Woman dines with cardboard cutout man in San Francisco

cardboard.pngA woman walks into a restaurant. She's alone, but she requests a table for two. She sits down, pulls a giant piece of cardboard out of her oversized bag, and unrolls a three-foot cutout of a human being. It has what looks like a computer-generated cartoon man etched on one side. She places the cardboard man gently on the seat across from her, making sure his body folds neatly at the hip crease and that his legs dangle comfortably below him. Then she opens up her menu.

Joel Massey happened to be her waiter that night. "She was just a real normal-looking woman in her mid-40s," he says. Everything else was normal, too — it was just a typical Tuesday night at the popular San Francisco restaurant.

The woman called her companion Peter or Stan. She ordered an appetizer for herself and a halibut dish for Peter/Stan. She was probably a tourist; she wanted to take pictures with Peter/Stan as the sun was setting, and while she was waiting for her food, she asked Joel if he could recommend any memorabilia from the gift shop so she could buy him a little something. When Joel was away, he could see her at her table talking to Peter/Stan as if he was a real person. Once or twice, she reached over to adjust him in his seat, or maybe to hold his hand. "When I walked up to the table, I felt like I was interrupting a date," Joel tells me. After about 45 minutes, the woman got up, walked to the kitchen, and told Joel that she would have to take her and Peter/Stan's dinners to go — they had a trolly car ride to catch, and she didn't want to be late.

Was Peter/Stan symbolic of a non-existent significant other or perhaps one she had lost? Was she playing a joke on the world around her? Was she nuts?

Whenever I write articles about Japanese men who have body pillow girlfriends or marry their video game girlfriends, a flood of comments about how crazy and f****ed up Japanese culture is inevitably follow. But this type of virtual relationship exists in the US, too. In September, NBC Miami reported on a woman who carries around a cardboard cutout of her soldier boyfriend, and Joel's testimony of the woman and Peter/Stan suggests that she's not the only one.

The idea of a person developing an emotional attachment to an object is easy to ridicule, but it's actually common. Whether the object of that affectionate bond is a teddy bear, a cardboard version of your hubby, or an imaginary character etched on a body pillow doesn't really matter. But within the spectrum of objects that people can have feelings for, some anthropomorphized things tend to make spectators feel more uncomfortable or weirded-out than others. The fact that some "love objects" are okay, while others stigmatize, challenges our notions of acceptable human behavior. As inanimate objects increasingly take on roles that humans used to fill, those challenges are likely to become more common.

(Thanks, Rachel Swaby, for the tip!)

Image via Torley's Flickr


  1. I think there’s a fundamental difference in having an emotional attachment to an object as an object and having an emotional attachment to as object as a person. People love their childhood teddies and musicians love their instruments, but they don’t treat them like people.

    1. I would argue that some musicians do treat their instruments like people. The instrument can have a temperament and a soul.

  2. Before all the “OMG SO WEIRD!” people start, I would just ask, who does this hurt? I was a pretty lonely kid and had an imaginary friend until about kindergarten. Made drawings, sculptures and even little dioramas about the life of this friendly 100-armed giant named “Jick”. My mom got these panicky notes from my teacher when she found me one day gathering up leaves “with my friend”. Having a room full of adults all very nervously asking about my imaginary friend was sincerely weird. When the school counselor asked if I knew Jick wasn’t real I replied “Well of course, he’s IMAGINARY! That’s what makes him so much FUN!”

    Some people don’t outgrow that and they’re perfectly happy and healthy all the same.

    1. “Weirdness” does not require any “damage” to be done. Of course it doesn’t really hurt anyone, at least not in any substantial way. It’s still far outside of the social norm and therefore is “weird.” Weird isn’t necessarily bad but it is weird. The fact that calling it weird seems to be the natural reaction should be evidence of that.

  3. “It was another quiet dinner out. He sat, stared blankly into space, not making eye contact. She ate on, loving him all the same, even though he seemed terribly two dimensional at best…”

  4. “Whenever I write articles about Japanese men who have body pillow girlfriends or marry their video game girlfriends, a flood of comments about how crazy and f****ed up Japanese culture is inevitably follow. But this type of virtual relationship exists in the US, too. In September, NBC Miami reported on a woman…..”

    I fail to see how the latter example absolves one from the sorts of suspicions expressed by the former part of the quote. The idea that a magic man in the sky watches what you do all day and disapproves heartily if you should happen to have sex with someone of the same gender or eat a lobster for instance, is batshit insane. That fully two thirds of my countrymen believe fervently in such things in no way alters the fact of its insanity/ridiculousness.

  5. I don’t mind what people do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses, as Mrs. Patrick Campbell had it.

    I still find it weird tho’. :)

  6. Ever read the book Flat Stanley? Lots of schoolkids send flat people to friends and relatives in other places – the pictures we got when my child sent one to friends were awesome. This person might have taken the assignment pretty literally. The Stan name and the sunset/tourist activities make me think it was probably a Flat Stanley project.

