Waiting for Stuff, Man

Those of us who have been bemoaning the state of the Union lately have clearly lost sight of the great bounty America offers. We live in a land where a block of Styrofoam is also a sofa; where chairs can be made of wicker; and a dining table is built to last . . . approximately a year. In a different country, one less invested in ease of comfort and clearance pricing, elite designers would picket a place that offers pop-together fiberboard furniture. But here in America we turn such a place into a shrine; we name a street after it; we line up for days before its grand opening and bring traffic to a halt the morning its doors are thrown open, because being the first on the block to own a roomful of plastic stools and a fiber-filled pleather hammock in the shape of a croissant is a civil liberty best not ignored.

We may not have domestic-partnership laws, but we do live in a land where selling a box of planks and an Allen wrench and calling it a bookcase isn't a crime. IKEA, founded in 1943 by a Swedish match peddler, has morphed over the years into a deeply American institution, not only because Americans recognize the need for a cheap recliner and matching ottoman, but because IKEA, like America, wants to conquer the world (in this case, through global dissemination of cheap, ugly, faux-Scandinavian furniture with strange names).

One of IKEA's commanding officers in the war against creative furnishings is Scott Cesen, a man so moved by IKEA's clear-lacquered birch veneers that he camped out a full eight days before the November 10 grand opening of the chain's new Tempe store. Scott's place in line spoke not only of his love for untreated pine and lacquered steel, but ensured that he'd win the store's first-in-the-door prize: a bedroom suite valued at $1,500. We met early on Day Six of Scott's encampment in front of IKEA's vast metal doors -- he, a 24-year-old Ahwatukee resident on a mission; I, a reporter terrified by IKEA's product names. (Why does IKEA have a desk named Jerker? Why has it named one of its beds Fartful? My bed, which I did not purchase at IKEA, is also fartful, but I don't call it that.) Seated near Scott's rubber tent, surrounded by IKEA's vast, empty parking lot and perched on plastic stools named Förby and Terje, we talked solid beech and tempered glass. But we meant something more.

New Times: You're a grown man. What are you doing here?

Scott Cesen: I'm doing this for the grand prize, which is everything on the cover of the new IKEA catalogue. I get everything from the alarm clock to the bedspread. It's a lot of stuff, worth $1,500.

NT: It better be worth standing in line for more than a week. When did you arrive?

Cesen: On Voting Day. I voted and then I came here and got in line.

NT: How patriotic. So you've been entertaining while you're here. I guess people know where to find you.

Cesen: Yeah. Yesterday was a record day -- I had 14 people come. I got asked for my autograph yesterday for the first time, from a guy whose wife is from Sweden and she's a really huge fan of IKEA.

NT: I read somewhere that you're a sausage marketer. What's that?

Cesen: I work for a company that sells gourmet sausage. Our only source of advertising is through direct demonstrations to the public.

NT: You mean you're one of the guys who stands there and hands out wieners at the mall.

Cesen: Yep. Right. That's us. It's a three-day-a-week job. I couldn't do this if it weren't.

NT: So you're not one of those IKEA addicts who will come here every weekend to drool over the laminated bookcases?

Cesen: Not yet. I do love to go to IKEA, but I haven't gotten to the level where it's a compulsion. I buy stuff when I need it, and I have a lot of family in the D.C. area, and that's where I first met IKEA.

NT: I stood in line overnight for Stones tickets in 1980.

Cesen: I've never stood in line for concert tickets, but last weekend I actually camped outside the REI Outfitters store for their garage sale and got most of the camping stuff I'm using here. Without those purchases, I wouldn't be able to do this. I moved here from Boston and I sold all my stuff, because it's cheaper to buy all-new stuff out here.

NT: Especially when it's IKEA. Don't you feel kind of slutty? I mean, these guys are sort of using you to get press.

Cesen: I came onto their ball field to play their game, and I've just got to roll with the punches. I'm fine with it, but there's been a lot of interviews.

NT: What about bathing? Where do you pee?

Cesen: IKEA's been great. I'm actually setting the record for the longest stay in the U.S. in front of an IKEA before a grand opening. Because of that, they gave me use of their [electrical] power and shower facilities. So I've got power in the tent. There are facilities around the corner -- port-a-johns that are serviced every day, so they're nice and clean.

NT: What are you going to do once you get inside?

Cesen: I'm basically just gonna walk around a little bit. It's gonna be a zoo in there. There are a few things I'm going to buy, but I just want to get out of here. I want to go home.

NT: Maybe you should head for the IKEA restaurant. I hear they make a good meatball. In the meantime, does it bother you that, no matter how long you live here or what you accomplish, people will always think of you as the guy who stood in line for a week at IKEA?

Cesen: Yeah. I'm a minor celebrity, and I'm doing it to win some stuff. I kind of feel bad. A lot of people I don't even know have been dropping off food and supplies. There are some single mothers out there working 60 hours a week just to keep their kids fed, or living in like a trailer park or a one-room apartment and not even eating, yet people are giving me food. I kind of feel bad about that.

NT: Don't feel bad. Maybe the people in the trailer park don't care about tasteful decor. Hey, listen: I hate IKEA. What's wrong with me?

Cesen: Why don't you like them?

NT: IKEA stuff all looks like dorm-room furniture to me.

Cesen: I can see that with some of it. But I just came out of a dorm-room setting, and to me -- my taste might be slightly askew, but I like the look of this stuff.

NT: I don't get it. People are acting like we didn't have furniture stores before. My neighbor said to me, "At last! I can buy an armoire!" I said, "Hey, what about Levitz?"

Cesen: The IKEA phenomenon is interesting. So many people have come down here to tell me about how they or their families have rented a U-Haul, driven to San Diego, bought a few thousand dollars' worth of stuff, and returned. It's just like a cult, like they're IKEA roadies.

NT: It kind of frightens me. I mean, it's a furniture store.

Cesen: I know. But it's a good one. One of the stores I really don't care for is the Wal-Mart Super Store. The way they treat their employees -- they're the original evil giant. I've been here for six days, and I have to tell you that [IKEA employees] make a beeline for the door when they get to work.

NT: They definitely have some interesting stuff. (Opening catalogue.) This here's a rocking chair, but it looks like the thing I scoop out my cat box with.

Cesen: You just really don't like IKEA, huh?

NT: I don't get why everyone is so excited. I mean, you have to assemble this stuff! It's ugly, and you have to put it together!

Cesen: But you don't have to own a truck. You can bring it home in any size vehicle. That's one thing I really like about IKEA. No need to rent a truck.

NT: Does it trouble you that your bedroom is going to look like the cover of an IKEA catalogue?

Cesen: I get some options on my color schemes and stuff like that. But this has all been great. I'm so shocked and amazed by everyone's generosity. Cookies, cheese. And someone's been leaving me a newspaper every day -- I just wake up and there it is.

NT: America's a beautiful place, isn't it?

Cesen: I couldn't ask for anything else. I really thought I was going to be roughing it by doing this, but it's been a total cakewalk. IKEA is cool.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela