I don’t think I was quite as surprised as the insurance adjuster, however, when I implored him not to declare my little suburban clown car a total loss. He pointed out that the Saturn, crushed by the tree, was now trapezoidal. The doors no longer opened. I countered that I always like to drive my cars at least 100,000 miles because that gives me the best cost per use. The longer you own something, the more times you use it—at least in theory. The more times you use it, the lower the cost per use. The adjuster totaled the Saturn. I bought a Honda CR-V.
A lot has changed since then. My Honda sits, unused, in my Bethesda driveway most days. That’s because downtown Bethesda and its traffic have developed in ways that make it more convenient to walk places rather than drive and park. Another change: Whether home or away, it’s almost impossible for me to get lost anymore. I always have an iPhone in my pocket or in my hand. I also know what the president is tweeting—whether I want to or not. And I can see, just by clicking on a texted video, that my 6-month-old nephew, who lives in another state, now flaps his arms and legs at bath time as if he is trying to swim.
Some things never change. I still consider cost per use before I buy anything. I’m still no early adopter. I’m content to let trendier consumers discover the flaws in any new product or service before I buy in. I didn’t stand in line this past fall when Apple’s much-ballyhooed iPhone X went on sale with prices starting at $999. That’s because I have a crack team of mechanics that keeps my iPhone 6s Plus running smoothly, more or less. They aren’t just good: They’re geniuses.
The Genius Bar is the technical support station inside almost every Apple store where customers can get advice and repairs, often for free. In Bethesda, the Genius Bar stretches across the back of the store and looks like a real bar, but without bottles of liquor on display. The store, all sleek hard surfaces, is usually as loud and buzzy as any packed bar. The geniuses stand behind the bar. Customers sit on high stools facing them and telling tales of modern life as sad as any unloaded on a bartender. “I think I was hacked too much,” a chic woman with silver hair tells her genius. Nearby, a man confesses that he hasn’t backed up his photos for two years. Priests and priestesses of a secular age, the geniuses calmly help people make sense of what’s happened to their devices and find a way to move on.
I’ve suggested that Apple could improve the vibe at the bar if they actually served wine. Since they don’t, I always prepare for a trip to the Genius Bar as if I’m trekking into the wilderness and don’t know when I’ll return. I pack snacks and bottled water. No matter how long I have to sit at the Genius Bar, I almost always leave relieved and happy. That’s because with each new device I buy AppleCare, which extends the company’s standard one-year warranty to three years for computers, two for phones. If the geniuses can’t fix a device, in my experience, they replace it.
This past fall, my iPhone 6s Plus faltered. I visited the local Genius Bar twice in 10 days. Even the geniuses seemed stumped. Different geniuses tried various software fixes. None worked. Finally, a genius said he’d replace my phone but didn’t have my model in stock. He’d order me one, but that could take up to three days. Three days? I couldn’t imagine going three hours without a working smartphone. A manager stepped in and suggested a software fix that nobody had tried yet. It worked—but only for a few days.
Over that weekend, my phone failed again. Unable to get an appointment quickly at the local Genius Bar, I settled for a telephone call with Apple tech support. A woman said she’d express mail me a replacement iPhone 6s Plus. I forgot to ask if I was going to have to sign when it was delivered. So I didn’t leave home for two days, just in case. No phone arrived. I checked the tracking information Apple had emailed to me. My replacement phone hadn’t even been mailed yet. I requested another telephone chat with Apple tech support, and when the call came yet another woman told me that my AppleCare warranty had expired. That sounded ominous.
I walked to the Apple Store downtown. Out front, customers were lined up to buy the then-just-released iPhone 8 Plus. Police officers were standing by in case there was a phone-related frenzy. I was contemplating joining the line of consumers who had apparently never heard of the cost-per-use calculation when I spotted the manager who’d helped me the week before. She told me they had just received a small shipment of iPhone 6 Plus phones and would replace my old one. She whisked me past the line out front. She didn’t mention my supposedly expired warranty. Maybe she was just doing service recovery for a customer whose patience had expired. I left with a working phone. That was in September.
In October, I had a more dramatic illustration of my now utter dependence upon my smartphone. My husband and I were vacationing in Sonoma County, California, when the wildfires ignited, killing at least 40 people.
We woke on the third day of our trip with plans to go hiking in a redwood forest. We opened the hotel room curtains to admire the view and saw thick smoke that we briefly mistook for strange fog. We didn’t have cell coverage. We had no idea until we tried to get breakfast that wildfires were sweeping much of the region. Almost every table in the lodge restaurant was filled with exhausted families who’d been burned out of their homes overnight and had taken shelter there. Children still in pajamas slept in their parents’ arms. At one table, a middle-aged couple who’d just lost everything they owned sat getting drunk on Champagne. Outside, the smoke around the lodge grew ominously thicker.
A young man at the front desk helped us plot a route out, one in which we’d be least likely to get stuck in traffic and overtaken by flames. We packed in a hurry. I threw out my back rushing to load my big, heavy 14-year-old suitcase into our rental car. My husband, who is the calmest person I’ve ever known, looked tense. Usually we sing on car trips. Now we barely spoke. As my husband drove, I poked frantically at my iPhone. I was trying to get a signal that would let me get news about the fires and call, text or email loved ones to tell them that we were heading for San Francisco. Finally, one bar appeared in the upper left corner of the screen. An iMessage popped up from a friend asking how our vacation was going. I cheered.
I used my iPhone to book a flight out of California. Later, sitting at the airport in San Francisco, my husband and I both worked our phones to put together an instant alternate vacation. We booked a hotel in New York City and bought discount theater tickets. Arriving in NYC without restaurant reservations, we used the Zagat app to find every cappuccino or slice of pizza we consumed.
When we returned home, I used my phone to search for new, lighter luggage. I bought an expensive set because the reviews suggested that the manufacturer offered extraordinary customer service. If your luggage breaks, they fix it. If they can’t fix it, they send you a new one. “It’s like the Genius Bar for luggage,” I told my husband. He ordered a set, too.
I walked back to the Apple Store one afternoon to answer a question that had been bothering me. Had the extended warranty on my phone really run out? It turned out that the warranties on all my Apple devices had expired: phone, laptop, iPad and desktop. The young man greeting customers at the front door assured me that I could still use the Genius Bar, but I’d likely have to pay more for needed repairs.
I can deal with that. While I was there, I asked if somebody could show me how the cameras work on the just-released iPhone X. Demand for the phone was, at that point, outstripping supply. A store employee told me that people were coming from as far away as Pennsylvania to try to buy the iPhone X. He showed me how to use the Apple Store app to find out quickly when one becomes available. I checked a few times. Then I remembered my old Saturn and how disappointed I was that I didn’t get to drive it for 100,000 miles. My iPhone 6s Plus does everything I really need it to do. I won’t buy a new phone until the geniuses tell me that my old one is totaled.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.