Apple employees call Cupertino headquarters the “Mothership.”

This is where the big stuff happens. iPhones, iPads, the Genius Bar, iTunes, the glass storefronts, all the ‘Think Different’ ideas burst out of this not-so-secret hive in sunny California. What will the company roll out next? Software? Hardware? A new way to sell music? A new app market? By golly, a watch perhaps? If it’s a wallet, like the rumors say now, the whole world will make that WOMP-WOMP sad sound.

Somebody over there, right this second, knows the truth. Maybe one of the big names who brainstorm and brunch, like Tim, Phil, Jony, Angela, or now sometimes Dre.

Steve Jobs used to walk those halls.

Wired recently posted an online portfolio of the concept art for the new facility, which just broke ground. Plans call for a giant, see-through ring, which lives up to the Mothership moniker even better than the current campus, already a heady bastion of glass and green.

It’s hard not to be curious about the place. You don’t have to be a fan to appreciate the biggest company in the world, just like you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes a place is interesting because you want to know why so many other people are interested in it.

That’s not just Kool-Aid talking; it’s basic economics as applied to social interaction. Even if you personally choose to regard a gem as just any old rock, you’d be an idiot to not to pick up a huge diamond you found on the street, because it represents immense value to others. I’d believe your saying Cupertino holds no interest for you, if you could prove you’ve never, ever once clicked on a story lead, personality quiz, or video someone recommended to you on social media.

I guess my cynical side reminds me that a corporate Mount Olympus is still pretty damn corporate.

It does call to me, though.

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I’d always wanted to visit the “Coop,” but I didn’t make enough as a retail employee to warrant spending my vacation time buying a plane ticket and renting a car just to pop into the Company store and the lobby. Retail employees don’t have corporate access. I could take that selfie in front of the 1 INFINITE LOOP sign, but security would stop me from getting much deeper, which kind of only made me want it more.

Want—and Apple knows this better than most—can be encouraged.

There is a wild phenomenon in MMO’s (massive multi-player online games) through which meaningless tokens take on a perceived social value. The funny thing is, perceived social value equals social value.

For example, your avatar might earn some badge for having completed a particular mission, visiting a remote virtual location, or even taking part in a limited holiday event. Badges do not affect gameplay at all. They can, however, be displayed to other players as a title or even as a visual effect like a pet creature that follows you around.

Beginners usually play with a focus on playing the game rather straightforwardly—as they assume it is designed—by completing quests. Exploring and socializing are baked into the game, motivated by mechanics like offering treasures, which are available only to groups. This inevitably guides new players to meet higher-level players, possibly even leaders recruiting for guilds.

Higher-level players game the game. Sure, they enjoy killing orcs. But they also bask in the geek celebrity of the badge, which declares they’ve gone out of their way to slay 5,000 orcs. You may think you’re immune, but no, you are a social being, and as soon as you watch people laugh and virtually applaud the players who collect these silly, meaningless badges, you start wondering if it might be fun to get one yourself. Meaning has been seeded.

I bring that up, because I’d noticed that in my store, only Managers, Creatives, and Geniuses have their face on their employee key cards. Everyone else’s card is white. How do you get your face on your key card? You get it by visiting Cupertino.

Managers, Creatives, and Geniuses, the senior positions in the store, are flown on the company’s dime to Cupertino for training, Apple finishing school, if you like. You’re paid salary to take classes and partake in tradition. It makes the pilgrimage seem that much more of a reward.

After a year or two in Retail, when I was finally told my trip to Cupertino had been scheduled, I was psyched.

Word spread, and soon coworkers were asking me to pick up souvenirs for them at the Company store. Maybe a limited-edition hoodie, maybe a pen, maybe just a key card chain with the logo on it. Some piece of the nigh unattainable.

