There are only a handful of places I hate more than IKEA: the gypsy slums of Rome, my gangbanger friend’s couch in Compton, Las Cruces in New Mexico, South Carolina’s lovely North Augusta, and the 34th Street QuickStop DMV. That last one may actually be a tie with IKEA (and more on it in a later story).

Recently I came into some extra cash. I won’t tell you how, but it was exciting and nefarious. Having also moved into a new apartment without any furnishings it was clear to me that I must make a trip to the holy grail of middle class whitey: IKEA.

I don’t hold any guilt for that because I’m Jewish and middle management. So while I should be running the world and rich, I’m pulling in less than many waiters every year and inputting purchase orders every couple of days. Really I’m an underachiever, no matter how big my equipment is.
My first frustration with IKEA was that directions to their store were rather vague. Basically “Go to Brooklyn, we’re there.” Being a Queens boy I took the F to York street and expected to be in IKEA. Then I walked down to the Water Taxi, which I had been assured was a location from which I could take a ferry to IKEA. Turns out that all that stuff about a ferry from Brooklyn to their location was a lie. I did get to see some Asians taking wedding photos in mini-skirts and short sleeves in 25 degree weather, so I wouldn’t call it a total loss.

I did remember that there was a free shuttle from Court Square to the store, so I headed up that way. Now, again, IKEA’s instructions were basically “Go to Court Square and you’ll magically arrive at our store. Because IKEA is magic.”

What I did find, after about a half hour and several text-messages to friends from the area, was a bus stop that was two inches wide and camouflaged to look like Brooklyn. I actually only noticed it because I was sending a text message to someone and walked into the bus stop pole to which the IKEA sign was affixed with scotch tape. Very classy.

When the bus finally arrived, it was this hulking teal thing. Think the Incredible Hulk, but gay. And a bus. And driven by a guy who REALLY didn’t give a shit. Which is fine. I’ve worked several shitty jobs in the past, but I made sure to clean the spittle from my chin after the boredom got to me. Have some self-respect.

The one high point of the trip was that everyone getting on the bus was incredibly polite. It was all “No, you can go first” and “Would you like this seat?” I even ended up with a woman named Jillian in my lap, things were so friendly. She was from Norway and liked many of the bands on the label for which I work. Normally I hate Norwegians, but she smelled good and was sitting in my lap.
Speaking of Scandinavia, IKEA is supposed to work on some model of Swedish efficiency in America. This was the first thing I noticed about it. You walk in and there is only one escalator going up. There is one person at the bottom of this escalator whose job it is to scream at the top of her lungs that there are bathrooms on the first floor (our second floor, silly Yooropeens), and the second floor (our third floor) has many of the things you need to furnish your home. There is also a woman with a bowl of candy. She has no teeth.

Black arrows guide your path throughout the store. Not that anyone pays attention to these. And most of the price tags in the store include an aisle and bin number you can write down. Not for when you check out and it just gets sent to your house, but so you can check out, get a print out, then go down to the Self-Serve furniture area and put your heavy items on a cart. THEN you can check out. And then you can go pick up the extra parts of your furniture. Oh, and THEN you can take your 500 pound cart (no exaggeration, my receipt says 473 pounds) to the home delivery section. Which is 300 yards from the checkout counter.

The obvious problem with this Swedish efficiency is, of course, that there are no actual Swedes involved. I didn’t even detect a hint of Dutch or German accent in other shoppers, so clearly there is no one in attendance who could offer anything close to Swedish efficiency.

Instead people go the wrong way, no one travels in a straight line, everyone is from a different ethnic group or socio-economic class, and maybe two people in the entire store listen to Metal. At least the signs were bilingual in Spanish. There were several Jews, which is promising, but mostly I wondered how squirrely nebbishes who looked like that could land women who looked like THAT.

My friend Johnny described it as walking into a UFO. If so, it’s an alien spacecraft populated entirely by the denizens of Steinway Street in Astoria and the Russian section of the boardwalk at Coney Island. He mentioned how it’s podlike, with all of these sections set up to look like what your house could look like with these goods in it. That would be true except for the absurd panoply of human waste occupying each pod.

These were truly alien. There was the mother changing her baby on the quite sexy red couch, which was selling me on the bending a woman over it possibilities until the moment I noticed mother, shit-cheeked baby, and diaper changing. None of which was taking place in a bathroom.
I also saw a room with elegant wood paneling, underlit shelving, and fifteen Russian girls in their early 20s with pot-bellies who completely negated my other article on how hot Russian women ten to be (for a short period of time). I’ve never seen so many moles, many cancerous.

Another example was the sexy bachelor pad setup, with a combination chaise lounge/sofa, entertainment centre, and hot hot heat media shelves…with the seven year old girl attempting to be sexy on the bedding. I think my sex drive is still suffering.

Even the purchasing system was Byzantine. You grab a pencil and this tiny form they give you. Then you see a thing you want, write down what it is and the price. And most of the time you write down an aisle number and bin number after this. Unless, of course, none is provided. In which case you have to go ask the “Co-Worker” at a register (if you can find one) about it.

