Last month my city became a real city. After a two-year gestation period, a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg gave birth to an Ikea.
Those who already live in Ikea cities may not comprehend the significance of this event, but to my people it is a very big deal. I had not been into an Ikea since I was a child being dragged into one, but since reaching the age where one begins to value furniture (26?) it has taken on an enigmatic quality for me, and I know I’m not alone. At 32 I’m finally living in a home that feels like one, and I’ve been experiencing a powerful domestic urge to assemble a coherent decorative scheme around me. How our values change.
During the summer months I monitored the store’s construction whenever I drove by. At first it was hard to tell anything was being built at all. The site was just concrete piles and trailers. In the Fall, climbing over the tops of the small city of construction site offices, a gleaming blue rectangle emerged, unfolding panel by panel at an alarming rate.
I imagined crane operators working from concise sets instructions that diagram the entire facility’s construction with foolproof arrows — wall “B” into slot “EE” — and every joint tightened with a great Allen key.
Two weeks ago it was done, and seven hundred thousand thrift-minded (but aesthetically sensitive) Winnipeggers descended on it.
I avoided the insanity of the first weekend, thinking I might even wait until after Christmas to outfit my home, aware that until I was ready it was best not to know what I was missing.
With winter here and a friend coming for the weekend from Calgary — a city to which Ikea is old hat — I find myself in immediate need of a presentable doormat (I’ve been using a corrugated plastic board that has my fantasy football league’s draft results on it.) So I get in the car and head to the box store hell that lies west of Linden Woods.
On the way there I decide to make it a quick operation and grab a passable mat at one of the now-empty homeware stores across the highway, saving my Ikea adventure for another time. But as I begin my drive home I notice that the deadening quiet inside Home Outfitters has left me with the feeling you get when you know everyone else is at a party. I find myself changing lanes and I know I am on my way to Ikea.
The vast parking lot is nearly full, and so I park at the very back, beside the base of a sign so enormous I would have guessed it was a neighboring microwave tower. It’s visible for (without exaggeration) miles, and it would not surprise me if it were now Manitoba’s highest building. On top of a white tubular steel tower sits a three-faced logo, the whole of which gives the impression, perhaps only accidentally, of a giant middle finger that simultaneously faces Wal-Mart, Jysk, and HomeSense.
The great rectangle of the store itself is so uniformly blue and featureless that it’s difficult to gauge its size from a distance. From my car, the yellow letters on its broad side could be eight feet tall or forty feet tall. My walk takes far longer than I thought it would. It is perhaps the largest parking lot I have ever crossed and the blue wall looms larger with each step.
The entrance is a great revolving door, maybe thirty feet across. It moves the people, not the other way around, swallowing about a dozen people per third of a revolution. I am swallowed along with a large Chinese family, and the door turns so slowly that for almost ten full seconds we are completely sealed in plexiglass. Some of the children begin to cry.
I let myself float with the current of bodies, and soon I’m at the entrance to the showroom, which the map recommends navigating in a sweeping, meandering fashion, along a pathway marked by bold arrows. The crowd appears to be taking this advice. A bewildered river of winter-clothed shoppers winds into the distance, between vast tracts of minimalist furniture. A few people are trying to wade upriver, and faces in the main stream visibly disapprove.
Unaware I was even moving, I have drifted up to a bank of attractive reading chairs, and I find myself ashore among them. I’m beginning to feel high, like the first alarming hints of a psychedelic come-up. Colors become brighter and more fascinating. I feel childlike — abundant in possibility, un-driven, free-bonding, easily captivated.
I sit. The chair has a wonderful give to it and something inside me slackens. Padded upholstery slung between two flexible wooden S’s. My body belongs in it, I realize immediately. Without even trying to, I begin to bob slightly in the chair, as if to music. It feels glorious.
My mind is flooded with visions of my new life after buying this chair. I will read books at five times my normal rate. I will make all my decisions in this chair. This chair will dissolve all of my grudges and tensions at the end of every day. When I am an old man I will look out the window from this chair, bobbing, with no envy for the younger generations, pleased with how my decades have gone.
The river flows past my luxurious camp, the crowd now nearly silent in my mind. The passage of time becomes difficult to perceive. I become aware of the meaning of certain Dali paintings. When I get up to rejoin the stream, it is not out of my own volition, but a higher one. I do not protest. Everything makes sense.
Wardrobes. Bunk beds. Drapes. Rugs. I mentioned that my apartment is missing certain crucial pieces of furniture, so I had imagined that my first trip to Ikea would have these items as clear objectives, and I entered the building with the feeling that it did. Within a minute or two of entering I could not remember what I actually need. I’m certain my list was too simple to forget, but I was lost stroking upholstery and surfaces the minute I arrived, and it does not materialize in my mind.
I let it go. I know I’m too high to hold clear intentions. Joyful and aimless. I wander in a daze, sitting in each meticulously crafted fake living room as though it were mine. Each one, for a wonderful, hallucinatory moment, is.
