We Went to IKEA

My daughter needed a mattress, so we went to IKEA. Neither of us had been to an IKEA before.

We took I-90 from her apartment in Irving Park to Schaumburg. It was a long drive, riddled with construction. We got off at the Arlington Heights exit, missed a turn on Algonquin, recalibrated. After two days of intense city driving and a summer of negotiating the highways of Toronto and Montreal, the turf-covered, man-made slopes of a suburban landscape presented a different set of rules, and I found it difficult to adjust.

The Schaumberg IKEA is visible from the highway, but there's no easy way to get there. It's on McConnor Parkway, a long, curving slash between verdant lawns that surround hotels, chain restaurants and office buildings. It's a destination store. People staying nearby can take a fancy trolley to go shopping there.

The parking lot is huge. Two shirtless guys were playing Frisbee golf in one of the outermost areas. We drove beyond them for another tenth of a mile, found a spot, and joined the throngs heading for the entrance.

Cavernous and sunlit, the lobby may not be what the first-time visitor expects. It features signage, seating and plants; bathrooms; an escalator and a greeter to herd you up it. There are no products for sale or on display, just a little stand that holds tri-fold maps of the facility, along with free souvenirs: little IKEA pencils and ribbon-y plastic tape measures.

The escalator lifted us from the soaring, white calm of the entrance into the visual overload of the second floor, where thousands of well-designed things are displayed in ways that made us want to own all of them. We found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be, in the bedroom section.

At my urging, EJ repeatedly flung herself down on the mattresses we were most likely to purchase. Plastic sheeting covered the lower third of each floor sample's surface, so she didn't have to remove her Doc Martens.

Unable to make a decision at the time, we went to lunch on the third floor, where there was another herder. "Just point to the picture of what you want," he said, motioning us forward. I pointed to a Southwestern chicken wrap, my daughter pointed to marinated salmon. Both were good, and we paid less than $14 for entrées and beverages. "If there was a place like this in my neighborhood, I'd go there all the time," said EJ.

After lunch we did a quick tour of furniture, cabinetry, textiles, cooking equipment and dishes. Everything was beautiful, nicely priced and familiar. I was tempted, but I'm entering the downsizing phase of my life. I don't need to buy the same 12-oz. glasses that were in the cupboards of the break room at my former place of employment, even if they're lovely, cost two bucks each, and remind me of simpler times.

We returned, decisive, to the mattress department and talked to a woman in an orange IKEA shirt. My issue was portability: would we, a college student and a sexagenarian, be able to haul a full-sized coil mattress up the back stairs of a third-floor walk-up? She looked me up and down and nodded. "It's rolled," she said. "You can handle it." She directed us to Aisle 31 on Level One.

The lower level of IKEA has the same lighting and aura of limitlessness as the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, combined with the DIY accessibility of the lumber department at Home Depot. We found the mattress, put it on a cart, and went to checkout, where, it being an ordinary Monday afternoon in mid-August, there were long lines. Parents (like me) were outfitting their college kids; families were making IKEA a stop on their vacation itineraries. Shelving on both sides offered a range of impulse buys, from popsicle-making sets (99¢) to doormats ($6.99). My impulse buy? Three blue IKEA bags of reinforced plastic, 58¢ each. They are huge and strong. I considered putting my daughter in one and hoisting her out to the parking lot on my shoulder, but I knew I needed to conserve my strength for lugging the mattress. (I also remembered that she is 20 years old.)

When you exit IKEA, you have two options: carry your purchases to your car, or bring your car to a loading dock. As we steered our cart outside, we heard a loud crash. It sounded like a number of heavy, unassembled cabinets with glass fronts had landed on top of a dozen fragile, reasonably priced wedding gifts. Naturally, because we share behavioral genes with poultry and sheep, we peered around the corner of the building to see what had happened.

A woman had lost control of her car on the approach to the loading dock. Fender, grill and headlights were smashed and in fragments on the pavement; radiator fluid, engine oil and gasoline were gushing next to the foundations of the IKEA building; a boy, eight or nine years old, who'd probably been told to wait there with a cart of merchandise while his mother went to get the vehicle, was screaming.

I do not like being near fossil fuels and flammable chemicals that are directly under a hot, possibly sparking engine, so EJ and I tried pushing our cart through the wheelchair-accessible gate to the parking lot. A teenager in an orange vest stopped us. "No carts outside of the loading dock," he said.

My daughter stayed with her new mattress, sufficiently around the corner of the building so that if there were an explosion at the scene of the accident, she would most likely survive and have a good story to tell, while I sprinted across the parking lot to our distant car. I thought I heard sirens on the way, but I was wrong.

This, according to EJ, is the conversation she overheard while I was getting our vehicle.

Teenaged IKEA employee #1 (the guy who'd prevented us from taking the cart into the parking lot): This is bad.
Teenaged IKEA employee #2: Yeah.
Teenaged IKEA employee #1: Should we call Security?
Teenaged IKEA employee #2: Yeah.
Teenaged IKEA employee #1, talking to Security person (recently teenaged): Hey.
Security person: Maybe we should get some fire extinguishers or something?

By this point, I was inexpertly backing into the loading dock, so my daughter didn't hear what came next. The boy had stopped screaming, but other customers, nervous about the whole situation and needing to relax, were lighting cigarettes as the gasoline fumes drifted around them.

I had come to IKEA expecting to have a European experience. It was, instead, an affirmation of so much of what we take for granted as Americans: low prices, lots of choices, great customer service, an automobile-dependent economy, and mindless indulgence in the face of potential safety hazards.

We shoved the mattress into the car and drove away. Forty-five minutes later we were wrestling it up the steps to EJ's apartment, a task that wasn't nearly as bad as we had imagined. Or maybe we were stronger than we realized.

She cut the last of the plastic wrapping from the long, cushy, tube. The mattress uncoiled, almost knocking her over. We put it on top of her futon, slumped ourselves down on it, and had a good cry, about so many more things than I can explain here.