Suit Your Shelf

Commentary: In Exile

There’s something so clean and benign about a Skandia shelving unit that you hardly notice it’s a tool of the devil until you assemble it and let it reside in your home for a while.

The wood is such a nice, unfinished blonde. Put your nose to it: Not even a whiff of tree smell. It snaps together with pegs the size and shape of medium-caliber bullets. The only cheap looking component, a white plastic cross brace, is safely hidden at the back. Now your Skandia shelving unit is standing, ready for Phaidon art books and clever little tchochkes.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned these shelves in my column with barbiturate-styled satisfaction. My boyfriend and I had just purchased them, our first shelves together, a special event. In that light, I still regard them fondly, but as a sentiment-free consumer good, I’ve come to feel about them much like a mother might feel if she woke in the night to find her child scrawling inverted crosses in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. There’s something unsettling about them, and they’re in my house, and I’m powerless to get them out.

When we bought our shelves, it began as an innocuous act of semi-irony. I had just moved into his apartment with piles of useless crap and shelves were needed to prop it up. We approached the shelving problem the only way we knew how: With derision and sardonic superiority. We entered The Container Store dryly murmuring snide comments about bland customers poring over equally bland merchandise.

“Look at that couple,” Carl would whisper, clandestinely pointing at two gay men in Banana Republic browsing the bathroom fixtures. “What are they doing? They look like they fundamentalist Christians with gym memberships and self-tanner.”

“That one is saying, ‘Brushed aluminum really says casual classy to me. What do you think, Christopher?’” I’d offer.

“But the other one disagrees,” Carl would speculate. “He’s like, ‘Oh Stephen, do we want the casual subtlety of brushed aluminum when we could make a truly bold statement with stainless steel?’” Then we’d both laugh at the bland gay couple.

A temporary hoot. Because after twenty minutes, there we were, discussing storage solutions with a saleswoman named Zee with all the earnestness of two gay men who wear Banana Republic and share a home together. We pondered dimensions, fretted over brand names, wrung our hands about pricing and tittered over colors. And when it was over, we had Skandia shelves on the way, to be delivered in four to six weeks for an additional fee.

When I lived in D.C., my most serious purchase over the course of eight years was a ten-gallon aquarium. This acquisition was not made easily. Fear preceded it, pain coincided with it, and guilt followed. Eventually, after months of feeling conflicted, I relaxed and filled it with water and fish. Aside from this small ecosystem, the remaining eight years of paychecks went largely to beverages and a variety of drugs.

Part of this neurotic behavior sprung from the act of spending — I can’t spend money without visualizing a cosmic index finger tsk-tsking me, and somehow mind-altering substances don’t seem to count. But a larger part of it was equating the acquisition of goods with maturity, a Freudian biophase I wanted no part of. I was far too punk rock for Skandia shelves. I would laugh at those mindless consumers toting blonde wood and pegs on the Metro, chatting about whatever mauve-taupe color scheme they’d be painting them when they got home, much like Carl and I laughed in the Container Store just last month, and just as we ourselves were equally laughable.

So I now find myself wrestling with the question of whether one can simultaneously be cool and own Skandia shelves, conjuring up ways I can cancel them out by filling them with indie rock vinyl and Wes Anderson DVDs. I’m realizing with horror that my new life contains many other Skandia components: dry-clean-only clothes, a desk job, networking, local TV news, more sensible diet, more sensible drug use. I own several articles from Banana Republic.

Doesn’t everyone imagine that they’ll grow up to be as reckless and shelf-free as they were as a kid? I sometimes wonder if what steered me away from this life was seeing older men looking as if they might still think they’re fifteen. You know who you are. You’re wearing wide-leg jeans and a too-small shiny soccer t-shirt and a raver visor and bleached hair and one of those frat boy choker necklaces made of shards of white beach shells. You actually go to raves. How old are you? Buy some shelves and put oversized art books on them! Buy matching stemware! I will not be a middle-aged hipster, though it’s just now that I’m beginning to understand how it happens.

It happens when, one day, a gay man of a certain age enters The Container Store and proceeds to buy shelves, just like he should. At yet some point during the transaction, he panics and flees the store. He will not grow up, he will not purchase a sensible shelving unit. He instead buys a skateboard and sculpts his thinning hair into a faux-hawk. He buys a pair of Vans. This man is, like, fifty. I’ve always sort of marveled in horror at the guys who do this, but now it seems all too plausible. As much as the Skandia life feels unnatural to me (or, even worse, does feel natural), it suddenly seems like a saving grace.