Even before the trip, I’d become one of the few and the proud who could provide Cupertino schwag. They say the store has stuff you can’t order online. I’d like to believe that, so I’ve never actually checked. They probably sell little Statues of Liberty everywhere, but it’s nicer to get one from a friend who actually went to New York City.

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Finishing School

I was so giddy the morning I got to the airport, I skipped coffee. I realized my coworkers and I had never seen each other with luggage. A ton of obligatory “before” selfies got taken on iPhones, and we eyed anyone in our general demographic, wondering if they, too, were Creatives or Geniuses from local stores taking the same flight.

We squeezed in three hours of sightseeing in San Francisco before driving down to San Jose, where we were staying. Hotels in Silicon Valley proper, we couldn’t afford, apparently.

The first morning split into those of us humble enough to partake in the hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast and those who demanded a Starbucks hit. Meat-market radar went into overdrive, but isn’t that par for the course the first day of any camp?

We caravanned to school.

On the down side, we learned our classes were not in the proper campus at 1 INFINITE LOOP, but in a low building reserved for Retail Training on a side street full of auxiliary buildings. No wonder they’re building a new facility—they’re already flooding annexes!

On the up side, our trainers were fellow employees who used to have our jobs. They came to Cupertino for a few weeks each year to teach folks like us before going back to their stores, which means we could someday become them!

It was hilarious to share war stories from every part of the country, especially with coworkers who got it. Crazy-bad customers all seemed the same from story to story, but the great customers, the ones who make the job worth it, we found, managed to shine each in a different way.

I envied the problems the Midwesterners faced. They seemed so much less frantic than those of us from either coast! I felt like there could be such amazing cross-pollination. Ideas our store concerning line maintenance, customer clarifications, distribution, what have you, could be transformative if properly shared with our fellow employees!

Inspiration required a lot of fast-food lunches. Mostly tacos. There is a killer burger joint where we had dinner a few times, plus a campy sushi place where a train brings out the dishes. One liquor store would even stamp their receipts as food purchases so that we could expense them! Life was kind.

On the Creative side, sticking to the Socratic method and empowering students truly challenged old teaching habits. On the Genius side, one particular know-it-all got embarrassed when someone used Remote to get into his training terminal and make it beep uncontrollably.

The culprit revealed himself to me over beers one night. He was from New York and liked to keep one step ahead of the game. He figured robots were going to take all of our jobs someday, so he just wanted to make sure he could get a job fixing those robots. True genius.

Geniuses take an ESD (electro-static discharge) safety test, and vie for a special skull sticker if they get a perfect score. I’d seen that in the key card carrying case of some Geniuses in my store. Now I knew what it meant.

The nights were sweet, but got a little weird. Some folks were lucky enough to hook up, just like in camp. And just like in camp, these couples of convenience usually flamed out before the last night, leaving the rest of us acting as buffers and psychologists. But we were used to that from our jobs, so it was all-good.

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Last year, a new institution went up: the enshrining of names. For its 30th anniversary, Apple printed ten enormous posters with the names of every single employee. These were put around the Cupertino campus.

No other company would make that gesture, which sets Apple apart for having done something quasi-permanent for its staff, reportedly 40,000 strong.

On the other hand, what does it mean? Aren’t these like hieroglyphs on a pharaoh’s tomb? Am I the kind of moviegoer who stays to clap for that one friend, buried in a block of 1,000 names under “Lighting Technicians”?

I guess it’s hard to thank and memorialize 40,000 individuals. I’m impressed the idea survived. Someone there championed it.

The posters are, if nothing else, a litmus test of how you feel about your job. If your name’s John Smith, you can zero-in on your true location by searching a database using your employee number. Maybe your name is close to your friend’s name. Maybe it’s close to someone famous. Maybe you save that experience to be a fun puzzle to play when you finally get there. It’s one more connection to have.

I find that even the most jaded of Anons (the anonymous, venting tweeters among Apple retail employees) still wonder about their name and how to see it live before they leave the company.

