Dante's IKEA

In April of 1981, I was rolling through the aisles of a fascinating store in Freiburg im Breisgau, in (West) Germany.  I’d moved to Germany on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, and after some months in a residential hotel I was moving into my own 12 square meter (129 square feet) apartment.  I needed to furnish it, and my German friends had pointed me to this new store on the edge of town, a Swedish firm called IKEA.


I loved the stuff, and still do: the simple clean Scandinavian look has always appealed to me.  It had other advantages: it was cheap, it could be broken down and packed if I decided to take anything back to the States with me, and it was cheap.

When I eventually came back to the US and moved to North Carolina, there was an IKEA store built between Richmond and Washington DC, a feasible drive in itself and also something I drove past fairly regularly, as my grad school was largely funded by DARPA and similar agencies.  I’d almost always at least stop in and buy some elegant unnecessary plastic objects, kitchen stuff, a lamp, and eat in the cafeteria which specialized in things like Swedish meatballs and smoked reindeer brisket.

So, IKEA finally decided to build a store here in the Denver area, in Centennial.  (James Michener fans: the town of Centennial, Colorado, is named after the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado, from Michener’s novel about Colorado history, Centennial. The  fictional Centennial was roughly 50 miles north and roughly corresponds to the town of Greeley.  Don’t say you haven’t learned anything today.)  I was anxious to look it over, plus I’ve just moved into a house and need more furniture. Specifically, I wanted a really simple, round glass-topped dining table, and I was willing to bet IKEA would have it.

My mother decided she wanted to see it. (Insert sinister foreshadowing music here.)  She’s 76, has great trouble walking due to hip troubles, has breathing troubles, is nearly blind, and has a continuing assortment of leg injuries from walking into things and/or falling.


This makes the IKEA trip into an Adventure.  I checked, and IKEA does provide wheelchairs; I informed my mother we were getting a wheelchair. I get her in my car, we drive to IKEA about a half hour away, arriving at around 11AM.

Now the adventure begins: the store has so much traffic that there are temp workers in orange tabards, directing traffic with orange plastic wands into the parking lots.

Outlying parking lots.

The temp workers don’t know how to get to the Handicapped spaces, but they all either think they do or they don’t want to cope with the increasingly annoyed middle aged man driving: they direct me hither and yon and say “Oh I’ll radio ahead,” although to whom was unclear.  We finally find a parking place close enough that Mom says she can walk that far. Park, get her out of the car.  Start walking.

Surprise: the big sign that says ENTRANCE is just directions.  The actual ENTRANCE is probably 200 years further through the parking garage — which is half-empty, there apparently being a special privilege sticker for garage parking that I don’t have. Um, 200 yards further, Freudian slip  After several rest stops, we finally got into the ENTRANCE — which was actually the elevator lobby below the actual ENTRANCE.

There was a quotation above the elevator: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”  It’s now about 11:30.

Up the elevator, and having now walked further than she probably has in years, Mom was ready for the wheelchair.

She sat on a hassock ($49.95 in black, beige or white) and I tried to figure out where to get a wheelchair.  There were a large collection of them chained to a rail. No instructions. Finally a harried-looking IKEA employee tells me the secret: I go to the OUT side of the check-in station for the Children’s Hostage Play Area, sign my name and give them my driver’s license and they give me a wheelchair. Mom now happily sitting down, we head for the show room, which is up another floor.  Find another elevator — the one from Parking isn’t the one to the Showroom. Up the elevator and, since we’re at the entrance to the cafeteria and, having spent almost an hour simply getting from car to Showroom floor, we decide it’s no time for lunch.  We join the line, go around a switch back, and …


… we discover this isn’t the line to the Cafeteria.  It’s instead the line for the line; they’ll let us get into the cafeteria line when the cafeteria line clears out.

The cafeteria itself is working pretty smoothly: we’re only in line about 20 minutes.  They have two parallel serving lines, and the food is actually attractive and turns out to be good. We get Swedish apple cake (we’d call it a pie, but it’s a shortbread crust instead of flaky rolled crust), a seafood salad with tiny shrimp, four boiled crayfish, smoked salmon, cheese, and Swedish crispbread, Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes, and drinks, including a Swedish elderflower drink which turns out to taste like chewing clover with sugar.  They have a special cart arrangement for moving multiple trays that is very handy. Total cost: $12.77.