My consciousness is uninterested in what I need and I can only be aware of what I want, right now –what I could have. I begin to inventory the prices of my wants: 79, 195, 245, 49, 99, 335… adding them roughly in my head and subtracting that from my annual income, to get a sense of what kind of dent it would make. For the first time in my life, a vision of a coherent, stylish home appears in my mind’s eye as an attainable reality, and I can almost physically feel dopamine or some other gratifying chemical release into my blood. The world burns brighter again and I must sit down.
More time passes, presumably, and my bliss is eventually interrupted by strangers wandering into my living room. They barely acknowledge me, poking at my entertainment unit and light fixtures, taking books off my shelves and laughing when they find they are all in Swedish. I clear my throat but it seems I am invisible to them.
The final section of the upper level is for children. Ceiling lamps shaped like clovers and suns and hearts. Tiny wooden chairs that make grown men swoon. Clever night lights. As a childless single professional, this is the area where my critical mind begins to return. I’m not so high any more, which comes as a slight relief because I was unsure whether I’d be able to drive home.
I feel a sudden, conspicuous absence of desires, and I fight a short-lived but intense urge to climb headfirst into a giant bin of soft, stuffed rats. Rationally, I know I could be in there for at least ten or fifteen glorious minutes before I felt someone pulling me out by the feet, a concerned parent having called security. All they could do is set me outside and ask me not to do it again.
I move away from the bin before I can think too much about it.
Beyond the bins of rats, the river runs into the lake that is the cafeteria. Peacoated, scarved couples sit on high stools, picking at meatballs and crepes. I presume they are discussing motifs.
I go downstairs. Cookware. Paper lamps. Art. Towels.
I’m feeling less bewildered now that I’m in the subdued lower-level section, and instead more journalistic. On my phone I review the notes I’ve been taking on my experience. They’re rife with typos and inane stream-of-consciousness gushing, like alcoholic writers probably find all over their studios every morning. One note says, “I want this chair this chair this chair, this is the chair for me,” and this triggers a mild flashback of my wonderful time upriver, which now feels like days ago.
I move through this section quickly, beginning to feel hungover, realizing I have no idea how long I have been here. The sun may be rising. I can’t remember if I work tomorrow.
Finally I emerge into the cavernous warehouse section, a spectacle immediately reminiscent of the final shot in the first Indiana Jones movie, when the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into storage forever. Dads heave slender boxes onto wobbly carts. Everyone looks tiny beside the towers of boxes.
The warehouse eventually funnels into countless cash registers, and there does not appear to be an exit for the odd person who is not buying anything. Briefly, I consider buying something just so I won’t have to explain myself to the yellow-shirted authorities in my still-intoxicated state, if it were to come down to that. There is a stack of plain, nine-dollar end tables right at the mouth of the funnel, presumably for this purpose.
The thought makes me feel manipulated, and instead I walk boldly past one of the lines, trying to look as if the man at the front is my dad, and then I keep walking, half-expecting to be grabbed by large Swedish men.
But nothing happens, and instead of feeling clever I feel envious of the people who are going home to assemble their Kluuntzes and Gibalts with Allen keys, and so I find myself needlessly food shopping in the small section following the main checkouts.
I decide on a jar of jam, which does not feel like enough to justify waiting in the enormous line. So I also select a frozen vegetarian pizza. It is rectangular, about the proportions of the miniature ironing board I saw in the children’s department, or at least imagine I saw.
I am not hungry at all, but I decide I will eat the pizza when I get home regardless. The line is so long that I may be hungry by then anyway. I’m self-conscious about my bizarre impending purchases — nobody would believe I am buying these items for any reason other than to indulge in the novelty of going to Ikea for the first time.
Everyone around me is the same, I discover happily. Nobody buys staples here, only curiosities: pumpernickel dough mix in a carton, jellies made from berries that a well-traveled thirtysomething would not have heard of, bread loaves the size and weight of bricks. When I see another man with a jar of jam and an ironing-board-sized pizza, my anxieties evaporate.
Up ahead the cashier processes the needless items one by one without judgment, and each customer pretends as if his items are sensible grocery purchases that were on his list when he arrived. I’m in line so long that I almost grab a bottle of non-alcoholic lingonberry wine, with the idea of drinking it flamboyantly while driving home, just to provoke worried stares but cause no real harm.
When I finally get outside, the cold sobers me and the details of my present-day reality slowly return. It is winter. It is about nine pm, not sunrise as I had guessed. I do work tomorrow.
As I pull out of my spot and drive toward the exit, my mind exhibits all of the hallmarks of a post-psychedelic comedown. The mundane appears profound. Possibility seems to be everywhere, but my body is too tired to explore that right now. Everything is hyper-normal but clearly something significant has shifted. I know it will come to me in time and I know better than to rake my mind for answers.
I coast around the turning lane at the parking lot’s exit and accelerate onto the Parkway, relaxed and reflective, as my right hand teases the foil from a bottle of non-alcoholic lingonberry wine.
Photo by Håkan Dahlström