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A trainer pointed out a clique of attractive women gliding through the cafeteria while we bumbled about looking for open seats like freshmen the first day of high school. They were the iTunes marketing team. They looked like the Mean Girls, all grown up. They were supposedly nice. They’re in charge of deciding who lives and dies on iTunes Recommends, a popularity metric that can make or break a musician’s career.

Nowadays, the celebrity sightings one might hope to catch in the all-gourmet Cupertino cafeteria include Tim Cook, Angela Ahrendts, and hey, maybe Dr. Dre if he’s visiting from Beats. Most of my female friends would cut off a finger to bump into Brit designer superstar Jony Ive.

But back in the day, it was all about catching a glimpse of the one and only Steve Jobs.

Like meeting intermediary training layers of handlers before you ever addressed Her Majesty the Queen, you were prepped either by your host trainers or by your store leaders (or both) to never run up and talk to Steve Jobs. He’s got more important things on his mind, they assured you.

There are darker legends about his quizzing people in elevators about what they did for the company, and if it sounded like bull, that person would find him- or herself fired.

This dates me, but he was still around when I visited. I missed him in the cafeteria by one minute on three different occasions, which drives me nuts.

On the other hand, I heard a story directly from a Genius that I have to share.

This Genius, like me, had been warned not to address Steve Jobs. However, one day, sitting at a table with other Geniuses there for finishing school, they saw Steve walking around, unable to find somewhere to sit. We’ve all been there in some lunchroom at some point in our lives.

This Genius invited Steve over. Steve said sure and sat down. Jobs was completely gracious and asked them each about where they worked. He even expressed a bit of envy. A Genius, he explained, gets to take on a case, diagnose it, fix the problem, and hopefully counsel the customer. There was a specific joy in taking something from the beginning through to the end.

Steve said that he never quite got to do that anymore. He started things others would finish. He finished things others had begun. There was such a flood of projects, strategies, markets, big-picture decisions, lawsuits, and finances for him to attend to, he asked the table of his retail employees to try and appreciate what they got to do and own from start to finish.

I wonder how many times that story’s been passed on. I don’t think anyone ever wrote it down, so it’s rather quaintly oral history. Maybe it’s too sentimental to go viral; people prefer to preserve the sense of mad genius, the rumors of high-functioning sociopathy.

Only in Cupertino could Steve Jobs (to whom The Onion paid memorial tribute by calling him “The Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing”) have lunch with a couple of yahoos who work for the people who work for the people who work for him. He related. He spoke to them on the intimate, engaging level of appreciating process. Man, I dig that. Who ever says anything over lunch worth remembering?

I finally got my picture taken for a new key card. It was a bit pixelated, I have to say, but I’d been made. The Company store was small, but it’s cleverly designed to have price points from a few dollars right up to the thousands. You get to pick your poison. It’s hard not to think, when I will ever be here again?

It was genuinely sad leaving Cupertino, not only because I didn’t know if I’d ever see these comrades again, but because it was clear it would take a serious promotion to get me inside again.

I had a slow-motion moment when I walked back into my store, like in the movies. How are things different here? Am I different? What do I have to look forward to now?

I wondered if I should try to become a Field Trainer. Because the best thing about working for Apple is the cool people you work with, much more than the Russian roulette of customers you serve. Seems like Corporate has already figured that out, if one can get back there. Cupertino is the palace, and the sea of Apple retail employees is the moat.

If you’re a writer, I bet there’s some dark fan fiction to be mined, about the suicide rate for people who can’t get back into Hogwarts, Oz, or Narnia. What must the debriefings have been like for the abductees who walk out of the glittering UFOs at the end of Close Encounters?

Can I stand a few more years of this retail crap for some perceived shot of getting back into the Mothership? Is that my dreamland, my ultimate goal? Maybe, if I had studied engineering or industrial design.

I don’t know if I have the stomach or the luck to get back up there, but I can tell you, it was a sweet ride.