Friday night. And we are in search of a table. An IKEA table that we found online—it is in a store that never closes though we must travel out of the city—even beyond the airport—to reach it. In the sky above, planes crisscross the night, making it easy to imagine the map we’d once seen of FedEx routes, every point sprouting colorful bouquets of arcs that end on every other point on the map, a plane flying along one of them rushing our table to the store ahead. Or maybe it came by ship, the shipping lanes that crisscross the oceans as braided as the FedEx routes in the sky, an enormous container ship loaded in Sweden gliding along one on its way to America and passing an enormous container ship from America en route to Sweden, and both loaded with furniture. Or more likely, our IKEA table was designed in Sweden but made in China, a stream of emails along similar webs connecting armies of inventory managers and sales managers and orderers and shippers and suppliers and accountants and clerks and all their databases linking financial systems to mines to mills to factories that will transform ore into steel into wire into screws that will arrive just in time with the plastic pegs and varnish and felt and glue arriving from other nodes connecting other webs to be assembled as ours and others’ tables and packed, with Styrofoam peanuts, as they come off the assembly line, into boxes (which, like the peanuts, also arrived just in time) that will be stacked onto pallets to be lowered into enormous ships that are manned by Greeks, docked in Ireland, but registered in Eritria, and will pass, as they steam toward San Diego, other ships that have been loaded in San Diego and are en route to China, and all loaded with furniture in boxes on pallets in identical steel containers that have been designed so that they can be stacked like Legos once they’ve cross the ocean (no translation problems here), trains carrying them to regional distribution warehouses where the shipments are divided among trucks that are placed on highways that crisscrossed the country beneath the crisscrossing of planes in the sky, the truck with our table inside already having circled the cloverleaf that we wind around as we exit the expressway onto this plain where buffalo once roamed but is now a land of big-box stores—CIRCUIT CITY and HILTON GARDENS (who stays there? we wonder—and why? a hotel in a field)—a land of giants that are big boxes themselves separated by miles of prairie since giants need lots of space. A link to Google Maps has shown the way. Though there are no houses or people there is lots of traffic (where does it come from, what is it doing out here?—is the whole world buying a table tonight?) on freshly laid roads that connect the giants, their dotted lines so white on new asphalt that they look as though they’d just been extruded from a giant pastry chef’s piping-bag, the roads making looping patterns whose logic must be apparent on some blueprint of the future, or could be seen from the air the way those ruts ancient Indians carved in fields were discovered to be, once modern men could rise high enough to see, the outlines of giant spiders and scorpions, but to us with our ant’s eye view appear as a maze does to its rat. HOME DEPOT. TEXAS ROADHOUSE. Their parking lots are so large it takes many minutes to drive past. Then there it is: a big white cube on the horizon, like a block of Lucite, glowing white from within except for its blue and yellow IKEA logo along its top, the building growing as we approach, its lines so clean they also seem to have come from the drawing board of a Scandinavian designer, like an IKEA lamp itself but made the size of an iceberg, the way some artists take ordinary objects—a beach ball, or spoon—and duplicate them on a gigantic scale, a pencil, say, as tall as a tree, or a bowl of cherries large enough to fill the plaza of an office building…. Yet rather than stick out as those sculptures do, the store is as harmonious with its landscape as that Frank Lloyd Wright house built to hang over a waterfall, the stream that tumbles out from under the house flowing, before it falls, right through the living room. Here, the flat Midwestern horizon is epic, so must be its stores, no building smaller than an airport terminal, and in tune with its neighbors the way that the fake Egyptian pyramids and faux Eiffel towers and medieval castles of Las Vegas are all of a fabric, or rather, are the fabric, each store here separated by a mile of blacktopping (no sidewalks), like an archipelago of stores protruding from a sea of corn, each, like IKEA, the size of a stadium though they bear the names JOE’S CRAB SHACK, and BUBBA’S BACKYARD BAYOU BARBEQUE, and seem like crab shacks, and roadhouses inflated to the size of a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and made of materials and methods used in industrial architecture. They bear tokens of their namesakes, also rendered at industrial strength: a crab shack, decorated with what looked like, from the highway, fishing nets though as we near we can see that they are woven steel cables thick enough to hold up a suspension bridge; a roadhouse is adorned with auto license plates and yield and stop signs that one might well find on the walls around the pool table inside a real roadhouse if they weren’t the size of billboards; FISHERMAN’S WARF has a faded pier though the sea and the salt spray that weathers wood is 2,000 miles away. MEXICAN HACIENDA, THE GOLD RUSH, JOHNNY ROCKETS, evoke as we drive by, Old Mexico, a Prospectors’ Saloon, the Space Age, the way that book Learning from Las Vegas claimed that the marquees and fake pyramids and Eiffel towers give a coherence to the landscape, and that by adopting the style of Las Vegas to sprawl everywhere, we could enrich our landscape with symbolic meaning. We have, apparently, learnt well from Las Vegas. .