The “Co-Workers” are “Over-Worked” and barely paying attention. So if they miss a couple of items out of your list…oops. Which brings me to this self-service furniture pick up. After you visit a Co-Worker, you’re supposed to go downstairs and grab your own stuff. Only then do you get to a cashier. So I head on downstairs to get my stuff. I’m a young man, strong like bull as a cute Russian girl told me while I struggled with an entire couch. But, as the couch just spoken about attests, there’s only so much I can do when the couch is ten feet long and I’m not.

So it’s entirely unhelpful when the IKEA spokesgrunt with the backbrace looks me over and says it’s lighter than it looks. Then he looks over my friend Jillian who’s only a shade over five feet tall and 95 pounds (most of which must be her breasts) and says she could’ve helped me. Yes, she could’ve, if I was trying to use her to seduce my way out of a concentration camp in World War II. The irony of this will play out in a couple of paragraphs.

I have had a pair of shopping experiences that were worse. In 1986 my Mom accidentally left me in the changing room of a Mervyn’s department store where I was briefly accosted by security who mistook me for a very small woman attempting to steal a rather large brassiere and some ruby red pumps.

There was also the time I stopped in the aforementioned Las Cruces, New Mexico to fill up on gas at a Sonoco gas station while moving my mother’s home from near Austin to near San Francisco. Of course any visit to Sonoco gas stations ends in a half hour bound and gagged in the storeroom after an armed robbery. Really, all I wanted was some gas, a couple of sour fruity straws, and a pack of Camel Wides to last me until Bakersfield.

After all of this, my night would not have been complete without being called a Nazi. To my surprise, I was called such just as I boarded the complimentary bus back to Borough Hall. While I contemplate my status in Hitler’s genocidal machine, I can at least rest tight in the fact that my living room will soon be furnished…if they get my address right.

Computers vs. Humans

Frustrated Computer User
Many users of computers, perhaps even you, the reader, have been frustrated by what is seen as a malfunctioning program or operating system. Frustrating error messages, unexpected stops, strange loops, spinning beach balls and blue screens of death make our blood pressure rise, and in extreme cases, can lead to increased slide rule and type writer sales. But, the frustrations don’t arise from malfunctioning computers. Instead the computer is actually functioning just fine. It’s just programmed at its very core to be incredibly annoying.

Everything in a computer is controlled by basic binary. Either there is electricity flowing through a circuit or there isn’t. One or off, nothing in between. So, when you give your computer a command it follows its programming and sometimes an error occurs because for the binary brain something either can be done or it can’t. There’s absolutely no grey area for these machines. There’s no process to sort of open Minesweeper or almost save a file. No, either an operation can be performed or it can’t. It’s annoying to us users when something can’t be done, because we’re human and our thinking isn’t done in binary. We have ideas like ‘sort of’ and concepts like ‘almost.’

Our brains aren’t built for tasks. They’re built for survival. Animals that are the best at improvisation tend to live longer and leave more offspring than those which live according to hard-and-fast rules. When confronted with a problem, our brains naturally attempt to solve it by any available method. Indeed, in our natural lives the only binary is that you’re either alive or dead. Nothing else is that black and white, especially not our problem solving skills. Over the millennia, the harsh reality of existence has forced us to adapt, creating the idea of the desperate, improvisational fix.

Thus, when a system, a structure or a plan starts to fail, humans tend to interrupt the failing trajectory and improvise something, anything new. And if the unplanned jury-rig isn’t as good as the original planned idea, we learn to live with it, with something that sort of works, barely works or almost works. We’ll even take pride in an ingenious solution to a problem that allows a system to barely work. We’re even happy if something is the worse possible solution, except for all the others that we’ve tried.

We’ve all had our MacGuyver moments, where radical improvisation prevented a total failure. Mine involved my old beat up VW micro-bus, a veritable fountain of improvisational repair opportunities. One day, as I was driving, the clutch cable broke, snapped in half. The clutch pedal couldn’t communicate the user’s instructions to the engine. That car was, in the common parlance, broken down. As a human, I surveyed my surrounding and found a metal guitar string which I used as a jury-rigged clutch cable, enabling the car to function again. A human can think that way. No, a guitar string is not a clutch cable, but did the car run? Let’s say it barely ran, it barely functioned and I barely got the car to a garage where a proper fix could be done. Luckily, for a human in the real world, barely is good enough.

Computers don’t understand that concept because we don’t program them to understand that. In the same scenario the computer would probably alert the user that the instructions weren’t reaching the engine. If you were lucky. It might also just give you a message that the car was not operable. And it would do the same for a software or hardware problem.

Any deviation from the standard commands and the computer will simply not be able to complete an operation. It can’t just about run Photoshop if it can’t locate the exe file. No, something either can be done or is impossible. There’s the source of our frustration; two different methods of thought, one rigid, one flexible.

In truth, an error message, or a freeze up or even a death screen actually mean the computer is operating perfectly. After all, it’s been programmed to display that error message when it encounters something that deviates from the standard process. That’s its job. It does precisely what we’ve programmed it to do. Just sometimes we don’t like what the programs tell it to do. So next time you see an error message, don’t get angry with the computer, no get angry with the people who built and programmed it. Take your frustrations out on them, with a baseball bat if necessary. Then they’ll learn to start making better machines.