The Tenth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend
The Tenth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend: HMM WEEKLY PREMIUM
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LAST WEEK ON HMM DAILY
Larkson White Dining Table, 65 inches
This was supposed to be the new dining table. The old dining table had lasted nearly a decade and a half, and we wished it could have lasted forever. It had come from Ikea and was eight feet long—too much table for the apartment, or for most other apartments we've had, really—and it mattered enough to us that when we lived on two continents at once, we had two of them. I memorialized them in the book I wrote about Beijing:
Ikea began to seem less a mildly totalizing convenience than a gesture of cross-cultural engagement, a material Esperanto of universally agreeable goods. Amid aisles thronging with Chinese couples—radiant with the combined glow of upward mobility and joint householding—I could find a pepper grinder, a bread knife, or the same Turkish-made shower curtain that hung in our New York apartment. To hide the cheap circular fluorescent lights in the living room, Christina rigged up a pair of white paper “Oriental”-looking lanterns, courtesy of the Swedes. The final touch was an immense oval dining table, another item we had ended up acquiring on each continent. The last leg of the table delivery, from my wife’s office to the apartment, had been handled by a man named Wang Jiashui, who kept a cargo tricycle parked inside the gate of Yard No. 26. Wang was in his late thirties, neatly dressed, with wavy hair and light eyes. He had migrated to Beijing from Henan Province, where his wife and three children still lived. His main job was collecting scrap, which he would sort and stack next to the compound’s guardhouse: cartons, bottles, cases of unopened obsolete software.
I considered myself a hero for having single-handedly wrestled the matching table into a Volkswagen Golf (it stretched from the front windshield all the way out the tied-down rear hatch), driven it along the Long Island Expressway, and dragged it into and out of an elevator. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Wang Jiashui—solidly built, but by no means brawny—had pedaled a fully assembled version more than a quarter mile, then somehow carried it up four flights of stairs.
But now, on this one, the Long Island Expressway one, the thin white melamine surface of it had cracked on the edge and a piece had broken off, and before I got around to trying to glue it back in place I lost the piece, and the crack propagated gradually and then drastically, till suddenly the whole top of the table was peeling and flopping around irreparably. Ikea had of course long since stopped selling the table; Ikea's uniformity is geographical, not chronological.
Meanwhile I had put in a desultory bid, in one of the school fundraising auctions, for the services of an organizer—this was weeks before the Marie Kondo publicity blitz—and we had messed up and actually won, and the organizer had come by and told us that our basic organizing problem was that we have four people living in what's really two people's worth of apartment, and all of them own a lot of books. But also our table really was too big.
Not too too big! One end of it had been pressed into service as a desk, a nice organic adaptation to circumstance, and a space-use that would have to be replicated somehow by something else if the table got too small. We kept fruit on the other end. Even so, still, we could probably do with something that wasn't 96 inches long. When the time came. Organizing is not about buying furniture. Getting things isn't the solution to having things. If the table was already falling apart, though—
In the past decade and a half, the internet had surpassed Ikea as the place to look for furnishings without trying very hard. We went online and picked out a new table. It was oval—more rounded than the sharp surfboard-oval of the Ikea table—and sat on a pedestal rather than legs. It was listed at 77.25 inches long. I used a tape measure to get a sense of what that extra 18.75 inches of clearance would mean in the apartment: a slight but real improvement.
The internet furniture company's software scheduled the delivery, and I rescheduled it, and when the map graphic showed that the truck was genuinely on its way, I tipped over the big table for the last time and wrestled out the bolts, a little battered and bent from years of disassembly and reassembly and loosening and re-tightening, and took off the legs. The very last bolt was too far gone to work loose, so—this table's time was over, it was new table time—I used the leg as a lever to rip it out. I dumped the legs in the trash room and dragged the old table out in the hall to be disposed of.
The internet furniture crew came right on time, or better than on time, a little early, after checking to see if a little early was OK. They were brisk and efficient. They unboxed the big pedestal and set it up where the old table had stood, and they began assembling the top. I watched them put it together. I'd been wondering if the rounder table might be a little too wide, but it wasn't too wide at all. And the length—there really was a lot of room. That 18.75 inches totally opened up the space between the dining and living parts of the living-dining room. And it opened up the space at the other end of the table too. It was much more of a difference than I'd expected. It was...hang on.
I wandered out into the hall and looked at the flat carton the top had come in. It said "165 cm."
Seventy-eight point two five inches is 198.8 centimeters. This was not the right table.
I wandered back into the apartment and raised the question with the guy in charge. I showed him the confirmation email, 78.25 inches, and the carton. He agreed something was wrong. He called the company. The company looked into it. It was wrong. Somehow, in the virtual inventory system, an incorrect SKU had been attached to the table. They would send the correct tabletop, to mount to the same pedestal base.
In the meantime, we would keep the new, wrong table, so we had something to eat dinner off of. When the replacement tabletop came, they would swap it in and remove the small tabletop. Either they would take the tabletop away, the person on the phone said, or we could donate it.
