The Triumph of Capitalism, Part 2

posted 08 February 2007

We rejoin our hero, currently mattress shopping on Saturday two weeks ago... it's out of sequence, thanks to the previous post, but you'll have to deal.

I enter the store and approach two identically-dressed women chatting unconcernedly on one of the mattresses: after some confused eye contact and body language it becomes apparent that they aren't employees; just unimaginatively dressed clientele. The only real employee visible then makes herself apparent. She's a short, middle-aged hispanic lady who is spreading a little now but was clearly once beautiful. She is a little character study all of her own. She initially apologizes for having bare arms: "we're supposed to wear our jackets but it's so hot in here". I say I don't mind, wondering who in San Francisco would be so anal retentive as to complain about her inoffensively bare arms, and explain that I'm looking for a bed, and don't know where to begin.

She gets up and bustles off down the rows of beds, inviting me to lie down and try them out. I do so, but I'm keenly aware that Luke is very patiently waiting in the truck, parked outside the loading dock, so I keep springing up too quickly for her liking. She explains the difference between "firm top" (if you sleep on your back) and "soft top" (if you sleep on your side). These beds are all insanely comfortable, so I'm willing to go with any of them, but then I look at the price tag and realise I'm lying on a $3000 bed. Even given the rather large chunk of cash I've set aside for startup costs in SF, this is way over budget, so I say so, and we bustle off to the other side of the shop, where the beds are distinctly less grand, noticeably less comfy, and a third of the price. We're in business: I bring out the my credit card, still warm from IKEA, and she begins the surprisingly long process of ringing up the sale of a single item. It emerges that I have complicated the process by arriving with my own truck: she has to jump through hoops and I have to sign documents to make it clear that yes, I really did carry the mattress out of the shop myself.

While she is seeing to me, her junior emerges, a young hispanic guy who is inexplicably attached to an IV drip bag that he is holding above his head with one hand. He detaches himself and heads into the back room to bring out my mattress. Her supervisor has also emerged, a silver-haired caucasian man, who is talking to some new customers. She timidly attempts to interrupt him in order to ask a procedural question about my purchase, but he cuts her off rudely, saying "I'm with a customer" through gritted teeth, as if this were some kind of inexcusable act. Now I know who it is complains about her bare arms: this petty little man, who is angry at himself for still being a mattress salesman at 55, and tries to compensate for it by being a cruel dictator to the only two people in the world who have to respect him. We know this type of person, I've worked for someone just like him, right down to the silver hair. I feel sorry for her; it must be a nightmare to work for him.

She doesn't let it get her down. By now junior-guy and Luke have opened up the loading dock and are stacking my mattress, box-spring and a basic metal frame onto the truck, while I stand around uselessly, feeling signficantly over-assisted. She asks if I've thought about bedding: I have, but not really seriously; I figured I could just get some cheap sheets at a supermarket or at the mattress store itself while I wait for my bedding to arrive in my shipment from the UK. Having heard that I'm freshly arrived from the UK, she has taken a motherly interest in me (why do I always inspire mothering instincts in women?) and after checking that her boss is safely at the opposite end of the store, lowers her voice and tells me not to buy their bedding, but to head to Bed, Bath & Beyond, on 9th and Bryant. Bonded by this act of rebellion, we part with a sincere smile and a handshake. I even shake hands with IV-bag boy.

Luke and I get back to my new place, and he helps me unload everything. Earlier we had discussed the location and the price I was paying and he'd suggested I should have shopped around more, which was disappointing, as I think I'm getting a pretty good deal. But once he sees the place he changes his tune, which is very gratifying. In fact, everyone who's seen the place so far has been very complimentary, which is nice.

It's now about 5pm. I have enough flat-packed furniture to last me the rest of the evening, but I lack bedding. I'm getting ready to rush out, and then I realise that once again, I'm not thinking in American terms: a quick check confirms that yes, Bed Bath & Beyond is open until 10pm on Saturdays. And why not? So I walk over -- it's at 9th and Bryant, on the other side of the freeway from me, and the walk involves passing through some not particularly nice bits of town. As in London, the difference between a really nice area and a really scummy one is often just a street.

There is no way to walk into Bed Bath & Beyond: the pedestrian entrances are all out of use. I eventually have to duck between cars heading down into the parking garage and back up to get in. Inside is a bewildering abundance of choice: hundreds of types of pillows; a whole room full of sheets of varying sizes, "thread counts" and patterns; a wall of duvets. Amongst this scene of rampant consumerism wander a very San Franciscan type of clientele, pushing huge supermarket-style trolleys: I spot two lesbian couples and what seems like a triplet of lesbian roommates, one middle-aged gay bear couple, and a younger gay couple, one of whom is all sorts of camp and has to keep pulling his crop top back down over his ass. I thank my stars that I realised before I was 25 that I am too old to wear crop tops anymore*. Later on a straight couple will turn up, but it's clear: this is not their place.