How well, we could not imagine until we found a parking place, maybe a quarter mile off, and began to walk toward the IEKA building, passing, we note, cars with license plates from every neighboring state, thus, the logic of the cloverleaf is revealed, explaining why this landscape has given rise to big-box stores as surely as mountains create their own climates—our trek joined by one then two, then dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of other shoppers from all parts of the vast plain of cars, converging like raindrops into rivulets, rivulets becoming a watercourse heading as inextricably as water runs downhill toward the glow of the building where shoppers, who had arrived before us and so were now at the end of the journey, were streaming out. Most are carrying their purchases, desk lamps, and salad bowls—we can see from the pictures on their boxes—but the front of the store, which in a bygone day would have been department-store windows decorated for President’s Day, or Christmas, or whatever holiday was imminent, trying to attract the eyes of window shoppers, tourists, and others lingering on lunch hours or rushing to catch cabs or make other appointments, instead of windows and pedestrians (there isn’t even a sidewalk) there is a loading zone: dozens of cars backed up to the building where other shoppers were loading purchases too large to carry, using dollies to roll out boxes containing beds and bookcases (or so the pictures claim though it seems impossible to get a bed or bookcase into the large, flat, stackable boxes being loaded into cars). We have seen our future, we think, as we enter, and are immediately funneled onto an escalator, carrying the stream of shoppers we are part of up. Do we need to go up? we wonder as we are carried away, one escalator carrying us up to another as bodies are transported in meat processing plants where sides of beef are carried on hooks to stations for further butchering. Wouldn’t the tables, like the sofas and other heavy items, be on the ground floor? We had been expecting to enter a showroom of sofas, or Lay-Z-Boys, then look for a directory that would tell us where to find the faux kitchens wherein would be found the table we were in search of, but IKEA, as meatpackers to cows, has done this thinking for us: the escalator channeling our bodies where they need to be, and where they need to be is the top of the store. This Way, the sign says. There is only one way. UP. (If you bend the body into a prayerful position, medievals thought, prayer would follow.) But then, once there, we flow like water trickling downhill through forests of bookcases, media cabinets, floorlamps, end tables, fabric sofas, leather sofas, sofa beds, modular sofas, chaise lounges, armchairs, footstools, tv stands, speaker cabinets…. The river of shoppers we had been divides into tributaries that continue on through other forests of DVD racks, tie racks, shoe racks, umbrella stands, sideboards (oh, look at that), end tables, rugs, wine racks, bookshelves, bookcases, towel racks, storage boxes in every size, lamp shades (it had never occurred to us to change the shades on our lamps), curtains, blinds, curtain rods, cushions, blankets, sheets…. In reverse of the way we shoppers coalesced to become a single stream as we entered the store, the stream continues to divide into rivulets of shoppers trickling through forests of chandeliers, lamp cords, ceiling fans, office lights, desk lamps, track lighting, lights with green shades that evoke library reading rooms, funky psychedelic lights, spotlights (that’s kinda cool), lamps to hang over paintings or place under plants…. In the middle of the store we come upon a food court: BUS YOUR OWN TABLE the sign informs us. THIS IS WHY YOU ENJOY LOW PRICES. (It seems a threat.) We continue on, for to get to the lower floor, where in fact the table seems to be located, one must walk through the entire store, just as in Las Vegas, to go to the washroom, you must walk through the casino. To get to the bar you must walk through the casino. To get to the theater, parking garage, restaurant or anywhere, you must walk through the casino. So we continue on through other forests of filing cabinets, IN & OUT baskets, wastepaper baskets, kitchen garbage cans (we could use one of those), bathroom garbage cans, laundry bags, hampers, wastepaper baskets, magazine racks, racks for letters and spices and bikes, stereo-cable management solutions—YOUR RESOLUTION: A SUPER ORGANIZED REFRIGERATOR—closet and entryway solutions…. (Look at that: an old wine barrel used as an umbrella stand. How clever.) Then there it is: the table we saw online. One. The last one, we think. How lucky no one in this entire mob has taken it. We inspect it. It seems less angular than it appeared in its online photo. Its legs do not all seem to be exactly parallel. And its grain somehow seems a bit too regular, like the pattern in wallpaper, or linoleum. It is made of wood-like particles. We hesitate. But we have driven so far. We lift it. It is heavy. Heavier than it looks, but of course particleboard and glue is denser than real wood. What made us think it would be real wood? We decide to get it. But we are not allowed to buy this table. A sign tells us that we are to take one of the numbers beside the table and proceed to the lower lever. Ah, we think, where we thought the table would be from the first. So we take a tag with the number and continue down, winding our way through forests of woks and pans and pots, vases, plastic flowers, baskets for newspapers, baskets for letters, baskets for fruit, and baskets for dirty underwear, nestled baskets that just seem designed to hold other baskets, baskets with odd shapes and no discernible purpose, bowls, cups and saucers, stackable stools, patio furniture, (Look!