Last Friday, Apple Stores around the country hosted long queues of heavily bundled citizens waiting out weather and time to buy a cache of new limited-supply products, including the unlocked iPhone 5 and the just-released iPad Mini and iPad 4.
At Apple's Lincoln Road store in the heart of South Beach, about a dozen would-be shoppers had lined up by 6 p.m. Thursday — yes, the day before — to stake their claim on a product that wouldn't go on sale for another 14 hours.
But if you looked closely, you'd have seen something odd about this crowd. Instead of sporting Gucci bags and hipster jeans, they wore ratty T-shirts and clutched brown paper bags. The smell was less eau de toilette and more "ew, the toilet."
They were the iWait team, an indigent, eccentric entrepreneurial group that has been arriving as early as 2 p.m. every day for the past month. About 20 of them stake out spots in line so they can buy the $700 phones for foreign resellers. The profit can be great: $50 to $300 per person. But the cost of waiting is high too.
I decided to join them. Here's a chronology:
6:08 p.m. Two guys are splayed out on the concrete in front of the store, just east of Meridian Avenue, with a battered box of Triscuits and a Publix roast chicken. One is Albert, a boyish-looking dude in a black baseball cap, and the other is a short, wiry Puerto Rican who goes by "Shorty." Says Albert: "I don't know how I ended up here. I went to rehab and I fucked it up; I went to a halfway house and I fucked it up. I can't do this anymore."
6:20 p.m. Randall, a scruffy kid with crazy bulging blue eyeballs, plants himself nearby. His T-shirt reads "The Man" and shows an arrow pointing up at his face; below that, an arrow labeled "The Legend" indicates his crotch. Meanwhile, Justin, a sporty-looking 20-something from Mississippi, takes a seat and wolfs down a footlong hoagie. "They better have phones this morning," he says between swallows, adding he's waited 50 hours this week and come up empty-handed each time.
"They'll have the phones," Shorty says. "I can't hear any negative stuff about this. They will have the phones. We're gonna all buy the phones, and then we're going to get back in line and buy more phones."
6:53 p.m. Men in gray-blue shirts arrive with portable metal fencing. They create a winding three-lane corral: the line for all Apple products, they say, including the new iPad Mini and the iPhone 5. "Any one of your guys who leaves this line to go to Starbucks or go to the bathroom or whatever is going to lose his place," one of the young fence builders sternly tells Shorty. "After 4, 5 in the morning, let people know if they leave the line, they can't get back in."
7:26 p.m. A bloated-looking guy wearing a navy-blue-and-gold boat captain's hat and a huge white towel embroidered with the Ritz-Carlton logo arrives. He's eating an enormous ice-cream cone. He looks positively insane.
7:47 p.m. A man with a crewcut announces that everyone must line up inside the cage-like fence if they're to be considered "in line" for the phones. The fence is new, probably a measure to prevent the fights over placement in line that have warranted police intervention during past camp-outs. We obediently herd ourselves into the corral.
8:08 p.m. An Elvis mime slathered in white paint and powder sets up in front of us. Someone drops a dollar at his feet, and he does a perfectly choreographed rendition of "Love Me Tender." A grinning tourist snaps an iPhone pic. Does he see the creepy backdrop of mangy bums sleeping inside a cage on a sidewalk?
9:15 p.m. Kevin, a hippie who wears handmade eyeglasses with frames made of repurposed bicycle spokes, watches a swarm of Apple employees bustling behind the glass. He's also waited fruitlessly for a few nights in a row. "They gotta have a bunch of phones tomorrow," he says, as if trying to pacify his own fears.
9:41 p.m. A WSVN cameraman arrives and questions Shorty about the iPad Mini. Like most everyone else in line, Shorty plans on buying phones, not the iPad. "I want to be the first to get the iPad Mini," Shorty says, lying. "I'm not going home until I get one." Asked why he wants to make the purchase, he responds, "It's got more apps." Right. But apparently his testimony is good enough for WSVN.
9:45 p.m. Soft-bellied young men in Smurf-blue Apple Store shirts peer through the store window at the growing and motley crowd. They look frightened.
11:11 p.m. Demetrio, a portly Greco-Argentine man who is sprawled out on his back next to me, trashes the folks to whom he plans to sell his phones. "But I'm glad they're stupid, because it benefits me."
1:31 a.m. Randall is snoring with a sickly wheeze. Meanwhile, a drunk Australian marches up to the fence. "You lot are sad!" he pronounces, his right hand gripping a cocktail in a plastic cup. " 'Oh, I just have to be the first to have the iPad Mini.' Do you know how stupid that is?" He doesn't seem to notice he's talking to a group of scruffy bums who clearly aren't in the market for $400 toys.
1:41 a.m. The first batch of people who plan to buy the iPhone for themselves arrives. They tote lounge chairs, snacks, and soda. The iWait team, though, already has the first 30 spots.
2:23 a.m. All the front-runners are asleep, including Rambo, a copper-haired and sunburned Iraq War vet who wears fatigues and clings to a canteen. He's wrapped up in a camouflage sleeping bag.
4:06 a.m. Shorty sidles over to me, winks, and says a guaranteed buyer will pay $100 for my phone. A pale, pig-nosed, freckled little Brazilian dude eyes us nervously from outside the cage. Shorty says Freckle-Face wants to buy ten phones.
4:40 a.m. Four overweight Apple employees with awful beards stand like human blueberries outside the fencing. They wear douchey earpieces and feign authority.
6:37 a.m. About 200 people are waiting, most hoping to snag an unlocked iPhone 5. One young couple in the middle of the line want a new iPad 4, which they say has a crisper display and a better chip than its predecessors.
6:53 a.m. Justin, the young blond guy who was scarfing down the hoagie, gets talkative. He recently rolled into town after a stint at a Key West marina and has spent the past three nights in front of this store without getting anything. He's been sleeping in a garage and showering with someone's hose.
6:58 a.m. A cheery Blueberry emerges to inform us: "We have a lot of iPad Minis and very few iPhone 5s." Faces — even the drunk ones — in the front row suddenly look very grave. As she hands out tickets to buy the phones, the news spreads quickly: There are only 12 iPhones for sale, limit two per person. Of the dozens of people camped out for 12 hours or more hoping to grab a phone, only six will get them. I think about giving up my spot — third in line! — but my buyer is already at my elbow, shoving a wad of cash into my palm: $1,400. With the news of the tiny iPhone supply, much of the line disappears in a matter of seconds.
8 a.m. The doors open. A mob of 40 ridiculous, clapping, cheering Blueberries rolls out onto the sidewalk. I try to dodge the pesky WSVN camera as I'm escorted into the store. Before I know it, I have two phones, which I trade to my little pig-nosed buyer inside his big white SUV for $100. Some of my compatriots do better, making $150 per phone. But most of them walk away empty-handed. Desperate would-be buyers shout, "Did you already sell your phones? I would have given you more money!"
As I make my way toward a hot shower, I think about Justin the garage dweller and Albert, the kid struggling to get clean. I run back and catch the pair on their way to a convenience store, where they plan to shave. I tell them what I know about recovery resources in Miami Beach and ask them to split the hundred bucks, adding that I hope they do something positive with it.
They initially refuse but then take the money, saying they'll follow up on my tips. They continue their walk eastward on Lincoln Road.