The release of the new iPhone on Friday caused a bustle across the globe. In Nashville and Indianapolis, fans waited overnight with sleeping bags. In Paris, they pulled their collars up against the fog on Rue Halevy. And in London, where the queue is an art form, an entrepreneur set up a massage table for the weary.
But nowhere, it appears, did the sale of Apple’s latest product degenerate the way it did in Los Angeles.
Scores of homeless people, who had been collected on skid row and driven to the Apple store in Pasadena, were promised $40, cigarettes and fast food to wait in line overnight. Fistfights erupted and police arrested at least two people. Dozens who live on the streets in downtown Los Angeles were stranded amid the tony shops of Old Town.
“You got a bunch of skid row people in ... Pasadena,” Justin Senac, 25, said later at the Midnight Mission shelter. “Even everyone down here can’t believe what happened.”
It all started Thursday afternoon along skid row, according to several witnesses, when groups of men were spotted driving around and shouting: “Who wants to make some money?”
By Thursday evening, dozens of homeless had gathered near the Midnight Mission on San Pedro Street. Groups of them were loaded into cars — just a handful at a time at first, then larger groups in vans.
They were driven to the Apple store in Pasadena. There, a businessman promised to pay them to wait in line for the maximum two vouchers for the iPhone 5s and 5c. Before long, they rounded out a significant portion of the crowd waiting for the store to open Friday morning, according to the Pasadena police, witnesses and several homeless people involved.
The line stretched down Colorado Boulevard, then rounded the corner at De Lacey Avenue, turning past the Tiffany & Co. store, where you can buy a starfish brooch for $450.
When the doors finally opened, the deal seemed to fall apart. According to various accounts, the businessman — who refused to identify himself but said he planned to resell the phones overseas at a large profit — had arranged for the homeless people to be given vouchers enabling them to purchase phones.
“It’s not illegal,” the man said in a brief interview with TV reporters. “I’m buying them at full retail price.”
He had not, however, given them money to actually buy the phones. So when the doors opened, the homeless flooded the store, but most of their vouchers appear to have been useless. A mad scramble ensued. The businessman managed to buy at least a handful of phones before the store told him he was done and ordered him out.
The man then declined to pay the homeless people whose vouchers were not used, witnesses and police said. An exhausted crowd erupted in anger.
“He was cheating us,” said Calvin Windell Pleasant, who has lived on skid row for years and said he’d never seen a place as nice as Colorado Boulevard.
The atmosphere got more heated. And police — for the businessman’s own protection — escorted him away in a squad car.
Many of the homeless lingered near the store for hours afterward. Police gave several people directions to the train station a few blocks away.
Dominoe Moody, 43, was among those taken from skid row to Pasadena. Moody did manage to get two phones, but when he handed them to the businessman, he didn’t get his $40 because police were in the process of stuffing the businessman into a patrol car. “It didn’t go right. I stood out here all night,” Moody said.
“They need to bring him back ... to pick up the people that he brought here,” said Vivian Fields, 49. “We have no way to get home.”
Pasadena police Lt. Jason Clawson confirmed that two people were arrested over fights in the iPhone line but said police would not investigate. “It’s not a police issue. It’s a business issue,” he said.
Ryan L. Navales, a spokesman for the Midnight Mission, said organizers didn’t know about what had happened in Pasadena until they learned about it from a reporter. He motioned toward the doors of the mission: “Our sphere of influence stops right there.
“We would neither endorse nor condone such behavior....Unfortunately, people take advantage of our people like that all the time,” he said. “It’s complete exploitation.”
Pasadena was not the only place where people in need were hired to stand in line for the new phones. In Santa Monica, a man paid two unemployed people in cash and McDonald’s hamburgers to wait overnight.
Andy Bales, who heads the Union Rescue Mission on skid row, said this was just one of a number of ways that homeless people in Los Angeles have been taken advantage of. Others, for example, were caught up in a medical fraud scam in which they were taken to hospitals to drive up bills, then dumped back on skid row.
“It’s thoughtless greed … How in the world could you tolerate yourself after taking advantage of somebody who’s at the end of the rope? It’s unbelievable,” Bales said. “You’re already struggling with homelessness and at times hopelessness — and then somebody offers you a little bit of hope and then dashes it away.”
Times staff writer Samantha Schaefer contributed to this report.