Knights of the Apple Round Table - Revisited
The thing I like about Orhan Pamuk’s writing, both his estimable novels and memoirs, is the way he fastens upon an object –– like his father’s suitcase, an accumulation of cigarette butts as markers of unbridled love in Museum of Innocence, or a simple water well being dug up from the ground by a young man as in The Red-Haired Woman, to name a few –– and then makes a whole world out of that object.
I mean, everything happens as a consequence of some interaction with that object: suitcase, cigarette butt, or water well. Lives change: Pamuk who began as painter becomes a writer, the hero of Museum of Innocence becomes a husband, and the digger of the well meets a terrible fate.
As I see it, the object in question takes on the characteristics of a hologram: part contains the whole, like infinity in a grain of sand (to quote Blake), the whole containing the part, as in Borges’ fictions.
In my case, I think of that object as the large circular table, made of white formica, sitting inside Caffe Macs at Apple on the Infinite Loop campus in Cupertino. Although the table had a finite number of seats, it could accommodate an infinite number of people, paradoxically enough.
The folks who huddled around that table at lunch every day, some for years, are still with me, despite their absence now, as most have gone their separate ways. They’re still vivid in memory. And their time at the table comes to me in leaps and bounds, in fountains of phrases and ideas, in the flexing of intellectual muscles, quirks of character and the unbearable lightness of being.
All of us, if we’re lucky, have had the pleasure of sitting at various tables in life. Tables are part of life’s inevitabilities. Sooner or later, depending on our reach and status, we’ll find a table that pleases us, where we’re at home, where the world as we know it comes to a loving, if hesitant standstill, a kind of timeout. The metaphor of the table is omnipresent in all cultures: we conduct deals over and under the table, we extend hands across the table, we dine at the table with friends or alone, we break bread, sing, laugh, hope, cry, and all those good things in life, in concert with our sitting or standing by a table.
The inspiration for this table at Apple was the famous Algonquin Round Table for writers in New York who met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. They were, by all measures, a formidable group: big-name journalists, screenwriters, editors, producers, columnists, and the like. The editor and publisher of The New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, would preside, and discussions were often heated, with reputations made and broken, in a battle of wits and taunts, during the halycon days of the 1920s, when magazines, writers and poets ruled the roost in American life. All of this continued even later during the dog days of the Depression when wits failed and pockets grew empty. Much of that crowd left the Big Apple for Hollywood, probably hanging out at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard, or the local race tracks, where they blew away their paychecks from days of hackdom for the studios in Tinsel Town.
Our table at Apple was not quite so illustrious, although there were stars, to be sure, like Steve Jobs (the maestro and master of all) and Jony Ive, the soft-spoken industrial designer, who sat nearby, but not at our table, yet within earshot of the table’s chatter, its comings and goings. I’m sure they overheard what we were saying, or at least the drift of our conversations. All company secrets well-protected; lips carefully sealed. If not, Mr. Jobs was sure to knock on our door.
Enter the Philosopher Knight.
First to arrive at the table around 11:40, before the onset of the lunch crowds, he would drop his keys and body armor at the center with a loud thunk, and lay absolute claim to the big table, drawing his sword from its sheath and brandishing it in the air.
The table was ours and strangers from other castles and kingdoms were not invited. Of course, local folks and gentry we knew were free to drop by, but they couldn’t just sit there and eat lunch, mostly pizza from the wood-burning oven, handcrafted by an Italian master named Giorgio, whom Steve Jobs really appreciated with gusto every time he ordered, particularly those slices infused with the buffalo cheese.
They had to speak, even if they were of a higher order in the kingdom. They had to have something to speak about, too. (All of this was in the days before the Dawn of the Age of the iPhone when eating and surfing on one’s iPhone had become standard operating procedure, killing all attempts at conversation.)
Next to appear was the Grumpy Mathematician Knight, followed by the Poet, whose knighthood was always in question. After him came the Builder Knight, and then the Big Geek Knight, and the Magician Merlin Knight. Rolling in next was the Mediator Knight on the heels of the Generalist Knight, and the Technology Writer Extraordinaire Knight. The numbers climbed as the lunch hour extended.
Knights, one and all, all for one.
Conversations were lively and intense, sometimes heated with the bitter taste of politics. Mainly, it was about catching up on kingdom news, events, changes, as Apple was continually re-inventing itself. Personal conquests in the kingdom of Apple were occasionally touted. The issues of the day were laid to rest between bites of food from Caffe Macs. Swords would not be drawn easily, despite some disagreements about old and new territory to conquer.
Whom among the knights would emerge to tell their stories? Would it be a champion of the Kingdom, or another? Are there clues in the collage?
Each Knight at the Table had a unique identity. This was the mantra Kingdom Apple when Jobs co-founded the company: work in engineering, develop software, write code, build the next new thing, but also nourish your other identity: philosopher, poet, generalist, mediator, tech writer, whatever. It was from this combination of talents that you got peak, knightly performance from people at the company, and great products. Jobs knew this, and from time to time, he would crack a smile at the knights sitting around our table, with our jousting and airing of ideas. The rest, as they say, is what passes for history, albeit with deep roots in the past, or some approximation thereof.