—that same wine barrel now fitted with seat cushions to turn it into a chair!), patio umbrellas, heaters, racks for wood; scented candles to facilitate romance, candles to mask smells, candles to repel bugs, candles for emergency power outages; cork boards, tacks for cork boards, African animals made of papier-mâché, bronze baby shoes from someone else’s baby; refrigerator magnets; ceramic pitchers, clear plastic pitchers suitable for a picnic, (Look!—now that wine barrel is an ice bucket!), and matching cups, picnic baskets too, wall cabinets, throw rugs, and throw pillows, bed pillows, and pillow cases, knitted throws, sheepskin throws, throws made of bamboo, outer cushions, inner cushions, cushion covers, wicker chairs; beer mugs, champagne glasses—let’s not even get started on the different kinds of glasses—clocks that could have come from an office, a train station, the London Tower, Mars…..
Though the store has been designed so we must walk past every item in it, we are not allowed to see the table we are actually buying, we learn, when we arrive at the ground floor: a warehouse, with a concrete floor and a metal ceiling two stories above us, floor-to-ceiling shelving filled with boxes. Its architecture, and the sight of others looking from tag to aisle markers makes us understand that we are to locate the aisle and bin number on the tag we obtained upstairs, and there we will be invited to help ourselves to a box that contains the table we wish to purchase. Aisle 97, 98, 99, 100…. There are so many aisles they seem to extend to the horizon. …111, 112, 113… They seem to bow with the curvature of the earth. …128, 129, 130…. Finally we locate the aisle, then the bin, but it seems a mistake: how could the table we wish to buy fit into a box so small? But yes, the numbers, and the picture on the box match. So we take the top one from the dozens stacked up there, and head back to the opposite end of the warehouse where signs say the cash registers are located.
There is a sea of other shoppers here, all funneled from different parts of the warehouse, each pushing a cart with brown boxes like ours only in varying sizes. At the far end we can see a cashier ringing up people in line. She is the first employee we have seen. There must have been others, but she is the first we have seen. Before us, where the lines are shorter, are self-service checkout stations: we find the barcode on our box, pass it under the web of laser beams; the price appears, and a robotic voice says to select payment method. Please insert Charge Card. When I pull the card out, the magnetic stripe on the card, a series of 1,300 magnetic dots, actually, passes through a detector so that each dot generates a series of on or off voltages, like flipping a switch or telegraph key on and off thousands of times a second, a string of 01010101001001001001s, computer code—a kind of Morse Code—for my card number, my name, our agreement’s expiration date, along with the store’s identification numbers, purchase amount, my information, our information, racing through wires outside the store at 2,400 blips per second to a computer that connects me with 20,000 banks, 14 million other stores, and 600 million other shoppers reserving rooms, renting skis, buying tables, lamps, and chairs around the world—as well as movie tickets, Slurpies, hotel reservations, shoes, fashion’s hot new yellows, clocks in the shape of a Sphinx, pogo sticks, and god knows what else—to see if my card is where I am, and being used in a pattern that indicates I am who I say I am (in the past, I have stumbled into patterns—e.g. cash advance, liquor store, gas-station purchase—that indicate to the system a theft of my card, triggering its denial); it checks to see if I am using it in patterns that indicate I will in the future be able to pay the price of my purchase as I have been in the past (e.g. continue to use it as I have in the past to buy things like groceries or that cool jacket I found at Goodwill, without any sudden aberration or blip in the pattern, e.g. Tiffany’s), the entire system humming at the speed of light, generating other 1s & 0s that will be warehoused (they tell me) in other data bases, that will make it possible to make ever more precise portraits of exactly who I am (fine-grain portraits they call them), and how I live (to better serve me, they say), before returning its verdict: Approved. I have the machine’s approval, for my behavior has matched my pattern: Groceries … Goodwill … Ikea; and not Groceries … Goodwill …Tiffany’s. I am my pattern and my pattern is me so I am awarded the machine’s approval. I make my mark with one of those pens that writes on an Etch-A-Sketch-like screen. I always make my mark—the name my mother taught me to write with a personal flair, a mini work of art, really (I am very proud of my signature)—indeed, one could say I make a point to make this beautiful, artful signature crude and illegible on those cash-register signature pads. It has never seemed to matter. What seems to matter is that someone is there to make a pattern on the computer’s pad, the pattern I make with the stylus one with the pattern the machine reads on its screen, we two, for a moment, one, the way the fingertips of God and Adam touch, the machine’s pattern giving my pattern the spark of life—Approved—but also my pattern contributing to those that make up the machine the way tiny thumbnail-sized portraits can come together to form a much larger portrait, the bald heads or black pompadours of the sitters in the tiny portraits allowing each of them to appear from a distance as a pixel with a certain shading in the much larger portrait, the particular way one of the sitters in the thumbnail-sized portraits might have combed her hair, or the nerdy style of eyeglasses another sitter might have on his face, or the big ears or small nose of others only relevant to the larger portrait in the way they contribute to the pattern, just as any one vote, snowflake, or grain of sand is meaningless but in the aggregate can elect Nazis, shut down airports, turn gardens into deserts, the behavior of many individuals acting in certain ways, each for their own peculiar reasons, giving rise to larger patterns, mass migration in Europe, ethnic neighborhoods in America, fashion trends, riots, these larger patterns combining to form even larger patterns, climate, café society, rock ‘n roll, the rise of China, the fall of Rome, the computers we use having more and more influence in the patterns we form, they say, the patterns that we are, even, computers suggesting which books we might like to read, which movies we’d want to see, or which men or women we might like to share our lives with…. How else could the machine know the sequence of purchases your typical charge card thief—or lover or reader or you—will make?
Moments later we are back out in the night, Scandinavian-designed, Chinese-manufactured, Greek-Irish-Eritrean-delivered table-kit in a box designed to fit into the backseat of one of those standard compact cars sold around the world, that is, our car, driving to the final station on the assembly line—our home—where the final workers—us—will assemble it with the wrench thoughtfully supplied in the box. As we pass BAYOU BARBEQUE we wonder if the diners inside had come to BAYOU BARBEQUE by way of the highway system we used to come to IKEA, if they have driven out here for the food or because this is where the highway led, funneling cars like ours, from homes like ours, in towns like ours, scattered about states like ours, into the BAYOU BARBEQUE parking lot, as others had poured into the IKEA lot, maybe some of the diners having met online, as we had, funneled toward each other without even knowing it, going on a first date, as we had, which had seemed to be at the time so much our own idea but in retrospect somehow seems to be the outcome of some algorithm —even Predestination, as Calvinists might call it—before moving in together as we had, and finding ourselves in need of a kitchen table, as we had, an online search suggesting the table that was now in the back of our car just as a different online search had suggested the other to each of us, those diners in BAYOU BARBEQUE who might be on their first date unaware, as we had been, that they are on a different part of the same journey, using forks and knifes that had arrived by routes similar to the one our table had taken, and eating off of plates that were washed by immigrants unseen, back in the kitchen, delivered to their sinks by other unseen patterns, likewise the lettuce, like the waitresses who bring the hamburgers to the tables via routes of their own, the lettuce and onions and waitresses arriving like the ketchup, that is, just in time, to the hamburger arriving to its bun from animals that remain unseen though we have driven by many fields to get here, the meat arriving by plane and train and truck from industrial feedlots and holding pens and slaughterhouses in other parts of America, and Argentina, and Australia, a single patty composed of beef from 14 countries, as they point out whenever there is an e-coli outbreak and they are unable to explain the source of the animal, let alone its bacteria, which makes us wonder what we are, if as they say, you are what you eat, eating animals we never see, spending money we never touch, traveling paths mostly in the dark, the beef and plates and ketchup and people and so many other variables coming together from so many different paths that it’s difficult to say how we got here from there, or where here is, for that matter, or where there is, for that matter (the two being relative, so to speak), driving by cars going in the opposite direction from which we’ve just come, our phones, which had supplied the directions, reversing them at the push of a button, as well as offering alternate routes: three alternate routes, the possibilities being multiple if not infinite. And as we had done when deciding which route to take to come out here, we chose the route that is quickest: the route that my phone has predicted we would think is choice #1.