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Beyond Impossible Price
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, July 30, 2004.
You may recall that several years ago, after Erik Cheeseburger’s parents finally told him that he was a fictional character, he began spending weekday evenings in the showrooms at the Burbank IKEA, reading, eating Swedish meatballs with bread, coffee and lingonberries, and, most of all, napping. Even though he held a full-time job that required him to wear ties, he didn’t get paid enough to live in a house or apartment, so he’d had to settle for a leaky pup tent on a busy street across from the cemetery. Sleep was hard to come by.
Each evening after work, he’d drive 30 minutes up to IKEA, eat, read, nap in the bedroom set of his choice and wake up at 9 p.m., when a friendly staff member would wake him up and send him home to his tent, to lie awake all night, to rise with the sun, to put on a tie and go to work again.
This went on until his 25th birthday, April 17, 2000, when his parents presented him with a one-way ticket to Sweden. He didn’t want to go, but they insisted, so after the plane landed at Stockholm-Arlanda, he made money giving handjobs and selling hashish in the restrooms for a few weeks, then hitchhiked down to Kalmar, got a job as an assistant to a glass blower and saved up money for a flight back to Los Angeles in early 2002. Upon his return to the Burbank IKEA, Erik became a sort of mascot. Management allowed him to live there full time, reading and napping and eating meatballs and lingonberries and steamed new red potatoes. (Friends tell me that it was he who persuaded management to change the Swedish-meatball policy — there used to be small, medium and large plates of meatballs, and the servers had to count out the exact number of meatballs per plate, which took an awful lot of time; now there’s just one Swedish Meatball Platter: The server doles out one big spoonful of balls and leaves it at that.) Erik’s only duty was to appear pleasantly Swedish all year ’round, the way a department-store elf appears only at Christmas.
For the past year or so, I’ve been pretty much broke and living in a very small space (ladies, start your engines), so I haven’t had much use for IKEA. But last week I decided to splurge on an area rug, to cover the foot-deep pothole in the middle of my bedroom/living room/kitchen. Headed out to IKEA on a weekday, late morning, when the crowds are tolerably thin. Figured while I was there I’d drop in on Erik, see how he was getting on. We hadn’t spoken since his return from Sweden.
“Disappeared a few months ago,” explained a delightful Katarina Rodriguez, associate sales-comrade. “We had a party and everything, but he wouldn’t tell us where he was going.”
“Here.” Another associate sales-comrade, also delightful and named Katarina (Shapiro), appeared beside her and offered me a short stack of books. “Erik left these behind. Maybe you can give them to him.” Five books: one hardback, Haunted Traveller by Barry Yourgrau; and four paperbacks, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler, Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson, Finding a Form by William H. Gass and Winning Pocket Billiards by Willie Mosconi.
“If you run into him,” added a delightful voice over the PA, “tell him we said hello. It’s not the same around here without him.”
I left without the area rug. Finding Erik Cheeseburger seemed more interesting than covering another pothole.
Trees don’t pay rent, so they’re killed. Some end up as books, some as receipts, some as Pottery Barn catalogs. Turned out that Erik’s estranged books each contained one bookmark, between Pages 14 and 15. And all the
bookmarks were receipts from Pottery Barn.
I borrowed a copy of Pottery Barn’s Early Fall 2004 catalog (“Fall Ideas Issue: Perfect Paisley”) and tried the obvious page, 14. Sure enough, across the gutter on Page 15, Erik Cheeseburger sat in a “Parisian leather chair” ($399), sipping cappuccino from an amber Sausalito mug, happily pecking the keys of a 12-inch iBook at a dark-brown Lucas desk ($1,099).
“Life’s nice and slow in here,” Erik explains after we exchange waves and hellos. “Unless someone leaves the catalog open. Even then, I just go hang out on a different page.”
“Yeah. I’m writing a novel about my life in Sweden.”
“Yeah. The Pottery Barn marketing people even said they’ll help me find a publisher.”
Erik invites me in for coffee, but I can’t quite figure out how to make the transition, so I make coffee out here while Erik talks.
“It’s a pretty good job,” Erik continues. “I can hang out wherever I like in the whole catalog, except for the front cover.” In exchange for his mascot services, the Pottery Barn people are letting Erik live and work in their catalogs for the next three years, or until his novel is finished. After the book’s published, they’ll leave it lying around prominently on various solid-ash shelves and sturdy oak coffee tables, which should help with sales. For now, Erik sleeps on everfreshly sunbleached linens, eats wholesome, rustically prepared and arranged 18th-century peasant snacks, and works on sturdy, well-lit, dark-stained desks.
Most days he writes at the Lucas desk, where he can use the 12-inch iBook, the cup of eversharpened pencils and the Cortland pharmacy-style table lamp. There’s even an HP fax/printer, over on the Lucas bookcase console ($599). After work, he grabs a few pears from atop the Cabot coffee table ($399) on Page 133, watches some television on Page 93 or 106, then washes on Page 26 and sleeps across Pages 22 and 23, on the queen-size Francisco bed ($1,099). The exception is Friday nights, when he sleeps on Page 120, owing to its proximity to the Aris buffet/hutch on Page 111, where, on Saturday mornings, he snags some freshly sliced bread, fruit and cheese and sits down at the 60-inch Aris pedestal table ($799) on Page 112 to edit his printouts.
“When I was a kid,” says Erik, “in the summertime — way before I found out I was fictional — I had this ritual: After I mowed the lawn, I’d lie down face-up in the grass and think about becoming a grown-up. Think about what kind of world it might be, and what I’d be doing for a living — professional basketball player, Nobel Prize–winning scientist, groundbreaking motion-picture director. Usual kid stuff.
“And it’s weird: There’s no way I could have known, but I have to admit that this is way, way better than anything I ever hoped for.”