I had a couple of errands to run yesterday, beginning with a trip to the Apple store at West County Mall because my iPhone told me it needed a new battery. Its original one, several years old already, had become depleted and wasn’t holding a charge as well as it used to.

When I got there, I saw at least fifteen Apple employees inside and in front of the store, but no customers were allowed past the entrance. There was a security checkpoint where I had to answer four questions (e.g. whether I’d had a fever recently or been in close proximity to someone who’d tested positive). From there, it was on to the Apple triage person, who pointed me to a marked spot where a customer service associate would assist me.

Within 90 seconds, an Apple guy named Bill appeared, checked me in on his iPad, then handed me a ballpoint pen: “This is a gift from Apple!” In such a high-tech environment, this seemed odd, but he wanted me to use the pen to sign and initial a permission slip on a clipboard he wielded, giving Apple the right to take my phone and run some diagnostics. Since I had touched the ballpoint with my actual skin, it couldn’t be returned. Okay, fine.

Bill explained it would take about ten minutes to do the diagnostics. I nodded and handed over my iPhone, which he took with a sanitary wipe. As he walked away, I realized that I would usually have killed the downtime by looking at something on my phone. Or, as in pre-COVID times, if I’d been permitted past the threshold, I would have browsed the various Apple products on display. Instead, I did what we used to do back in the old days — stood there and looked around.

I was surprised at how busy the mall was, with a steady stream of shoppers walking about. While all the employees in every store wore masks, only about 85% of consumers had their mouths and noses covered. Some retailers were closed, but most were open, even if they only allowed in a few customers at a time. PacSun, a “lifestyle clothing” outlet nearby, had a sign announcing an eight-person limit, but the place was so popular, there were a dozen people — all younger than my daughter — waiting patiently to get in.

When Bill The Apple Guy returned to my marked spot, he showed me the results of the diagnostics — everything was fine with my iPhone except for the battery, which did need to be replaced at a cost of $49. When I authorized that, he said it would be done by 4:50pm. I instinctively reached into my pocket to check the time on my phone — which, of course, I didn’t have. He smiled and told me it was 4:11pm. I had another errand to run, so I said I’d be back.

The other errand involved driving to Menard’s, a hardware store a few miles away, where I had to get some new ceiling tiles for our basement and Martha wanted me to pick up some replacement doorknobs. She had sent me a text with a photo of the style she wanted, but again, without my phone, I had to rely on my memory. Worse, I had a vague idea where the store was, but couldn’t rely on Google Maps to nail it down. And I couldn’t even listen to one of the many podcasts I’d downloaded — I had to turn on an actual radio station! So, I took off on a low-tech adventure, eventually finding Menard’s, but not the doorknobs or the ceiling tile I needed.

Frustrated, I drove back to the mall, where I handed over my pickup receipt to another Apple employee. She went to the back of the store and retrieved my iPhone. I asked whether she could put the charge on my Apple account, but she said no, I had to pay with a credit card or cash. I couldn’t believe they were allowed to handle cash, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I held out my credit card and inserted it into the device she held up. That’s when I thought to ask, “Could I have used Apple Pay?” She laughed and replied, “Of course!” Ah, well, her device accepted my card, and she handed over my iPhone in a neat plastic pouch.

I heard myself sigh in relief as I thanked her. Walking away, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much life has changed since we started carrying those tiny computers and relying on them for so many elements of our daily lives.

How did we ever get through the twentieth century?