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April 19, 2014

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Stalking the elusive iPhone

I thought I’d be sneaky, opting for an AT&T Store this morning to buy the new iPhone over one of the Apple stores on Las Vegas Boulevard. Surely, there’d be fewer people camping out at an AT&T store.

I was right. But it cost me a chance of having an iPhone today. Here's a recap:

It's 7:30 a.m. About 150 people wait ahead of me at the AT&T Store on Eastern Avenue, just south of Interstate 215, and 75 behind me. At the Apple Store at Town Square mall off Las Vegas Boulevard, the crowd soars past 250, reports my colleague, Joe Brown, by phone.

Apple, which makes the iPhone, and AT&T open their stores early today, at 8 a.m. Because I anticipated a relatively short line at the AT&T store, I arrive at 7:30 a.m. only to encounter a snake of people that wrapped maybe 40 percent of the Beltway Plaza strip mall.

This iPhone will be my first. I’ve lusted for one since it first debuted last summer, but I wanted to wait for Apple to release a model that runs on the faster 3G network, which the new version does.

But most people who surround me online are Apple geeks (I’m a budding one) who sought to swap their old iPhones for the latest model. Marcus Stingley, who stands just ahead of me, says his friends know him as the “tech guy” – the guy who has to get the latest version of every toy when it’s unveiled.

“I’m the hand-me-down phone guy,” the 36-year-old continues. “Everyone always calls me and asks, 'Can I buy your (old) phone?’”

Stingley nearly has a buyer in Rachel Conti, who is the only person I come across who joined the line to buy any cell phone, whether it was an iPhone or a BlackBerry. (Had she gone to the AT&T Store Thursday, she wouldn’t have encountered a line. So odds are the idea of the iPhone probably was more seductive than she realized).

“I have like a 1980s cell phone – a Zack Morris cell phone,” she says at 7:45 a.m., alluding to the main character on the teenage soap “Saved by the Bell,” which debuted in 1989. “I just need a new phone.”

But by 9:30 a.m., the 22-year-old has been proselytized to Apple and its child, the iPhone. She decides to buy the 8-gigabyte model.

I had been intent on buying the larger, 16-gig version, which holds more space for music and video. But the manager warns the crowd that supply of that version is low. There are about 30 people still on line ahead of me.

A woman behind me seems to sigh. Or yawns. We’ve been outside more than two hours and delirium is beginning to set in.

“The good news is, it’s not 150 degrees outside,” says Gail Pell, 42. “The bad news is, by the time we leave, it’ll be 150 degrees.”

The manager cautions that the supply of the 16-gig models is almost at nil.

I fret: If they’re out of the 16-gig model when I reach the store, do I buy the 8-gig version to satisfy a desire for instant gratification or order the one I had long planned on buying?

Conti repeatedly encourages me to get the 8-gig: “You’ll buy a new iPod, right? So you won’t need the extra space on the iPhone.” Sounds good to me.

But my Dad, who phones me from New York, cautions against it. He is, as usual, unequivocal in his view: “Just order the 16-gig model. You can wait.” (I guess my old phone, a Samsung BlackJack II, still comes in handy).

Now I’m eight people from the front when the manager announces they’re out of 16-gig models, both the white and black versions.

“It feels like Willy Wonka out here,” says Mark Negaard, Conti’s 22-year-old boyfriend. Everyone around us nods.

I opt for the 16-gig model, which might have been available today had I waited in a longer line at the Apple store. We figure the supply is far larger there.

At 10:30 a.m., Pell stands at a register to my left and shakes her head. “I feel like I made it to the promised land or something,” she says to no one in particular.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, has yet another convert.

Now I'm resigned. I could taste it. But apparently I'll have to go hungry for a few more days. The manager says my iPhone will arrive in seven to 10 days, maybe sooner. If there’s any consolation, I’ll probably get to avoid the lengthy activation that has plagued thousands of new iPhone owners nationwide today.

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