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IKEA Dreams
Brown Elephant Reality

It was a week after Christmas day when our car rounded the curve on McConnor Parkway in Shaumburg and we drove into the parking lot. Jason and I gasped as we slowly rolled through D4, C3, the other numbered rows. The blue and yellow windowless compound seemed to stretch for miles and miles, how many kinds and colors of chairs must be stored inside! I had been fantasizing about this moment for weeks, and momentarily felt the spirit of Clark Griswold overwhelm me. We had made it to Wally World, well IKEA really. And I felt relieved.

We had needed a sidetable, a couch, and a bookcase for over a year. Our second bedroom, which was supposed to be an office, had become a place to throw old newspapers and a spot where we could abandon the litter box. But even more so, I was grateful to get out of the car. It had taken us two hours and a "dispute" over directions to get to this outpost. Yes, we had prematurely exited I-290, a mistake for which I, as the navigator, must claim responsibility ... but I just couldn't understand how Shaumburg could be this far from the city. I mean don't the thousands of people living within Chicago city limits need furniture too?

The blue and yellow feeling of serenity quickly dissipated once inside the revolving doors: the lobby was a riotous zoo of hungry people, bumping into each other as they aimlessly wandered toward the best deal. "What the hell?" was all I could say, as I dodged a careening baby carriage, a bickering mother and daughter team wearing matching IOWA sweatshirts. My euphoria was fading, and a crowd-induced anxiety attack was soon taking its place.

Once on the third floor, I felt optimistic again. We wandered slowly through "Couches," "Beds," and "Bookcases," enjoying the periodic highs of an astoundingly low price tag. "This couch is 250 dollars!" Jason would shout over to me. "No way." I'd yell back in amazement. We would then sit on the couch, bounce up and down to test firmness, and then pause to to imagine what it would be like to live our lives on this piece of furniture. "But do you think it's big enough for our needs?" I'd wonder out loud. It can be fun to play adult, until you realize that you really are one, and that you'll be paying the credit card bill.

I've lived in five different apartments since high school. And before moving to Chicago, I had always been satisfied with the Salvation Army, family leftovers, and dumpster diving to furnish and decorate my apartments. Not only could I not afford anything else, but I had convinced myself of a certain charm associated with furniture that had "stories to tell," like my old roommate Jen's chair, Booger. Jen had met her boyfriend, Chris, while he was sitting in that recliner in the middle of Park Drive in Boston in 1996. While peaking on acid that night, Chris had found Booger in a back alley, and had decided that the chair must be with him for the rest of his life. Long story made short, the chair was up in the living room of the apartment I shared with Jen the next year. Sure, it was green, covered with grease streaks and cigarette burns, but these life scars only added color, texture and character to not just a piece of furniture, but a symbol of lasting love.

I don't know whether it's because I had turned 26 or because I was finally grossed out by dirty furniture held together by duct tape, but upon moving to Chicago I decided that I should collect "real" furniture. Since I couldn't afford the kind of "real" furniture that comes in sets with matching pillows, a trip to IKEA seemed to be the solution.

Salesperson: "The Storvik lounger is currently out of stock."

Me: "Oh, well, when will new ones be in?"

SP: "We're not sure, they should be on the way. If you give us your name we can send you a postcard when they get in."

Me: "Oh, okay... Well, I'll just pay for it now then, and have it delivered."

SP: "Okay, you can have it delivered. But you'll still have to come in and pay for it."

Me: "I can't just give you my credit card right now and pay for it on the spot?"

SP: "Mmmm. No, everything's on a first come first serve basis here."

Me: "But you can have my money right now, here's my credit card..."

SP: "No, we don't do it that way. You have to come in and pay for it. Do you still want it delivered?"

The Storvik Lounger, a gorgeous wicker chair, had become a problem. Venture back out here: was she kidding? I don't have another day off to waste getting here.

Jason and I returned to "Couches" to jot down the number of the $250 white sofabed that had made us so happy moments before. This time, while analyzing the price tag, we noticed the words, "Currently out of stock."

With our spirits dampened, but not yet dead, we headed to the warehouse to pick up the walnut "Billy," a seven foot tall bookcase that cost $69, the one item we absolutely needed to buy. When we got to Bin L and found Shelf 12, "Billy" was lying on the ground in the shape of a flat, long cardbard box. So, this is what "assembly required" meant. After two and half more hours of transporting the item to the cashier and then the car and driving the 40 miles home, we finally sat down with a swiss army knife in our living room to assemble "Billy." Thankfully, we carefully handled the plastic baggie containing the exact number of wood pegs, screws, and nails necessary for assembly. Had we lost one wooden peg , we'd have to return to Shaumburg, where we quite possibly would have also lost our minds.

Many things come cheap at IKEA, but nothing, I mean nothing, comes easy. Getting there takes forever, getting service there takes forever, standing in line to check out takes forever, deconstructing the directions for assembly takes forever, this sentence takes forever... Screw-you/do-it-yourself service and box stores are a reality for many Americans trying to save money. But we can refuse to buy into this mentality. I, for one, am going back to my recycling plan. I'll be hitting up the Brown Elephant and Lincoln Park sidewalks on moving out days to finish decorating the apartment.

It's not worth the gas and the anxiety to trek back and forth to Shaumburg. Like Old Navy clothes, White Castle cheeseburgers, and any show on E!, IKEA is just another seemingly easy, cheap thrill of distraction where the depressing reality of a soulless product kills your idealistic buzz. Don't I have better things to worry about, like writing my thesis and finding a job, than distracting myself with the frivolous mission of home improvement? I'd rather sit on the floor in the second bedroom, reading books and writing notes, with my dreams of a beautifully decorated home still intact. There I can be productive and only be distracted by the kind of time-sucks that matter, like the unnerving, yet hopelessly endearing way my cats hurl litter out of their box.

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