The Triumph of Capitalism, part 1

posted 01 February 2007

Whoever says "money doesn't solve anything" has not spent any time in the United States of America. But I'm getting ahead of myself: let me tell you about my first weekend in my new Californian home.

One thing we need to get out of the way is all the feedback I'm getting from my Brit friends about my "abandoning" British culture and identity. "You're not an American, you're English!" So let's be clear: I was English, and happy to be one. And now I am an American. And before I was either of those things I was a Trinidadian. All of these cultures have their pros and cons, and as both Brits and Trinidadians will attest, I'm not shy about pointing out the various flaws of either. One of the primary reasons I made friends and fitted in to a social circle when I was in the UK was a willingness to adopt mannerisms and customs and concerns and a culture that was not my own. Remaining resolutely separate, an ex-pat mentality, just leads to a sense of isolation. Adopting the better aspects of American culture now that I'm here does not constitute an abandonment of the previous culture any more than my putting on a new t-shirt is an abandonment of all my other clothes. If I have learned one thing from my days at University it is that identities should be worn lightly.

So: the weekend. Friday was Ernie's leaving do at The Mint*. As my first night out in SF, well, karaoke leaves something to be desired, but it was a good crowd and our project manager belted out a fairly awesome version of Mack the Knife, which was frankly the highlight of the evening. Ernie's off to Vancouver, which as he says will be a learning experience, even if the only thing he learns is not to go work for a startup in Canada.

Saturday I wake up fighting off a cold, but it's moving day, so I take two Beecham's** and call my new landlady to arrange picking up the keys. It's 10am, and at this point, the flat is totally unfurnished: no bed, no chairs, no tables, no nothing. This just seems to be how Americans do their apartments. But I'm sick of my hotel, and I have a powerful desire to move in today. So what's a boy to do? I have to bite the bullet, and prostrate myself at the home of semi-disposable Swedish furniture, IKEA. But it's across the bay bridge in Emeryville, and I don't have any way of getting out there, far less carrying back a bed and a sofa and all the other large, bulky items I'm already sure I want.

Thus began my discovery of American capitalism. At the advice of a co-worker, I hit up Craigslist. At first I naively try searching for "truck" or "van", but she knows what she's doing: she searches in the work-wanted section for "IKEA", and immediately turns up 10 people all of whom are advertising specifically their ability to do exactly what I want. I call the first number and am answered by a man called Luke, who is happy to do it, but apologizes for the fact that he was not available right this second: would 12.30 be okay? His rate for the trip there and back is about half of what IKEA charges to deliver stuff you buy online, and that takes a working week to arrive. So I give him the address of the flat and arrange to meet him there at 12.30.

I walk down to my place from Civic Centre via Market, stopping to grab a mobile breakfast and at a conveniently located Ace Hardware on 14th. I'm looking for the basics: a tape measure, two types of screwdriver, maybe a hammer. I start to pick these things up individually, and then realise I'm not being American enough about this: I ask an attendant if they have a "flat pack furniture starter pack", and sure enough they do: a convenient set consisting of exactly what I was looking for, plus a pair of pliers and a deadly-sharp sliding knife thingy, all for a bargain price.

I arrive at the new flat. I'm worried about how I'm going to pick out stuff at IKEA: Luke has said he doesn't want to spend more than an hour there, and I've always heard that IKEA is a full-day experience. So, nabbing Internet access off of one of the many conveniently open wireless networks that blanket this most geeky of cities, I start measuring up my flat and finding furniture to fit. Upon further advice from co-workers, I decide that IKEA is not the place to get my bed: what I want is a specialist mattress and bed store, such as line Van Ness street downtown. I call Luke up again: would he be willing to extend the trip to another stop? Can his truck fit both a sofa and a bed? Of course he is, and of course it can. By 12.30 I've picked out what I want from IKEA online, and Luke turns up.

Luke turns out to be a tall, slight, middle-aged man who puts you in mind of Larry David. He's charming, well-educated, and -- this being San Francisco -- happens to be gay, a fact that comes up in conversation as we talk about the location of my flat (right next to the city's most famous lesbian bar). We chat a bit as he zips across the bay bridge: he's a cabinet-maker by trade, but does this on weekends to bring in a little extra cash. He used to be a dead-head back in the 70s, and talks about his drug-taking firmly in the past tense, so as not to alarm me.

IKEA is, I can only suppose, never having been before, like all IKEAs everywhere: a big box surrounded by parking, with a steady stream of harrassed-looking middle class people streaming in and out, empty-handed on the way in, stuffed with meatballs and laden with wicker-effect storage towers and tea lights by the gross on the way out. This being America, every third vehicle in the car park is an SUV, and every third SUV is a actually just a huge truck. We park behind another truck with a customized licence plate that says GS GUZLER. As we walk in, a monster truck -- about 15 feet high, with 5-foot-diameter wheels -- cruises by, attempting to find a parking space. I imagine eventually it just parked on top of two smaller cars.

As for it being a whole-day experience: what rubbish. Everything I want is in the self-service warehouse, so we walk straight through the store without stopping until we get there, and then look up our aisles and bins and dig out my purchases: a table, four chairs, and a sofabed -- well, most of a sofabed. The mattress part of the sofabed, contrary to the claims of the website half an hour earlier, is out of stock. Oh well. We're in and out in half an hour, and we didn't even have to buy any meatballs.

We get stuck in traffic on the way back across the bridge, and get into a conversation about politics: there are no Republicans in San Francisco, ladies and gentlemen. Luke believes Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld et al have been planning the Iraq war for 15 years to line their own pockets, which seems a little tin-foil-hat to me. Obviously the war was of huge financial benefit to Halliburton, but I genuinely believe that the war was the aim, not the profiteering they undoubtedly were involved in. That was just a bonus.

I've already spent 3 days composing this incredibly long entry. It's now probably too long and too boring for anyone to read, but at the same time, too long to throw away. So I'm posting it, but feel free to ignore it. Tomorrow I'll post the other half. Sorry :-)

* I know what you're thinking: "Asians? Singing karaoke? Quelle surprise!" Don't worry, everyone else has already made that comment, so there's no need to go cluttering my comments with it, ta.

** Part of my dwindling supply of British medication; I'm going to have to learn the American equivalents as soon as I locate the part of Walgreen's that actually, you know, sells medicine.