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nyone who has lived in the United States knows that it is a materialistic society. Not uniquely so, perhaps, but there is no denying that Americans love their “stuff,” a word that encompasses everything from knick-knacks to clothing to furniture. What I didn’t know when I moved here from India was that I would become that way too. In my case, material fixations didn’t start straightaway, but came on gradually.

My husband and I came to the United States as students. Our first living quarters were university housing. For the two of us, who had traveled with two suitcases each that held a few clothes and enough curry powder to give a T.S.A. sniffing dog sneezing fits, the furnished one-bedroom apartment was sheer heaven. So what if we had a brown couch, orange loveseat, green dining table, and beige chairs? Of the five people who had lived here before us, four had successfully completed their Masters or PhDs, and the fifth had gotten a job. Living as we did—mostly in our labs, the library, and the cafeteria, and rarely visiting “real” American homes—our primitive furniture seemed just fine.

Then we finished our education, and it was time to move on from student housing. And real life came at us. As we surveyed our new digs, a ridiculously high-priced half-bedroom apartment, we realized we needed stuff: to sit on, to sleep on, and in which to keep our clothes. So we went to a furniture store.

Big mistake.

My husband was a post-doc (i.e. abysmal pay and seven day work week) and I couldn’t get a job because of my visa status. Ignorant of the workings of retail furniture trade but eager for an American life, we sallied forth into a big store with pennies in our piggy bank.

It started pleasantly enough. A very nice man with a wide, gleaming smile greeted us at the door. He led us into the store and began showing us their stuff. Everything looked lovely, and I was enjoying the tour, when I heard a loud gasp from my husband. Alarmed, I rushed to where he stood with fixed pupils, taking shallow breaths. My first thought was that his childhood asthma had been triggered by some allergen in the store. Then I looked at what he was staring at, and nearly swallowed my tongue. Our “host” sauntered back to us.

“I can see that you have good taste,” he smiled his crocodile smile. “That couch is beautiful, though it’s at the lower end of our merchandise. And it’s on sale, too!”

The price tag, the one that had nearly widowed me, said $1100.

“What is the sale price?” I quavered.

“That is the sale price. At 1100, it is a steal.”

Some steal! The writing was on the wall, but I had to try, just once more.

“1100 what?” I asked archly.

Some of the friendliness leached out of his smile: “Dollars.”

That did it for hubby. He dug his heels in like a dog at the vet’s for its booster shots and refused to go further into the store. I, however, came from more resilient stock. I took the salesman’s invitation to heart and wandered around the store, while my pathi parameshwar breathed into a paper bag at the entrance.

If you’ve been to a store that deals with furnishings, you will notice that the pathways they have made for strolling are not random, but lead to cul-de-sacs where the most expensive stuff is “staged.” This store was no exception. One path led to a Pasha’s living room with a massive wrap-around couch/recliner, while another took me to a Queen’s bedroom, complete with a huge canopy bed bigger than our apartment. We could easily have slept in the drawers of the matching dresser. Trying to make my way to the entrance, I discovered another truth: it is awfully easy to get lost in such stores. After visiting the Banquet Hall thrice, and walking through the American child’s Dream Bedroom twice, I finally got to an exit, where the salesman stood waiting.

Desperate not to look as poor as I felt, I pointed to a small plant holder on which a child had splashed some paint.

“How much?”

“It is priced at 100 …” I waited for the final blow.

“… dollars.”

I slunk away and escaped through the loading dock.

On our way home, we decided that we’d be able to afford new furniture only if Bill Gates left his entire fortune to us. There was only one way for us to go: garage sales. For the next six years, we exulted in our buys. A $30-dollar futon here, a $50 dollar entertainment set there; we made our home one item at a time. The end result was a watered-down version of student housing, with durable (read: ugly) and mismatched pieces. You see, a thing of beauty might be a joy forever, but its days are numbered; while an ugly thing will remain sturdy as the day it was made, well into the days of your great-grandchildren, who will hate it just as much as you did.

Face it. You’re never going to find a Sheraton or a Chippendale in a garage sale. (However, if you do, please don’t tell me.)

As we moved across the country, we lived in a succession of studios and teeny one-bedroom apartments, where we could conduct conversations with our neighbors through common walls, and never had to be invited in order to enjoy their parties. We also developed garage sale techniques and skills. Go out early, was one. Prowl university dorms around May when school gets over. Another goodie: Buy music equipment from students, but household items from the suburbs.

By this time, we had two little girls who enjoyed romping on our second- and third-hand stuff, and I could safely say that everything we had but our kids had once belonged to somebody else.

Then, one fine day, my husband got a job as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company. We were finally solvent! Following this earth-shaking event, we also bought a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath house in the ’burbs. My husband called it an investment, but I was too busy making a list of which friends and relatives to invite, and whom to snub, to listen.

On our first day in our new home, my husband and I sat on the lone futon (the $30 one) in the living room, watching our kids run around the 16’ x 12’ area. He had a beatific smile on his face.

“Now the children have room to play,” he said. Honestly, the man had his priorities all wrong. Luckily for him, I had become more American than Americans.

“We need furniture. New stuff!” I replied.

This time around, the experience was different. The mister still brought along a paper bag, but our piggy bank was a little stouter. And Uncle Mastercard and Aunt Visa were on our side, for once. They knew that the mortgage company owned us body and soul, and therefore they wouldn’t lose sight of us for 30 years, unless we were lucky enough to win the lottery or unfortunate enough to get hit by lightning. And I had a good 15 years on our salesman, which, coupled with nine years of motherhood, was pretty powerful stuff. If he showed attitude, I could just tell him go sit in the time-out faux leather recliner with pull-out footrest, matching throw and five-year warranty.

We browsed several furniture stores and discussed likely buys endlessly. Our dinner conversations were peppered with “Let’s get the pine dresser, do you want more sambhar?” and “We should check out end-tables at another place; eat your food, don’t play with it.” The kids learned to spot micro fiber items from 100 yards away, and when asked for my input at a staff meeting, I said that I needed an ergonomic chair for my desk and knew where it was on sale. Through it all, the bill-payer of the house estimated, measured, and budgeted endlessly, while I just exclaimed over new stuff. Needless to say, the sales staff loved me.

Finally, our new furniture arrived. We still had to climb directly into bed when we entered our bedroom, but now it was a king bed with scrolled headboard. The girls were black and blue from running into corners and edges, since our traffic area was severely reduced, but we had our stuff. Furniture salespeople were our friends, as were mail carriers, since we were now inundated with flyers, brochures, and bills. Only deliverymen hated us, but well, there are malcontents in every community.

I also learned to browse stores for items we didn’t use more than once. Several appliances, such as the electric can opener, an electric grill, and a bread-maker, began to gather dust proudly on our kitchen counter. In fact, I had to be persuaded not to buy a bacon helper for the microwave. The argument employed was that no one in our house ate bacon. Not only that, I am a vegetarian. I countered with, “So what?” but lost the battle. I didn’t mind; there was always tomorrow.

Then one day, my wee one asked me to help her write a short essay on what she was thankful for. With my mind on the show I was watching on our new 25″ TV in the pine-veneer entertainment set while sitting on my micro fiber recliner, I told her to write about what we had. Later, I read it. In her kinder-spelling, she had written:

“I am tankful fo my micofibber coch, chaire wit otomen, ricliner wit trow, cofe tabel an n-tabels, morble-top eating tabel wit 6 chares an pin dresers fo my clotes.”

“What about being thankful for Daddy, Mommy, and Sister?” I asked.

She looked at her paper for a moment, then shook her head: “The teacher said to write only the most important stuff.”

I reached for a tissue in its beaded tissue-box holder, priced at $12, my heart too full for words.

We had arrived.

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com
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