Trying to Buy a Lamp

Dear reader, I had wanted to tell you an anecdote about a recent incident in which I considered myself to have been outrageously mistreated, but it occurred to me that you probably would not find the story at all worthy of note. In fact, I fear you would be quite likely to think less of me for complaining in such a melodramatic fashion about something which the prevailing norms of our Society consider quite ordinary and proper. And what authority do I have to insist that it's Society that is in the wrong, and not I?

So I won't tell you. Instead, let me tell you a completely unrelated anecdote about my analogue in an alternate universe not entirely unlike our own. You see, recently, my alternate-universe analogue wanted to buy a table lamp, so he went—or let us say in a manner of speaking that I went—to a store to purchase one.

In the showroom, I found a lamp I liked, flagged down a salesman, and said to him, "I'd like to buy this lamp."

"Have you previously purchased a side table from us before?" he said.

"No," I said, somewhat puzzled by the seemingly irrelevant question.

"Well, you can't buy a lamp unless you already have a table to put it on," said the salesman in a tone of polite condescension.

"Oh, I certainly agree that it simply wouldn't do to get a lamp without having a table to put it on," I said, "but you see, I already have a table."

"So you did buy a table from us."

"No," I said.

"So you don't have a table."

"No, I do have a table," I said.

"So where did you buy it?" he asked.

"I'm actually an amateur craftsperson," I explained, "I have a table which I built myself."

The salesman showed no sign of having failed to hear me, but he showed no sign of having understood me, either. "The table is a prerequisite for the lamp; you have to buy a table before you can buy a lamp," he said.

I sighed. "Okay," I said in resignation, "in that case, I would like to buy a table and a lamp."

"No, no," he said. "That's not how prerequisites work; you can't buy a table and a lamp in the same transaction."

I didn't understand how it could make any substantive difference whether I paid in one transaction or two, but I perceived that objecting as much would be a waste of time, so I asked, "When can I get this lamp by?"

"Well, we only offer table lamps in the fall, so ..." he paused for a moment, "September 2013."

I said, "May I please speak to your manager?"

"Well, you can try talking to the guy in charge of lamps," said the salesman, "but he's probably not going to tell you anything different."

It soon transpired that the person responsible for the lamps wasn't in that day. I got his email address and sent him a letter asking if I could please buy a lamp, attaching photographs of my table as evidence that I was in fact qualified to buy a lamp.

I did not receive a reply.

Not from him, anyway. A couple of weeks later, I did receive an email from the CEO of the company, which I excerpt below, verbatim:

From: SF State CEO Alternate Universe Robert A. Corrigan <>

To: Alternate Universe Zachary Davis <>

Subject: Message From the Office of the CEO

Dear Alternate Universe Zachary Davis,

I am writing to ask you to tell our elected officials how important affordable access to furniture at San Francisco State Upholstery and Home Furnishings Company is to you. California’s budget will be adopted in the next few weeks and you have one more chance to let legislators hear your voice.


Last November, the California Legislature passed a budget that cut $750 million in subsidies from the state furniture system, forcing the CSU Board of Trustees to approve price increases for fall 2012 for customers.

The notification of this increase was met, understandably, with anger and frustration. When I met with customers protesting these cuts on December 1, 2011 it was agreed that we needed to work together to take our case to our elected officials and the "Customer Voices Campaign" was born. We launched a website and collected more than 400 stories about how budget cuts and price increases had affected customers and their families.


A few weeks ago, I joined customers for a trip downtown to meet with our elected officials. The customers brought hard copies of each letter. We have been assured that each and every letter will be read. Your fellow customers who joined me spoke with power and passion—they were impressive.

But I have to tell you, I am not optimistic that our legislators really understand how customers are affected when state budgets force us to reduce inventory and ask you to shoulder a greater share of the cost. Over the next two weeks they will be gathering in Sacramento to make their final budget decisions. We have over 30,000 SF State customers and over 400,000 customers in the CSU, now is the time to inundate our elected officials with reminders about how important their budget decisions are to us.

By clicking the link below, you can send a pre-prepared message to all of your elected representatives in just a few seconds. Let them know the real consequences of their budget decisions.


Sincerely yours,

Alternate Universe Robert A. Corrigan, CEO

Reading this letter made me very angry. "If a business selling any other kind of product—for example, math tutoring—provided such uniformly terrible customer service, they would either go bankrupt, or be burned to the ground by an angry mob, whichever came first," I fumed to myself. "And yet not only do these people treat their customers poorly, but they expect to be rewarded for it with taxpayer subsidies?! And Society just gives it to them, instead of laughing them out of business? The world is surely mad!"

But my anger subsided within a few minutes. What authority did I have to insist that it was Society that was in the wrong, and not I? The prerequisite policy must have been put into place for a good reason, and nor was it hard to discern what that reason was. San Francisco State Upholstery was, ultimately, just trying to protect me. Might it not be delusionally arrogant of me, a mere amateur, to suppose that my homemade table was adequate to support a lamp? What if I had been permitted to buy a lamp, but then it fell over and broke because my table wasn't sturdy enough?—I had to admit that was at least plausible. Should I not then be grateful that I was not permitted to take such a foolhardy risk?

Still, I thought, it simply wouldn't do to leave my table bare and my room dark for more than a year. So I—that is, my alternate-universe analogue—set aside all irrelevant thoughts, grabbed his cheap paperback copy of How to Build a Lamp by Alternate Universe Georgi E. Shilov (translated from the Russian by Alternate Universe Richard A. Silverman), and headed off to his workshop, to work.

5 thoughts on “Trying to Buy a Lamp

  1. Please tell me you were trying to get into a Master's programme without a Bachelor's degree. Alternatively unmask the story. Pretty please?

  2. My university (Rutgers) actually did let me waive the equivalent prerequisite for the equivalent course. ;)

  3. My university offers the option to "test out of" classes you think you already know the material for, but that always smelled to me like a rigged gamble: you pay the test-out fee, and if the test happens to cover only niches you didn't know (i.e., in the case of computer science—my case—if I need to know memory allocation minutiae, or the for-loop syntax, or how to dereference a pointer in C, I can simply Google it or check a textbook in a few moments (Python, which I know well, is listed as an alternative to C, but my Python portfolio isn't an acceptable alternative to testing-out, and they don't currently maintain the class—thus the test-out option—anyway)), and you fail, you're out the testing fees AND out the opportunity to take the depending class in a timely manner.


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