The use of "donate" stuck with me. It was the same term the internet mattress company had used, when I emailed them within their trial window period to tell them that, to our regret, their internet mattress was just too soft to sleep on. We could arrange a donation of the brand-new mattress. In the end, of course, I donated it to the trash room. New York doesn't support trade in used mattresses, even lightly used ones. And no one in the world needed a spare top for a pedestal table.
The point was simply to soften the truth of the vast bulk waste in our consumption and distribution systems. All we wanted was a new dining table, and now instead we were generating brand-new landfill.
We ate dinner on the table. The new dimensions made it all a little uncanny; the eye and the habits of perception kept trying to make the new small oval into the big old one. The child who sits beside me was squeezed in closer. Nobody had to reach very far for the food. Could we live with this, after all?
Not really, no. But there were more messages to come from the furniture company. Actually, the correct table was—out of stock. No. Actually, it was discontinued. I sorted through alternatives and found an identical-looking table, under some other brand name. Neither brand name meant anything, both seemed like nonce words coughed up by some machine-learning system. I ordered a replacement for the replacement for the new table. We kept gathering close at mealtimes. I ordered a vertical fruit basket, three chrome hammocks in a frame, so the fruit at the end of the table would take up less room.
A week later, a new crew from the internet furniture company brought two cartons containing the new table, and prepared to drop them off and go. What about the part where they swapped the tables, setting up the new new one and taking away the old new one? They had no idea, no orders for any such thing. They couldn't get rid of the too-small table. The apartment definitely had no room for two tables. I sent them back to the company with their cartons unopened, until we could set up the real swap.
We kept eating off the little table. After two more dinners had gone by, another crew from the internet furniture company came by. They took apart the little table and set up the new big table. Then they called me over to have a look: somewhere in the course of its carton's coming to the apartment and going away and coming back, one end of the new big table had gotten dinged. It was a good size, though. We snapped pictures and ordered a replacement for the replacement for out-of-stock replacement for the replacement for the old Ikea table. They took away the small table, with no more talk of donation. We'd used it for 10 dinners. Or did we eat out once?
NINETEEN FOLKTALES: A SERIES
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]
10. The Vole Admiring the Moon
A vole lived in a burrow below the ground, coming up only at night, when the cool air sinking into its tunnel announced that darkness had fallen. Each night, when it emerged, it was dazzled by the light of the moon. "O, moon!" the little creature said, huddling in a patch of shadow. "How surpassing is your majesty! How immensely your glow fills the world."
The moon was flattered. "You are discerning, small one," it said. "Without my power, you would know only darkness." The vole was thrilled by the reply. Night after night, it sought the moon--waxing or waning, ascending or descending the sky--to sing its praises, and the moon encouraged it. When the moon was new or clouded over, the vole mourned it, and piled up a share of its night's gathering of seeds and grubs as an offering of devotion.
One night, when the moon was full, the vole quite lost itself. "Moon!" it cried. "Never has such brilliance fallen over the earth! What can I give you that would be worthy of your splendor?" It ran back and forth, hauling mouthfuls of grasses and rolling nuts out into a moon-silvered clearing, while the moon murmured encouragement.
This went on as the moon passed from the east to the zenith, and continued downward and westward. Never had the vole put such effort into its observances. Even as the moon was half-screened by the lattice of the trees, the vole kept laboring to please it.
Suddenly, then, a wanness passed over the moon. Its light appeared feeble against the sky. Dismayed, the vole looked all around and beheld, for the first time in its life, the rising sun. As the faded moon slipped below the horizon, the red fire of dawn struck the vole full-on, and it stood in uncomprehending shock. Then it bolted for its burrow, stumbling and half-blind, and cowered in the dark.
We present here for your delectation several recipes for sandwiches from The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, published in 1909 and now in the public domain:
Chop fine six slices of uncooked bacon, add two green peppers (seeds removed) chopped fine, three onions the size of an egg chopped fine, season with pepper and salt. Fry the above mixture until the bacon is done, then scramble in two eggs. Place between this slices of lightly buttered white bread. Garnish with a radish.
BOSTON BAKED BEAN SANDWICH
Press cold baked beans through a colander, add two stalks of celery chopped fine, a teaspoonful of horse-radish, and a little tomato catsup; mix and spread on buttered slices of Boston brown bread, cover with another slice, and garnish with a pickle.
Remove skins and seeds from one pound of white grapes. Chop grapes, one large apple, and two stalks of celery fine. Mix with a little French dressing and place between this slices of lightly buttered white bread. Cut sandwiches in strips.
SHERIDAN PARK CLUB SANDWICH
Toast and butter three this slices of white bread; place a lettuce leaf on the lower slice, and on its top put slices of chicken breast. The put another slice of toast on top of that with another leaf of lettuce, followed by thin slices of broiled breakfast bacon, topped by third slice of toasted bread. Garnish top with small pickles cut in slices lengthwise. Serve as soon as made.
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