We’re attempting first dates at the creepiest places we can imagine. The intrepid John Cantwell joined me at The American Girl’s Place Cafe for teatime. The following is both of our perspectives on the experience:
As soon as you go into the American girl cafe, the hostess offers you a doll to dine with.
I did not want a doll. I’m not really a doll person. My date for the afternoon Joh Cantwell declared “I think we might need, like, ten dolls.” We compromised on one called Lanie.
Initially, I thought that we could keeps Lanie sitting discretely by my side, but that was not to be. “No, no, no!” the waiter informs me when I sit down at the table “She likes to sit up here.” He attaches a chair to the side of the table. “So she can join in the conversation” he whispers.
Now, look, over the course of the lunch, I think we touched on many topics that left ample room for Lanie to interject. For instance, when I tried to describe my character in terms of American Girl Dolls the way people do Sex and the City characters (in many ways, I’m a Samantha, because I really like ice cream and grew up in a Victorian house, but sometimes I feel I’m a Kirsten, because I’m close to my family, and then, I’m sort of like Molly, because she was slutty). At any point, I expected Lanie to turn and say “I hope Cynthia Nixon plays me in the movie.” Or when John told the story about having a friend who accidentally defecated on himself. Lanie could have been like “yeah, I have no bowels.”
Lanie, you are a very pretty doll. But even if you are banking on becoming a trophy wife, you will be expected to say two or three amusing things over the course of a meal. According to the American Girl’s website, you’re into entomology. Well. That’s interesting. Bugs aren’t people, Lanie. Maybe you need to spend a little more time with people.
Fortunately for the living people in question, the American Girl’s cafe provides a box of conversation starters on the table. Which I like! Every first date should begin with handy questions like “have you ever been camping? Why?” Because really, why?
Also fortunately, there were bellinis.
And there was enough sugar to put anyone into the kind of comfortable coma that makes paying someone $20 to braid your doll’s hair seem like a really good idea. There was a handy explanation about how each of the items provided in the tea was supposed to be one of the American Girl Doll’s favorites. There were sticky buns. There were enormous sugar cookies for both of us. There were tiny jam cookies. There were small pots-de-creme. There were large cups of chocolate mousse. There were sugar coated lemon-blueberry scones. There was the implication that by the time the American Dolls turned 25, they would all be diabetics.
Though really, when you think about it sugar + alcohol + conversation starters to avoid any awkward lulls = good first date place. I mean, except for the creepy unblinking dolls and all the children. And the complete lack of a men’s room.
I’ll admit it: I had a pretty good time at American Girl Place. Jennifer, who I’d never met before our “date,” is charming and funny and possesses that terrific Midwestern graciousness (she’s from Chicago, I learned) that’s always struck me as the perfect antidote to the demeanor of women I grew up with in New Jersey — serious, hairy-forearmed Mediterraneans who were forever guilting you or threatening some kind of bodily harm. Jennifer never made me fear for my emotional or physical well-being, and I liked that about her.
More importantly, I was in on the joke. I knew I was being brought on a very bad date. This was essential, because without a serious dose of ironic detachment — if I had to pretend that tea at American Girl Place was even remotely appealing or, worse, had to consider that Jennifer was the kind of grown, purportedly sane woman who enjoyed drinking tea with dolls and that I was the kind of man who would pursue such a woman — there’s no telling what I would’ve done. Lit myself on fire? Ran screaming through the dining room and jumped head-first out a window, hoping that if the fall onto Fifth Avenue didn’t kill me, a pedicab would roll over my neck, helpfully crushing the larynx?
Even knowing it was all a setup, there were still uncomfortable moments. Helping Jennifer choose a doll to join us at tea was especially unsettling. Actually, it wasn’t the act of choosing a doll that unnerved me as much as our hostess’s cheerful, matter-of-fact disposition. “Take as many as you’d like,” she said, as if this was (A) a legitimate perk and (B) a totally normal dating activity. I imagined other twenty-something women going totally apeshit for the chance to pick out a bunch of dolls while their dates stood by, feckless, emotional castrati, and suddenly felt more pessimistic than usual about humankind.
(Note: We chose a doll named Lanie. Lanie had no affect on the rest of the afternoon because Lanie is a doll, and the thing about dolls is, they just sit there, doing nothing.)
There were other men there – fathers having tea with their daughters. These men could not pretend to be happy. By the end of the afternoon they all wore the faraway, pained expression of someone just returned from a particularly invasive alien abduction.
Men often seek each other out for solace and support in situations like these. But I knew that, had I tried, any attempts at bonding would’ve been rebuked. I understood how these men viewed me. I was as soulless and incapable as one of those American Girl dolls. These men had no choice. They had been driven to American Girl Place by a force larger than themselves – their love for their daughters. But I was in a different boat. I still had a choice, and I had ostensibly chosen to go along with this.
So, what can a single, able-minded, twenty-something man expect from tea at American Girl Place? Extreme discomfort, crippling pessimism and existential isolation, at the very least. To call it a bad date spot is a reckless mischaracterization. It is a bad life spot – an indication that something in your life has gone terribly wrong.