Thursday, June 19, 2014

Adventures with Ikea. And POS Pickups

(post copyright 2014, Dawn Weber)

Drive to Ikea in your husband's jacked-up pickup truck and buy a couch! I said.

It will be fun! I said.

Ha ha ha!


Let's see. Piece-of-shit Chevy - check.  Six hours round-trip - check. Self-serve furniture store - check. Two hundred pound sofa - check.

All by myself - check.

These sound like a bunch of bad ideas, and lo, they were indeed bad ideas. Yes friends, they were.

Oh, the things I will do for some cheap Scandinavian furniture.

I can't help it. Like so many Americans, whenever I get my grubby hands on the tax-refund check each spring, I start thinking thoughts that involve heavy lifting and rampant spending. That's how I found myself one recent Saturday, driving, sweating, cussing and wondering if I'd make it to Cincinnati in the husband's POS Silverado.  

That truck. Four-wheel drive, relatively new (for us), nice interior, white with silver trim - great-looking, yes, but it runs terribly. I call it the supermodel of pickup trucks: easy on the eyes, but otherwise, pretty much worthless.

It's been in the shop at least nine times in the 1.5 years we've owned it, for various reasons ranging from ignition troubles to transmission problems to vague sensor issues that have left our mechanic scratching his head, saying, "Hell, I don't know what's wrong with it!" then handing us a $650 invoice for 28 hours of labor.

The husband bought the pickup on his own. He did not have my helpful guidance and vast mechanical expertise when he made this purchase, and we ended up with a piece of shit. In case he forgets, I like to periodically remind him:

"This truck is a piece of shit!"

"I know, dear. You've mentioned it."

We just had an alignment and some new tires installed, but one of the truck's latest major problems is some kind of issue that leaves you bopping down the road as if driving on four basketballs - only bouncier - and it was in this state that I spent that particular Saturday thumping south on I-71 to the Ikea store.  Anything above 65 m.p.h. made the shimmying unmanageable. So I rattled along in the slow lane at 62, glaring at the campers, the Buicks, the box-turtles on the side of the road as they passed me.

I drove. I sweated. I cussed.

Around noon, I became incredibly hungry. I also had to pee, which was no surprise: If I'm breathing, I have to pee. But I wouldn't stop for any of this, as I knew that if I did so, I might not start again.

You do not tarry with basic needs when driving the POS Chevy.  

The husband had stayed behind to watch the kids and take our son to ball practice. Since he wasn't around for the joy of this trip, I decided to call him up and give him my valuable opinion.

"Hello?" he said.

"This truck is a piece of shit!"

"I know, dear. You've mentioned it."

"That is all."  


I hung up on him, so that I could better focus on seething, bouncing and glaring.

After many days, hours, years, it seemed, my basketballs and I thumped thankfully into the Cincinnati Ikea parking lot, right along with what appeared to be the entire state of Ohio. And Indiana.

And most of Kentucky.

Apparently, the people of the Midwest - and part of the south - had also received their federal income tax refunds that week, and decided on a fun day of seething humanity and cheap Scandinavian furniture.

I grabbed one of the last available parking spots and rushed inside. Sprinting to the restroom, I gratefully emptied, washed up and headed to the sales floor, where I joined the tri-state area as they trudged, like dead-eyed zombies, through the giant super-mega-store.

Thanks to my harrowing trip down the interstate, I didn't have energy to deal with the throngs of people crowding every inch of available space. Babies crying, children whining, elderly folks stopping in the middle of the aisles . . . Ikea is set up like a giant maze, constantly clogged with human traffic, and there are really not many shortcuts. If you don't know where you're going or what you want for sure - which I didn't - you have to snake through the entire store with all the other dummies to your eventual goal: the warehouse section and cheap Scandinavian furniture in boxes.

Big boxes.

Very big boxes.

I arrived at my destination and stared open-mouthed at Ektorp, the sofa I'd chosen, inside its mammoth carton. The physics alone were frightening: I am 5'2" and weigh, well, none of your business, but the box looked to be roughly twice my size on both counts, and I wondered how in the world I was supposed to get it from the shelf to the cart without flattening myself like an ant. In true self-serve Ikea fashion, personnel were nowhere around, and as I stood and contemplated the box 'o sofa, an old, stooped woman paused beside me.

"You need some help with that, honey?"

