned around, looked me in the eye and said 'Thanks again!'
I came to use a Macintosh computer kicking and screaming, back in the late '80s. I had been a die hard MS-DOS computer user until then. Even though I was very unhappy with this new thing they tacked on called Windows, which to my DOS-savvy fingers seemed so clunky and slow, I was really unhappy to learn that at my new job, I would have to use Macs. I was convinced, in large part due to the influence of personal computing magazines of the time, not to mention the "IBM" forums I used to hang out on on Compuserve, that the Mac was merely an expensive toy. Besides, they didn't even give you access to the commmand line. They only had this GUI (graphical user interface) thing. How lame, I thought, without having ever even touched a Mac.
I'll never forget that first day. It was a Mac IIci - one of their early boring-beige-box Macs. The computer itself did not look cute or different (I didn't get to experience the early one-piece Macs). But the system itself! It was System 6. It was a GUI, like that clunker Windows. But boy oh boy - this was a GUI done right, one that made using a computer actually pleasurable and easy. (In those days one huge difference was in the way the Mac OS (though back then they called it a 'system' rather than an OS) handled the input of two-byte characters like Japanese. On a PC, this was a humongous pain in the ass that involved buying some expensive third party input system and having to input everything into impossible to see little boxes. On the Mac? No problem at all. It was built right into the system.
In the course of one day, I fell in love. With an operating system. I haven't looked back since. I still used a PC (a Northgate 386!) at home, because I couldn't afford to buy a new computer. I avoided using Windows as much as I could, sticking to the DOS based programs I loved like WordPerfect and Quattro Pro. But at work, where they let me stay and learn on the Mac after work for as long as I liked, I dove into the early versions of Photoshop and Illustrator and Quark XPress and Freehand. I promptly got carpal tunnel like twinges of pain in my right hand due to too much mousing, and learned to use the mouse with my left hand. (To this day I still use my MacBook Pro trackpad primarily with my left hand.) It wasn't unusual for me to spend the night there, falling asleep at the keyboard, for my bemused colleagues to find me in the morning - or to take a taxi home at 3am after another long session with my newfound love. This was a computer that let me free my creativity, that never got in the way of what I wanted to do. It was exhilarating.
Now of course, by the time I discovered the Mac and its wonderful System, Steve Jobs had already been kicked out of Apple. My early Mac years were the John Sculley years, which in retrospect were as beige and boring as the Macs of the time. But the System - that was the key. The System was what made Macs so wonderful to use, never mind the plastic boxes that housed the hardware. (Sure, current day Apple products are beautiful, thanks to Jonathan Ive. But it's the OS on the Mac and iOS on the handheld devices that really count.) And Steve had been responsible for the foundations of that System.
In 1995 I finally bought my first very own Mac, a 7100. It was another boring-beige box but I was ecstatic. I brought it with me to Switzerland, to my new home. It joined an already established Macintosh household, one that had a IIfx. It was initially a happy marriage.
Apple started to smell rotten around that time. John Sculley left, Gil Amelio came in. The clamor surrounding these kinds of things was far less back then, but it was there. People were opining that Apple should become just another PC clone maker. Or maybe they should just give up and shut it down, as one Michael Dell suggested.
I still remember the conversation we had in our Mac-dominated household. What should we do? We were both due for hardware upgrades. Should we go PC? I remember the feeling of near-despair. We pondered going Linux. But then we hardened our resolve. Even if the company was going down, and our Apple computers would become orphans, we were sticking with them. I got a Powerbook. I even got a Newton.
Then, Steve Jobs was appointed the "interim CEO". A lot of people scoffed at the time, thinking it was just grasping for straws by Apple's board of directors. Maybe it was. Even we were somewhat sceptical. Still, his arrival was a small ray of hope in our Mac household.
By the time he arrived at Sushisay's front desk, Apple was getting back in the swing of things. The gumdrop-colored iMacs were the talk of the world. I convinced my mother to get one for the office. I convinced my father to get one for himself. I myself relied way too much on my Powerbook - for entertainment, 'work', job hunting, human contact and more. I discovered IRC. I even dipped my toes into dating sites, only to find it way too hot in there and flee the other way fast.
Since the late '90s the transformation of Apple from moribund to a company that can generate so much excitement and talk and backlash with every announcement has been astonishing to say the least. The hardware became as sexy and attractive as the software, starting with those iMacs and going on to the iPod. (When I saw the first iPod listed in the MacConnection catalog, I placed an order right away. Love at first sight, once again.) It was a bit disconcerting at times. It was kind of like seeing an indie band you loved suddenly get a big hit and go mainstream. It almost felt like too much at times.
But there was always the core, the OS. And the sexy, beautiful hardware too. (I still treasure my Cube, so woefully underpowered as it was, as a work of art.) In this day and age, so few things we use in our daily lives feel 'right'. Apple products are the exceptions. They feel 'right'.
Later, I found out from one of the sushi chefs that Steve was kind of a regular at Sushisay. He stopped by whenever he was in New York. He loved sushi. As I gazed at his back after he was seated at the counter, I remember quietly mouthing 'thank you' in his direction.
Today, I found out that Steve Jobs is at the top of the list of public, corporate figures for whom I would shed real tears upon their death. Perhaps the only one.
Thank you, Steve. Thank you.
(Edited to change the date of my Steve Encounter, after talking to my mom. It was most likely 1999, not 1998.)