They have a special deal: kids eat free until Labor day.  I point to Mom and note I’m her kid.  No luck. I ask the cashier if it’s been like this since it opened.  She looks at me with haunted eyes. “Every day.  Every minute.  It’s exhausting.”

Eat, bus the table, and we finally find the actual ENTRANCE to the actual Showroom. (It’s about 12:30 now; we left home at just after 10.)  The Showroom floor is immense, maybe 4 acres total, but it’s arranged around a long meandering aisle that on later consideration I suspect must be nearly a mile long.

It’s as crowded as the line to an E ride on half-price weekend, and moves about as fast. The whole store.  It’s like going to Disneyland and finding out that the line is the ride.


Still, it is interesting: the furniture is nice, the displays are pretty, and they have some interesting special set-ups, IKEA-furnished apartments on European scales: about 500 square feet, about 300, and about 210, each of them looking like someplace one could actually live, although the smallest one did make me think you’d need to think twice about bringing home an extra can of peas.

None of the bathroom displays had doors, which was probably good; I’d have been tempted to test them.  It’d been a long time since I got in the store.

We finally thought we were about at the end, and there it was: the Salmi table: pretty much exactly what I’d wanted, and only $99.  I’d also looked at the European style beds; I would have been ready to spend about $1000 right then, except, well, how?

The IKEA system is that you write down what you want, and then wrestle it onto a cart yourself; pretty obviously, I was going to need to get the stuff later.  We’re rolling for the exits.

And rolling.  You have another quarter mile of kitchen and decoration stuff still to go.  Saw some nice things, including some really inexpensive kitchen things — a 10 inch nonstick saute pan for $2.99, a tall and heavy glass vase for $9.95, nice looking floor/reading lamps for $14.99 — but the best of all was finding the damned restroom.

This is followed by the descent into the Pit.  You can’t leave from the showroom directly.  There’s another elevator to the next floor down, which has the warehouse, through which you’re led by another somewhat circuitous route — much more direct than the Showroom, thank the Gods — and then out to the checkout lines, through a final gantlet of small, impulse-able pieces of (wonderfully designed and very pretty) unnecessary plastic, glass, and wooden objects.  At this point, the process has changed: now it’s more like the Jews following Moses.  We just want out.


I find the Handicapped parking.  We turn in the wheelchair — can’t take it outside — and I have my mother wait by the Handicapped parking so I can come pick her up.  I find my car, finally — I’d gotten turned around and first looked on the south side of the building instead of the west side — and I’m feeling a little encouraged.

Except the parking lot I’m in was apparently closed after I’d parked there.  There are no exits.   L’enfer, c’est les parking lot.

The first temp guard has no idea, but won’t open the gate; he’s got no instructions for letting people out. He sends me to the other end of the parking lot, and the guy there sends me to the exit, which it turns out is trying to route me onto the freeway.  I stopped there, blocking traffic until the guard there comes over.  Okay, he sends me through the parking garage that we couldn’t use because we didn’t have the special ticket..  After three or four more loops climbing to the top of the parking garage, I come to the exit.  Again, they’re sending me away from the store.

At this point, I can see how to get to the Handicapped parking, I think.  The guard there keeps directing me out with imperious waves of his little orange wand.  I shake my head.  He waves. I shake my head.  He comes over and says “you have to turn left,” and I say “I’m going to pick up my mother at the Handicapped parking, I’m not leaving yet.”

He apparently realizes there is blood in my eye, and actually moves the little orange cone.  I proceed, and turn a corner: I can actually see the Handicapped parking. Along with another guy with an orange vest and wand.  He stops me.


“You can’t go in there.”

I look him in the eye and say, “You’re mistaken.  I’m going to pick up my mother at the Handicapped parking, and this is the entrance.  Unless you throw your body in front of the car, I’m going in there.”

He talks on his walkie talkie, tells them the issue.  I can’t hear the reply (earphone) but he says: “Oh. You can go ahead.”

I get to the Handicapped.  My mother’s there, along with an ambulance.  I’m convinced it’s for my mother, but actually it’s someone else overcome by the IKEA experience.  I get her in the car, and head for the exit, on the side away from the ambulance.

A last Man in Orange stops me.  “You can’t go that way, you have to go back.”  Past the ambulance, and the fire engine that apparently followed it in.

Except, of course, I can’t go past the ambulance either.  More discussion follows, and a fireman finally waves us past.  We go back down the parking garage, find the exit, find the exit to which that exit was leading us, find the actual IKEA parking lot exit, and flee onto the freeway.


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