I turned and eyed my fellow customer: white-haired, frail, a couple inches shorter than me - I doubted her couch-lifting abilities.  "Well, yeah, but are you sure?"

I should not have doubted.

She whipped my buggy to the front of the box, wedged it underneath, stood aside and pushed the sofa down with a flick of her wrinkly wrist. The carton landed with a confident whump!, stable and ready to roll.

"Wow! Thanks! That was just . . . amazing."

"I come here all the time," she said. "That's how you do it. Just flip it down."

Couch on cart, I thanked her again and re-joined the populations of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky at the registers, where we waited oh, four, five hours to check out? I don't know.

Time has no meaning at Ikea.

I should have taken a nap. By the time a rare stock-boy and I wrestled the gargantuan box into the pickup, I was once again exhausted.

And I had a bigger issue.

The carton, too long for the bed of the truck, tilted up and rested on the closed tailgate, which would be no problem except that our particular tailgate latch is - you guessed it - broken, and given to popping open at the slightest pressure. I had no rope, and no help again, as the elusive Ikea stock-boy had vanished into the ether, so I shrugged, started the engine and shimmied onto the freeway, anticipating the worst.

Driving, thumping, driving, 62 m.p.h., my eyes flipped maniacally between road and rearview mirror. I fully expected the shuddering tailgate to collapse at any time, my hard-won cheap couch crushing cars Godzilla-like as it bounced to the side of the road.
I drove. I sweated. I cussed.  

Hours went by, and I grew hungry again. I had to pee, again. And turtles and Buicks passed me. Again.

It was time once more to give my valuable opinion. I dialed the husband, who picked up the phone without saying hello.

"I know, dear. You've mentioned it."


Huh. He hung up on me. I can't imagine why.

Eventually, finally, amazingly, the decades passed, and I made it, shuddering up the driveway at 8 p.m., angry and spent. I rushed in the house, shouted "Never again!" and pushed the children down on the way to the bathroom.

Never again indeed. I had been to Ikea before, but not alone, not for a large couch, and definitely not in a POS Chevy. It was a harrowing, epic journey in three or four parts, a terrifying odyssey I will not repeat.

Ladies, ladies, by all means: Learn from my mistakes, and mark my words. A trip to Ikea requires strategy, patience, fortitude and preferably, Xanax. Before you go, make sure that you rest up. Eat something. Pee often. Bring along some sort of willing male - or an old, stooped woman - then, ride shotgun and get drunk. 

All the better.

And for the love of God and cheap Scandinavian furniture, please, I beseech you: Take a functioning pickup. Do not borrow ours.

Because I don't know if I've mentioned it, but that truck is a piece of shit.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Meeting Maya (and Remaining Conscious)

There she sat, across the room. Maya Angelou.

Regal and lovely, she held court with other VIPs in a Columbus banquet hall, where I was working that evening in 2001 as a corporate photographer for a direct sales company. We'd had the phenomenal luck to hire Dr. Angelou as the keynote speaker for one of our conferences.

I kept a sweaty, respectful distance. In awe of this woman since reading "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in my AP English class at age 17, I'd devoured many of her other books in the years since. I admired her creativity and her ability to overcome unbelievable difficulties. Racism, poverty, childhood rape - these things have killed others, but only left Maya stronger and wiser. 

As a news and corporate photographer, I had encountered several celebrities over the years, so you'd think I'd have grown used to meeting the occasional famous person. 

But the truth is that whenever I saw one, I always managed to make a blithering idiot of myself by either A) Gaping in open-mouthed shock (the Aretha Franklin in the elevator incident); or B) Gaping in open-mouthed shock, and then shouting "Holy shit!" (The Peter Gabriel backstage incident).

As if the ridiculous random swearing wasn't bad enough, I also had some kind of affliction that made me tremble during important events I photographed. This in turn caused me to move the camera at crucial moments and blur the picture. And, if I managed to get past all the involuntary gaping, swearing and shaking, my camera would sometimes short out - probably the combination of terrified neural firings and profusely wet hands.

So the desire to meet this famous lady was counterbalanced with a hefty case of nerves and fear of my celebrity-induced Tourette's Syndrome. Avoiding the VIP area, I busied myself taking other sales convention pictures, secure in the knowledge that the other, more senior corporate photographer, Tom, would likely photograph any needed pictures of Maya Angelou. I figured it was better for everyone if a short, perspiring white woman didn't shout "Holy shit!" and faint in front of a national treasure.

