On the Perils of "Beating the System"

So, after much deliberation and meditation on the perils of signing another phone contract (what if I want to move in a few years? What if I want a different phone next year? What if I decide to give up on civilization and go live in the wilderness?) I decided to find a different phone on the cheap.

It didn't take long. There are plenty of people out there who would be happy to give you their old phones. (Plenty of people would also like to transfer their old phone contracts, too...) Just look on craigslist, kakijililiri, and Cell Plan Depot.

I found a woman with a phone very similar to mine, a Samsung A550. (Sadly, it's not an updated model, as I hoped, it's actually an older model with a monochrome "black and blue" screen. Oh well. It's a phone; why would I need a colour screen on a phone??? For that matter: what ever happened to buttons? Why are these electronics companies inventing "tactile feedback" functions for touchscreens, when buttons have been providing tactile feedback since... well, since whenever the button was invented???) I agreed to meet the woman after work, at 3PM, in the Ikea foodcourt on the South side. (She's from Beaumont, and any excuse for $1 frozen yogurt is a good excuse.)

Work ended earlier than expected; much earlier, actually. I had four hours to kill. I stopped at the Big Mall for a while, but I wasn't really looking for anything in particular. I just bought a bunch of books last week, so I managed to restrain myself from buying anything at Chapters, and all of the electronics and photography stores simply reminded me that I need to get all my MA work finished so I can get to work on that darkroom project I've been putting off...

So, off to South Edmonton Common. I went to Fatburger to get onion rings and a milkshake, but the lunch crowd had just arrived and it looked like a half-hour wait. No thanks, said I. Ikea has less expensive food anyway.

Ikea's food court must be experienced before one can even begin to understand it. The Swedes, they do things differently. Small portions, offerings that are exotic in their Scandinavian simplicity, all backed by a houseware store that shares the same philosophy. Frozen yogurt for a dollar—who can say no? Sparkling ligonberry drinks—why not? Swedish meatballs—well, you might as well go for what's authentic...

I know people who make trips to Ikea just to eat at the restaurant. (Granted, they're thirty-something, mostly single, and mostly women, but they're people all the same.) It has an odd appeal: there's a kitsch about it all, undoubtedly, but it's a Western-European kitsch that most of us don't see on a daily basis, so it's cool instead of lame.

The real danger of the Ikea restaurant, however, is that you can't just sit there and read your book while you finish your ligonberry dessert and inhale the savory Swedish smells. No, you're constantly aware that somewhere, in that vast 40-acre warehouse, there's a piece of furniture that's calling to you.

It started off as an innocuous whim: I had lots of spare time, and I was thinking about re-arranging my furniture again anyway. Maybe one of the "model open-concept living space" layouts would inspire me. So I went, and I saw the living spaces, and I was inspired. An ottoman here, a desk there, and a moderately-priced bookcase with a ladder. (who doesn't want a bookcase with a ladder?) None of these things were priced in such a way that I was tempted to buy them, of course; I already have more than enough furniture in the cabin. If I was to add furniture, it would have to take up less room than something it might replace.

And then I saw it: the "Stark" hall organizer. I don't know why it's called "Stark," but it was beautiful in all of its starkness. I don't even have a hall to organize, but I knew that it was exactly what I needed: a place to put shoes, freeing up shelf space; a place to hang coats, freeing up space on my overloaded portable clothing rack (I have no closet in my "open concept" log cabin); and a reasonably large mirror to boot. It didn't exactly replace anything... and I wasn't 100% sure that it would fit beside my door without getting in the way of the junction box... but it was so perfectly utilitarian, so delicately minimalist, so deliciously moderate in price.

So I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the shelf number down, just in case. I hadn't made the commitment to purchase yet; I merely held the option as a possible course of action.

Happily, three o'clock came before I had a chance to follow the compass toward my heart's desire. I hurried my way through the remainder of the showfloor and found the lower food court again; soon realizing that the description she'd given of herself was, at best, of no help whatsoever. "Three kids and a baby" she had said, and I didn't give it a second thought. Looking for a woman with an infant and three kids at, say, the University library, would be a simple matter. Even at a movie theater, a woman with a stroller waiting for someone is fairly obvious. At Ikea, however, "three kids and a stroller" is about as helpful as "two arms and two legs." If you're in Ikea and you're not a late-twentysomething female (or a young man attached to a late-twentysomething female) there's a good chance you've got a stroller and kids. Occasionally there are single women at Ikea, but they're usually in packs.

Luckily, I'd given a description of myself: quite straightforward, as my tech job requires a black slacks/dark blue polo uniform. Basically, I look like a store employee whenever I go somewhere after work. (In fact, I'd been approached by no less than five customers at various retail outlets throughout the day; I helped one guy at Best Buy pick out a camera.) My contact managed to find me without too much trouble—though I get the feeling it was my aimless circling of the food court that caught her attention as much as anything.

The negotiations were simple: does the phone work? Does the battery hold a charge? Here's your $25, here's your phone/accessories.

Off to a Telus store to get my handset changed... but not before checking the "as-is" section of Ikea.
The "as-is" section is basically the spot where you can buy Ikea couches that have been jumped upon by children on the showfloor and window blinds that have been partially assembled and then returned without mounting hardware. Like the classified ads, or a thift store, but all the furniture is Swedish.
I had almost escaped without buying anything... when I saw my "Stark" beauty, alone in a corner. She called to me, and then she looked at me with that sweet maple-veneer expression of abandoned helplessness. How could I refuse? How could I not not refuse at 25% off, and without a scratch or dent to be found?

I realized as I wheeled my pride and joy to the car that an 84-by—24 inch box, however slim and deliciously minimal in design, is not the easiest thing to load into a compact sedan. In fact, it was nearly impossible until, after an epic 20-minute struggle, I collapsed all of the seats and wedged it between the dashboard and the front windshield.

Driving home with my shoulder pressed against a cardboard box and a new-to-me mobile phone in my pocket, I began to realize (with that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach) that I hadn't really beaten anyone. Sure, I had escaped another Telus mobility contract, but I'm still paying a lot for the service. Certainly, I had saved money by buying a second-hand phone, but I spend more at Ikea on ligonberry sweets and minimalist hall organizers than I would have on a brand-new handset (with MP3 player and camera and a thousand other features I didn't want or need.)

And so, I've come to a conclusion: the system will always get you. No matter how hard you try, no matter how sneaky you are, no matter how many waived fees and open-box discounts you get, in the end you're still paying. In the end, you're still a man of the world, a dweller of the city, a prisoner of your circumstances.

And without grace, we'd be lost... but somehow, for some reason, we manage to get by, and we see good things happen. I see my brothers and sisters growing older and wiser; I see my friends doing good things with their lives, and I see my grandparents reflecting on lives full of hope and faith and love.

Grace be with you all,
as you do your best to stick it to the man.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ha ha - very good story, and it makes me want to go to ikea to discover the food. I've heard of them having food . . . . but never really gone to eat. Hmm, I think I"m missing something.