My IKEA Prison Experience

The relationship I have with IKEA is weirdly ambivalent. Of course, I deeply admire their business model and success. The retailer’s clear, contemporary and self-deprecating advertising appeals. Even the faux Scandinavian-named products weirdly please me. However, I cannot stomach walking through their aircraft carrier-sized stores whose layouts were designed by the most sadistic and manipulative consumer behavioral scientists.

On those few occasions when I would put myself through the labyrinth I would curse my decision about twenty feet past the front door. No matter who you are at best only ten percent of what is on display is remotely relevant to your immediate needs. Yet, if you are like me, you leave with one of those oversized contractor flat carts not the wimpy-suburban-mommy shopping cart.

On that flat cart I was known to pile a Klampen mirror, a collection of Rundlig serving bowls, two styles of giant family sized laundry baskets, numerous packs of Bastig knobs for kitchen cupboards, a Galant file cabinet, a collection of seventeen scissors with different colored handles, a storage box for other storage boxes, and a twelve-seat dining room set. It may sound super convenient because I found everything I needed but on that occasion I had actually gone to IKEA to buy one bathmat that I forgot to purchase.

So it was with a strange mix of residual reluctance and morbid curiosity that I agreed to have breakfast in an IKEA store’s restaurant. This was not a super planned outing. My wife and I had twenty minutes to kill before an adjacent appliance store opened. She had noticed people streaming into IKEA. The retailer’s restaurant opens up thirty minutes before the store perhaps to fuel patrons for the miles of walking ahead of them.

We joined other IKEA fine diners making their way up two escalators. I grew concerned because of the attrition. Many of these folks were drifting towards towering displays of cheese grinders and oversized tea light candleholders. I wondered if I would ever see them again. Soon we were in the restaurant. It’s design featured furniture and fixtures that made sense for IKEA but when assessed in the aggregate could only be defined as institutional. At first it reminded me of an army mess hall but that wasn’t accurate. It resembled more a high school or hospital cafeteria. Yet that too was off. I finally equated the environment with a prison. Please note that I have done no hard time so my assessment is drawn from extensive research that includes The Shawshank Redemption, Brubaker, Cool Hand Luke and Orange is the New Black.

Right at the outset I lost my wife in a sea of people who really seemed to know the process. It was as though I had just got off the prison bus at mealtime. I entered these tight stainless steel rails and fencing that directed us like mindless cattle. Things were happening extremely fast and the situation did not invite any protest from a neophyte like me. I clutched a tray and held it to my chest for protection.

It was at that moment that I felt an odd piercing pain in my left lower back. The agony weakened my knees and I barely suppressed a yell for help. My first thought was, “I just got shivved in IKEA.” Turning around and expecting to see a grinning giant convict with a sharpened Philips screwdriver instead I spotted a short, older Asian woman in thick black glasses. The screwdriver turned out to be a corner of her tray and she continued to threaten me with it. I motioned for her to pass and was incredibly relieved when she did.

The line moved at a pace that authoritarian regimes would have admired. Before I knew it I was standing in judgment before a woman serving the hot breakfasts. Looking back I saw I had missed the coffee cups and other food choices. The harried serving woman thrust a plate at me saying, “Here!” It was prison. There was no choice. My rights had been dramatically reduced. I took it and was surprisingly happy to have received anything at all. 

I was spit out the other end of the line to find my wife smiling with a tray that supported a coffee cup, fruit plate and muffin. We joined the cashier line and I began searching for cigarettes thinking that would be the accepted form of payment. I must have froze because then I felt excruciating pain in the back of both of my calves. A large man wearing an orange one-piece overall with reflector bands had almost driven his cafeteria cart through my legs. This IKEA invention allows patrons to load up three trays to avoid spilling while encouraging massive consumption.

“Orange Coverall Guy” was closely trailed by three large clones of himself. Closer inspection revealed them to be city workers who had twelve breakfasts between the four of them. My wife spotted my disorientation and paid for our meals. I did register that it rang up to less than five dollars and wandered off zombie-like to a free table (I was not about to make any more mistakes on my first day by sitting in a gang member’s seat). I avoided trouble by not making eye contact with anyone. A guy brushed my table and I put a protective arm over my tray expecting him to steal my food.

As my wife got her coffee, I had a chance to see my breakfast for the first time. It was scrambled eggs, two sausages and potatoes that had been shaped into eleven dice-sized squares. It had cost one dollar. I began to eat. The sausages were indescribably bad, the potatoes came up snake eyes, and the powdered eggs swam in slippery water that made them inedible. I ate it all not knowing when my next meal would come.

I motioned to my wife to quietly and discreetly return our trays. Once done and seeing no guards barring our way. I briskly led my wife out of the store taking an inconveniently convenient route to avoid the store itself. The automatic doors slid open, sun hit my face and I gave thanks for my freedom.