Heavily engaged in ignoring the situation, I almost didn't notice when the chief executive officer of the company tapped my shoulder. 

"Dawn, can you take some pictures of Dr. Angelou with us?" 

I turned to the CEO, another female who both intimidated and impressed me, hoping maybe she had just forgotten that senior photographer Tom was there.

"Um," I stammered. "Don't you want Tom to do that?" I glanced around the room, feverishly hoping to locate him.

She shook her head. "They said he left for the day - he'd been working since 7 this morning. You're the only one here."

My heart dropped to my feet, and the faucets in my fingers switched on. 

"Sure! Yeah! OK!" I yelled, my voice already inappropriately loud.

Dammit, Tom.

I followed her across the room for what felt like days, glancing repeatedly from the camera to my dripping hands. I prayed my body wouldn't cause another freak equipment failure.

We drew near Maya's chair, where she sat talking to another VIP. The boss pulled me to her side.

"Dr. Angelou, we were hoping to take a couple pictures with you," she said. "This is Dawn, the photographer."

Dawn the photographer stood in front of a living legend, and concentrated very hard on keeping her mouth shut, her hands dry and her heart beating. Better to say nothing, Dawn figured, than loudly shout expletives.

Maya Angelou turned from her conversation to our CEO, whom she'd already met. 

Then, without hesitation, she rose slowly from her chair, grasped both my cold, damp paws in her warm, soft hands, looked me in the eye and said:

"It is such a pleasure to meet you!"

She held my gaze as I stood, saucer-eyed and speechless, at her kind, genuine, loving greeting. I wondered if she thought I was someone else. When wearing a business suit, I was often mistaken for one of our company's owners due to our close resemblance. But this particular evening, I wore my de rigueur photo-lackey uniform: black pants, tons of camera gear, raggedy ponytail and lunch-spattered polo shirt. 

I found some words. Eventually.

"It's . . . so . . . nice to meet you, too!" I shouted. 

She smiled even broader. 

"Thank you for . . . your . . . your everything!" I added intelligently.

Meetings out of the way, I shuffled everyone into position. Trembling as I raised the camera, I positioned my sopping index finger over the button, and said a silent prayer that my gear wouldn't short out on me. Again.

"Smile!" I hollered, with more inappropriate loudness.


The shutter slapped, the flash fired, and I breathed a little sigh of relief. 

"Thank you very much for doing that!" she said, grasping my hand again as I nodded vigorously in an attempt to stay quiet.  

And she walked away.

I went back to shooting the banquet, but snuck glances her way the rest of the evening. I still felt flabbergasted at her amazing, genuine demeanor and wondered if it was a fluke. I'd not had such positive experiences with other famous folks. Though there were exceptions, the celebrities I encountered had generally brushed through rooms, avoiding eye contact and stifling eye rolls if asked to stop, meet, and - God forbid - take a picture with a fan. 

With Maya Angelou, it was a whole different ball game, and I watched as she talked to anyone who approached, and snapped a photo with everyone who asked her. From executive to sales consultant to A/V staff to the guy filling her water glass, she treated everyone . . . the same. Exactly, unequivocally, wonderfully the same.

I finished the rest of my work, and drove through the evening feeling good, but not without reservations. Though I'd managed to muddle through the all-important executive shoot with Ms. Angelou, it remained to be seen whether I had a usable photo - these were the unfortunate days before commonplace digital photography, and I'd need to get the film developed to find out if my nervous hands had failed me.


I dropped the canister off at the camera store, hoping for the best. And in an hour, I rushed back, paid for the prints and ripped open the packet. 

For once, the photo gods had smiled on me. I'd managed to take a steady, in-focus picture of an important person and irreplaceable moment, accomplishing this with the added bonus of maintaining consciousness and (most of) my bladder control. 

I flipped slowly through the pictures of Maya. She stared straight into the camera, her expression reminiscent of a friend, or even a beloved aunt. She was tall, elegant, kind, self-assured, and the color of a warm cup of coffee. 

Then there was me, on the other side of the camera. Short, pasty-white, tragically sweaty and hoping to keep my mouth shut. 

I put the packet aside, the car in drive and smiled to myself on the way out of the parking lot. We were very different - weren't we? - she and I. 

But somehow, also the same.

Exactly, unequivocally, wonderfully the same.