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The Genius

Cleaning a stranger's earwax out of the AirPods from Hell — a gross behind the scenes look at life in an Apple Store: Tales from the Genius Bar

Tales from the Genius Bar mannequin on toilet.
Tales from the Genius Bar
(Image credit: Future)

The world of Apple Retail revealed through the eyes of ex-employees with wonderful and weird tales to tell.

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When AirPods first launched in September 2016, it was magical. Wired earphones were a thing of the past, and despite looking like you had toothbrush heads in your ears (you’ve seen the memes), the wireless earbuds quickly became the hottest tech product of the year.

I started working at my local Apple Store the following year, ready to tackle the Genius Bar and fix any problem thrown at me. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, it was the start of my long journey in dealing with crusty human bodily fluids from the speaker grilles of Apple’s magic earbuds. 

This is the tale of how it felt to clean disgusting ear wax build-up from one of Apple’s most successful products, not just daily... but several times a day. Gulp.

This is Tales from the Genius Bar: Chapter Three — the AirPods from Hell.

Disclaimer: This story may trigger flashbacks or bring back bad memories for any ex-Apple employees — If you’re easily grossed out please continue with caution, reader discretion is advised.

These events are based on a true story. All names and likenesses have been changed but every single weird, grotesque, funny, or wholesome anecdote happened within the walls of an Apple Store somewhere out there.

It’s the place where thousands of customers arrive late to their appointments and demand service; The place where handing a phone covered in your bodily fluids over to a stranger is deemed acceptable; The place where you entrust technicians with your most beloved memories and your deepest, darkest secrets. Welcome to the Apple Store, a place I called home for many a year and a place that has many a tale to be told. You’ll want to hear about all of them — but you’ll wish you could forget half of them. Believe me, I’ve tried. Read Chapter One and Chapter Two.

Do you have your own tale to tell from the world of Apple Retail? Let us know via X @TalesGeniusBar or via email

An AirPods horror show

(Image credit: Future)

When I think back to my time working at the Apple Store, no product haunts my mind more than the dreaded AirPods. Don’t get me wrong, I love my AirPods Pro 2, in fact, they are probably one of the best products Apple has ever made, completely revolutionizing audio for your average consumer. But as an Apple employee, few products haunt your nightmares like the AirPods, specifically the original first-generation model.

"What’s so bad about a little white toothbrush head?," I hear you ask. Well, let me paint the picture. Derek from down the street walks into the Apple Store. The audio on his AirPods just isn’t as loud as it used to be, and he’s starting to doubt his hearing — he may look like he’s in his late 40s, but poor old Derek isn’t even 30 yet.

Just imagine, minding your own business doing your day job, when Derek hands over his AirPods. You open the case to reveal the earbuds, and almost instantly, the stale stench of dried ear wax fills your nostrils — imagine the worst BO you’ve ever smelt and then imagine that staleness not more than 10 centimeters away from your mouth and nose. 

That's what hit me — my nose twitches as I force myself to keep a straight face, “have you cleaned these at home?” 

“Yes, mate, clean them every week, so I do.” He replies, sweat dripping from his brow with a look of panic (Derek, if you’re reading this — I always saw through your lies).

(Image credit: Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images)

Back then, Apple’s guidelines on cleaning AirPods weren’t as rigorous as they are today. Nowadays, most Apple Store employees will send you home with a cleaning guide documenting how to clean your AirPods, but at the start of my tenure, it was all about cracking the crust.

After watching customers like Derek squirm in their seats, it was time to clean the monstrosities. “I’m just going to take these round the back for a quick clean, won’t be a moment.” I close the lid of the AirPods case, take a deep breath, and head to the Genius Bar Repair Room, ready to confront my inner demons.

Imagine the worst BO you’ve ever smelt and then imagine that staleness not more than 10 centimeters away from your mouth and nose.

Equipped with a small brush and sticky tack, I proceeded to work my way through the stale brown crusty ear wax and bring music back to Derek’s ears. Just before we get to the cleaning, it’s worth noting that I have an absolutely terrible gag reflex, which means the scent of something even remotely unpleasant causes me to taste vomit in my mouth — keep this in mind, we’ll come back to it.

(Image credit: Future)

I’ve never said this out loud before, and now I’m about to publish it on the internet, but I used to take immense pleasure in cracking the most stubborn of ear crusts out of an AirPod grille. There was this weird satisfaction of knowing I was really good at it that made the disgusting task a little bit more acceptable. That said, it is one of the most revolting professional tasks I’ve ever had to endure. 

Brush at the ready, I start chipping away at the crusty brown film covering the grill. The more I brush, the more the ear wax flies in the air, crumbling to the floor around me. I can’t help but feel sick in my stomach. The small room starts to gain a whiff of bodily fluid, and I don’t want to make it worse by vomiting all over the floor. I take the sticky tack and cover the grill, each removal like getting chest hair waxed as I look at the brown crust sticking to the tack. I warned you at the start this was gross, now imagine these scenes multiple times a day — I definitely wasn’t paid enough for this.

I look at the sticky tack, wondering what I’ve done to deserve this. And then it happened. I could feel the gagging, it was about to get much, much worse for everyone involved. I gag once, I gag twice, and on the third gag, I knew it was time to drop everything and make my way to the bathroom as quickly as possible.

(Image credit: iMore / Future)

In the store where I worked, the bathroom was on the other side of the Repair Room, meaning I needed to run past Derek with a mouth ready to implode full of vomit. I had to do it, I had to make eye contact with him, and I had to remain as calm as possible — no one could ever know. 

I brace myself and move calmly but swiftly toward the Genius Bar. I see Derek from the corner of my eye, pretend to smile, and beeline for the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details, but on second thoughts, the cheeseburger I had on my lunch break was not a good idea.

I clean myself up and make a return to the shop floor. I feel disgusting, but I need to act professionally — Derek deserves to hear music again. At this point, the crusty ear wax particles have left the air, and the room smells far more acceptable than the staleness I left on my way to the bathroom. 

AirPods in hand, I return to the Genius Bar, “Sorry for the wait. Give these a try, and let me know if you can hear the music loud and clear.”

Derek takes the AirPods out of the case, unaware of what’s gone on behind the scenes. He places the earbuds in his ears and starts playing Apple Music. “No, mate, it still sounds like I’m underwater.”

I look into the abyss. This is what my life has become. I’ve used my bare hands to clean someone else’s dirty ears, I’ve vomited in the bathroom, and all for what? All for nothing.

“Let me take them back to the Repair Room and see what I can do.”

Tales of the Genius Bar is a bi-weekly column exclusive to iMore. Do you have your own tale to tell from the world of Apple Retail? Let us know via X @TalesGeniusBar or via email

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