I'm lost. I don't know what the thicknesses of duvets mean. I don't know what a thread count is. I don't know what a "sham" is, and why you'd want them with your duvet cover. I crank up my sense of entitlement a notch: I'm an American. We get customer service! Five minutes later, an incredibly chirpy girl has explained all of this and more to me, and walked me around the store until my own cart is full of bedding. But now I need other things, like plates and cups and cutlery. So I wander off to the other end of the store and enlist the services of a fearsome lady with dark skin, piercings and a near-shaved head that, were I the kind of person to make unwarranted assumptions about sexuality based on misleading signals like appearance, I would have assumed was a scarily butch lesbian. Good thing I'm not like that.

I explain my situation to Ms. Bulldyke** and she springs into action, parking my first trolley in one corner of the store and then marching around the rest of the shop pointing out all the other things I could possibly need. Could I get the number of a cab company, I timidly ask? She takes charge and marches (and a military metaphor has never been so apt) me and my two trolleys down the escalators*** and to the cash desk, where she immediately starts bossing people around, telling them to order me a cab and generally take care of me.

This entire process has taken only about half an hour, but this high efficiency is not to last, as my cashier is a sleepy-looking girl whose demeanour and diction, were I again the kind of person to make snap judgements about these things, would lead me to question her intelligence. She proceeds to ring up my items, and then individually wrap each item of crockery. This agonisingly slow process poses her a curious amount of difficulty for someone who presumably does this all day: she places each item on a stack of wrapping sheets, but keeps accidentally selecting a sheet edge from about halfway down the stack, and becoming visibly confused when 20 sheets of meter-square paper fail to wrap neatly around a coffee cup. She also has several false starts in wrapping each item, repeatedly ripping the sheets to shreds and having to start over.

She also pauses briefly to discuss with her colleague the health of her new tattoo: apparently she has not put vaseline on it, and her colleague expertly informs her that this can lead to smudging, so she promises to rectify that. As she completes the final item a little light visibly goes on behind her eyes as her training takes effect, and she briefly brightens and says "all done... finally!" in an incongruously cheerful voice before returning to her bucolic base state. She rings it all up on my by now thoroughly exercised Mastercard, asking, as everyone has today, for photo ID: my only forms of photo ID are my two passports, so I have taken to carrying around the Trinidadian one in my back pocket, as I am less likely to be summarily deported if I lose that one.

Ten minutes later my cab turns up and I load my double-trolleyload of middle-class trappings into the trunk and we head back to The Mission. My cab driver is a chatty young Palestinian man, and we have an interesting conversation about the relative convenience of cabs in London. Since I have one more stop to make, I ask him to wait downstairs while I carry my purchases upstairs, and I immediately turn around and we head uptown to The Embassy hotel, where I started this astonishingly productive day 11 hours and two blog posts ago. I stuff my various possessions back into my suitcases and wrestle them downstairs, check out and hail yet another cab back to my place.

The amount I got done in a single day here just astonishes me: barring a single mattress (which I pick up tomorrow in a story which I shall spare you) I have specced out, shopped for, and adequately furnished an entire apartment in a single day, despite a lack of personal transport. Then, in the same day, I have bought all the soft furnishings necessary for that apartment, and moved three weeks' worth of personal possessions across town into that apartment. At no point has anybody considered the almighty hurry in which I am trying to get all of this done unusual or unreasonable.

All through the day I have noticed a fundamentally different attitude in everyone I've interacted with. Without wanting to get carried away here, I do think it's a fundamental difference between British and American culture: in the UK, you request service, and thank your server; in the US, service asks if it can help you, and thanks you for your custom.

In addition to this subtle but fundamental shift in the balance of power, the American attitude to money is different too. As I write this I am well into my third week here and the differences are beginning to fade for me, but in Britain money is obviously central to a transaction, but it is regarded on some very subtle level as a necessary evil. The American attitude to money is entirely different: money is an enabler, a fantastically useful little device that gets things done and opens doors. In the UK when you tip someone it is an embarrassing reminder of the power balance -- it's vaguely demeaning. But in America there can be no friendlier gesture: you're expressing your gratitude for helping you to do something by giving them the ability to get something they want. I am not blind to the many, many flaws of American culture, but in this respect it seems the American attitude is certainly more cheerful and probably better for everyone.

An hour later my bed is constructed and covered in its brand new sheets, which turn out to be distressingly shiny, but it's too late: I'm too exhausted to do anything but sink gratefully into them. I have my own apartment, my own bed, and my own warm snuggly place on a brand new continent. I am home, adding yet another meaning to a word that already means so many places for me.

* And too fat, but I'm not willing to admit that yet.

** You can't prove that wasn't her name.

*** I'd never seen one of those special trolley-escalators before, which made me feel a bit of a country bumpkin.