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The Momentum of Steve Jobs

Remembering the neighborhood and neighbor


The sound is always explosive.

Shortly after one a.m. each night, the last southbound Caltrain passes between the Palo Alto and California Ave stations. Sometimes it whistles, but more often than not, it simply rushes down the tracks. Its clacking cacophonous. A signal to finally end my day.

I’m usually in my room when the violent clacking floods our house, filling the otherwise silent night of Old Palo Alto. And each time that train passes, I find myself wondering if Steve, too, is still awake. If he also heard that train.

Through matters of coincidence, when I moved to California last year, I landed just two blocks from Steve Jobs.

Despite being so close, I never met the man. Occasionally I saw him walk through the neighborhood, or eat at local restaurants, but we never interacted. I always assumed that at some point there’d be a natural, professional introduction. There was no need to invade or disrupt his privacy in public.

And so this train was, in my mind, our one constant connection. Every night it would pass. And if he was awake, surely, he too could hear the clacking or whistling, the rush of energy down the tracks.

I found myself wondering what he thought as it passed. If he even noticed it anymore, having lived here for so many years. Regardless, this shared train sound — however tenuous and grasping might such a connection be — helped humanize for me a man who was often painted nothing of the sort.

As I’ve written previously, Silicon Valley is where the gods very much eat yogurt with mortals.1 And Steve was no exception. His house has no visible security, no gate. It is modest. Nestled in a very tony neighborhood. But not so tony as to exclude three enterprising rag-tag entrepreneurs from also living here. The blinds are almost always open (as most tend to be in Old Palo Alto). TVs flicker at night. Lights go on and off. There is no mystery. Humans live there, certainly.

Time and time again, I found myself biking past Steve’s house — simply by the nature of it being on my path home. And time and time again I found myself drawing tremendous inspiration from the hyper-reality of his presence.

I’ve always felt — the quicker you can kill a dream by making it real, the quicker you see bigger, more important dreams once blocked by the first. The same goes for celebrity: the deconstruction of celebrity removes excuses. With mystery, and thereby celebrity gone, so also goes the pedestal. Their achievements can be more easily assessed at human scale.

The hagiographic accounts after the passing of Steve this year understandably cast his accomplishments in an otherworldly light. But in my mind, he will be, as he became to me in this past year, that guy over there also eating brunch at Calafia. The neighbor in a comfortable neighborhood who happened to posses a beautiful, driven mind. Not a saint or a god but simply a someone who had a vision and executed, methodically and consistently and unrelentingly.

After his cancer diagnosis, I can’t help but wonder if the sound of that train took on a new meaning for Steve. The gravity of his work yet done — and now with so little time in which to do it — must have washed over him. A set of visions to be made real, for which he had only to build a clear, unwavering path before his passing. I wonder if he heard that train rushing, its steel and iron hurtling through the dead of night, and felt a kinship. Knew that that was what he had to be. Focused, moving forward as fast as he possibly could. On the edge of a certain chaos. Alone in his journey. Pulling those ideas forward. Crassly devoid of nostalgia.

Now, for the first time since moving here, I am certain he doesn’t hear it.

Steve may no longer be here, but that train is. And each night it passes I’ll remember how much he accomplished in so little time, carrying so much weight. I’ll remember how he chose to pursue ideas that inspired a man staring down death. A man who absolutely would not and did not give up. Driven by vision, exploding ever forward down his path.

  1. Nurture the DifferenceNew York Times, August 2011 ↩︎

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