A friend of mine went to the Apple store recently with a couple of questions about his phone, but, like everyone else, he went on a Saturday, which meant long lines and a two-hour wait. It was, he told me, not really a complicated issue - something about the iPhone and the way it syncs - but he had driven all the way over to the mall to get it dealt with, and even faced with a two-hour wait, he did what a lot of us do when we're looking at a similar choice: he told the twenty-something guy in the Apple T-shirt and the dangling ID badge and the interesting facial hair, "Well, I'm here. I may as well wait."
And so he put his name on the list and he walked around the mall trying to remember if there was anything else he needed there.
Eventually, like everyone who has ever tried to kill time at a shopping mall, he found himself at the food court - and somewhere between the Japanese noodle bar and the rainbow-coloured frozen yogurt place, he spotted the same guy from the Apple store - the twenty-something guy with the curly moustache — sitting at a table with six or seven young people. He recognised them all from the Apple store. But they weren't wearing their T-shirts and they weren't wearing their badges. They were Genius Bar personnel, but they were in civilian dress. They were nerds in disguise.
"Perfect," my friend thought. "I'll just sit next to them and ask them quickly to help me with my simple problem, and that will be that."
But it turns out that when you work at the Apple store and you go on a break, there's a reason why you slip out of the T-shirt and take off the employee identification before you hit the food court. Because if you wear the uniform and dangle the badge, no matter where you are, you're on the clock. People will come up to you no matter where you are. They'll have questions about their phone and their iPad and their iCloud.
When it comes to technology, one thing is certain: at any given time, something that is supposed to sync mysteriously stops syncing, and something that is supposed to beep doesn't beep at all or beeps too much.
"Sorry, dude," they told my friend when he sidled up to them. "We're not equipped to help you out here."
"Oh come on," my friend said. "It's a simple question."
"It's like, a legal thing?" said the main guy, with that infuriating upwards vocal inflection young people use to convey total boredom with the conversation, and that they think they're talking to a very slow individual.
"The company doesn't let us, like, freelance? So we can only answer questions in the store?"
Which is of course not true, probably. There's zero chance that these guys are ever truly off the clock. Every piece of technology we own has baffling quirks and hiccups. They must be on call at all times for friends and family.
But they were all so stolidly insistent about "it's like, totally the rules, dude?" that my friend let them get back to their noodle bowls and pretended not to be annoyed an hour later when the same guy called out his name in the store, approached him with an unrecognising and blank expression, and said, "What can I help you with today?" Followed by the inevitable question when dealing with modern technology: "Did you try turning it off and turning it on again?"
I don't blame them, though. Going off the clock is a civil right. What that cluster of young people from the Apple store were doing in the food court of the local mall is pretty much what everyone does (especially the French) in August. We change out of our work clothes and turn off our brains.
Hanging up the badge is how we signal to others - and ourselves - that we're through answering questions. And if we have to lie a little to make that happen - something along the lines of: I'm out of town, I'm in a no-cell area, I'm legally prohibited from helping you - well, that's a small price to pay.
As for me, I just delivered 10 episodes of television to a network and studio, and they're being broadcast right now. It was three gruelling months of non-stop production, and though the phone still rings with last-minute requests from the network and budget wrap-ups from the studio, my policy is straight from the Apple store employee handbook: I'm closed for business. At least until September.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl