When I moved to Amsterdam, I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment. As one with a limited budget is known to do, I bought furniture from Ikea shortly after arriving.
I could handle Ikea as a solo project. A simple bike ride to the metro, maybe a twenty-five minute ride on the metro, then another bike ride from the metro to Ikea. I knew how to choose what I wanted, navigate the number-coordinated self-service area, pay for delivery to have the larger items brought to my apartment the following day and carry the rest in one of those big blue bags on my shoulder.
On this occasion, I chose a huge bookcase – the one that’s long enough to cover an entire wall with multiple square compartments. It’s simple in design and heavy.
When the large box was delivered, two drivers dropped it into the living room. So, since I was living alone, I began assembling the bookcase on my own. The instructions guided me to put it together on the floor, adding each square one by one. My cat watched with mild irritation as the living room floor space was reduced to narrow pathways around the inexplicable obstacle course.
Finally, the large bookcase was complete – on the floor. And again, heavy.
I went to one side and tried to lift it. I was reminded of the time I tried to lift a building. It didn’t budge. I went to the other side, where my luck was no better. This had never happened before. Sure, I’ve struggled to assemble things on my own and maybe even strained a muscle or two. But I’ve never been completely incapable of completing a project on my own. Did I really need help? From a man? What man?
I went outside to check the streets of Amsterdam Oost (east). At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly Surinamese and Turkish, making me think I might run into a friendly neighbor within a block or two. Sure enough, the neighbor I spoke to briefly earlier that week about his preference for Suriname’s sun over Amsterdam’s rain was outside working on his bike. I gathered my nerve to do something I rarely do – ask a man for help.
I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it probably came across as some type of damsel in distress situation. “Oh hey, I hate to bother you. But you’re a man. And I’m too weak to lift this heavy bookcase in my apartment. Will you, and possibly a friend, be willing to come inside and do the heavy lifting for me? Also, I have nothing to offer in return.”
Thankfully, it worked. Friendly neighbor was quite happy to phone his cousin, who was upstairs, to join him to rescue the single lady down the block. Minutes later, they were lifting the bookcase from both ends, huffing and puffing like it was the heaviest thing they had lifted in 2011. When it finally reached its destination against the wall, my neighbors were proud of their work, I was proud of my new ability to ask for help when I desperately needed it and my cat was relieved the whole thing was over.
Fast forward a few years, after I had plenty of time to forget the past and underestimate the weight of the bookcase, I hired movers to move me to a new apartment in a new city. Although my apartment in The Hague was an upgrade, the neighborhood no longer felt as familiar. I only saw older white people carrying their shopping and younger white people walking their dogs – or entire families walking with their dogs and shopping.
After a week or two, when I was finished unpacking and down to only the pieces of the now disassembled bookcase, I began putting it back together – square by square. Then, there I was again, with a gigantic bookcase in the middle of my living room floor with no clue how to lift it. That remained my situation for at least a week, probably two.
I walked over, around and through that bookcase with frustration that grew every day. I was frustrated with myself for living alone and moving to a place where I knew absolutely no one who could lift heavy furniture for me. I was frustrated by my neighbors, who seemed nice enough, but not one was a friendly Black man. And most of all, I was frustrated by my inability to ask for help.
During this period of bookcase grief, workers were in and out of my apartment building repairing something for a couple of days. I thought about asking them for help, but never worked up the courage to do it.
I even walked outside a few times with the bravery I had in Amsterdam, looking for a neighbor to recruit. But in those fleeting moments, I never found someone to answer the call.
One day, I was working at the library that was about five minutes from home by bike, still quietly consumed by the bookcase on the floor. Then it hit me: I can do this. I can do this! I can do this! I immediately rode home, hearing that Rocky music in my head.
Alongside the misplaced bookcase, I had piles and piles of books. Big books, little books, all types of books. That’s where I started. I used a tool to wedge a small gap between a corner of the bookcase and floor. Then, using a little strength, I lifted the corner just enough to slide a book beneath it. Then, on the other side of the bookcase, I did the same. Then, back and forth, I added one book at a time. With Rocky music still playing in my head, the bookcase moved further from the floor at an angle of five degrees, fifteen degrees, twenty degrees. When about thirty or forty books were piled on each side, the bookcase was reaching nearly a forty-five degree angle from the floor. This was nearly high enough to reach the seat of my kitchen chairs. With some effort, I propped one corner of the bookcase on a chair, and then the other on another chair. And I continued to add height from there. Bit by bit, the bookcase was resting on taller furniture. Once it reached the backs of my tall stool chairs, gravity chipped in. Because then, with just a slight push, the bookcase landed upright.
I screamed with joy, relief and pride. It was such a good feeling. Like, for real, I can do anything.
I think about that bookcase occasionally, usually when I surprise myself with an impressive solo accomplishment.
Recently, it came to mind. Three months after moving to Bristol, with fears about legal residency, income, health insurance and other bits of insecurity swirling around me each day, I realized I had another bookcase on the floor. Grown-up stuff that’s heavy, just sitting there waiting for me to figure it out. But I’m a superhero who takes on challenges one book at a time. And sure enough, things are getting off the ground.
I even managed to get myself a job offer. More on that later – as soon as I get this whole new life standing upright.