    1. This was my first thought as well. Probably not a nutty lady, but someone doing something cool for a kid.

  7. I’m with Gniobboing– in viewing this small portion of this stranger’s life, there doesn’t seem to be any harm, no more so than getting a glimpse of someone sitting quietly in church seems to be harmful. But think of the wasted time spent attempting to communicate with something that is incapable of reciprocating your effort in any way. What happens when you start answering for this other party? What happens if you believe the other party to be a god? I’d imagine a larger look at this lady’s life might be rather disturbing.

    1. “But think of the wasted time spent attempting to communicate with something that is incapable of reciprocating your effort in any way.”

      Sounds like some flesh-and-blood relationships.

      There are plenty of broken relationships out there — where one partner gives all the love, deluded into thinking that they’re being loved in return when they’re being abused or taken advantage of. Happens all the time. I see those as much more twisted and disturbing. In comparison, a relationship like this woman’s is a mere curiosity.

      “What happens if you believe the other party to be a god?”

      Are you *trying* to solicit snarky comments about religion?

      1. If I wasn’t trying to start some conversation, I’d get a cardboard guy to talk to, so yeah. I was basically just trying to show how this lady’s benign dinner ties into Gniobboing’s religious context– if she’s speaking to (and presumably for) her cardboard partner, how is this different from those who speak to (and presumably for) their various deities? It’s equally absurd, but in the case of religion, the power to affect others is obviously magnified.

  8. It sounds like a Flat Stanley thing. The children’s book ‘Flat Stanley’ by Jeff Brown and Scott Nash sparked a sort of game for elementary classrooms where they make ‘flat people’ in class and then mail them to friends and relatives who don’t live nearby to get pictures of them experiencing different things in different places.

  9. Please don’t judge the entire United States by what one sees in San Francisco. California, San Francisco in particular, does not represent the views of the of the rest of the USA.

    1. @ Anonymous #13:

      I’ve lived on the east coast, in a few conservative southern states, and in the Bay Area.

      Anything in SF can be found elsewhere in the US. It’s just out in the open here rather than hidden in endless tracts of suburban neighborhoods, where what happens there stays there.

    1. Yes, I think this is a case of someone humbling a kid involved in the Flat Stanley project. My class this when I was back in third grade. I drew a person a four-foot cardboard cutout, mailed it to my father several states away, and asked him to do things with Stanley in various places and take pictures. He humored me of course, and then I presented the photographs he sent back, along with my Stanley, to the class.

      I had forgotten all about it until I read this story and remembered that I’d done it. I guess it would seem pretty weird if you hadn’t heard of the assignment.

  10. It IS probably a cleverly disguised art piece. But.

    Men prefer their artificial lovers high-tech, ideally on an LCD screen, while women users go for the more crafty, homespun feel of cardboard.

    1. “It IS probably a cleverly disguised art piece. But.

      Men prefer their artificial lovers high-tech, ideally on an LCD screen, while women users go for the more crafty, homespun feel of cardboard.”

      Not for me! I don’t want paper cuts there.

  11. I hate these stories where the author clearly couldn’t be bothered to come up with more than just a cardboard-cutout of a character.

  12. “When I walked up to the table, I felt like I was interrupting a date,” Joel tells me.

    That Joel is a decent human being.

  13. I keep thinking of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” screaming, “Wilson!” as he tries desperately to save the little volleyball. It was so sad.

  14. Oh, Lisa, if you haven’t seen it, you are just going to LOVE the movie, “Lars and the Real Girl (2007).” Tagline: “The search for true love begins outside the box.”

  15. I don’t think the woman in the restaurant was doing something like Flat Stanley if she ordered food for the cutout and was talking to it/holding its hand.

    However, the example of the woman with the soldier boyfriend is nothing like the Japanese men with pillow girlfriends though. It says in the article that she takes photos with the cutout and mails them to her boyfriend.

  16. Best guess: It’s an effective way of saying “Yes, I’m dining alone. No, that doesn’t mean I want you to come over and chat me up.”

    Second best guess: Sociologist running an informal experiment in how folks will react.

    Third best guess: Prankster running an informal experiment in how folks will react.

    Personal reaction: Whatever floats your boat.

  17. I suppose if I were in a restaurant where every table had a cardboard guest except mine, I’d feel a little self conscious.

  18. The graphic with this article looks like it’s from Second Life, so I come up with a narrative: This woman in San Fransisco has a virtual friend and has made a life-size avatar for them. The only way I’d judge her is if the virtual friend doesn’t know she’s wandering around with a cardboard cutout of his virtual self.

  19. Here is the thing – none of us can possibly know what this woman’s motivation was, what was going through her head, or why she was dining with a cardboard guy. I’m a total armchair psychologist and love to analyze people, but I don’t think that any of us is fit to judge her. I am sure that every person has done something that someone else has found weird.

    If she’s not hurting anyone, what’s the problem? I’m not going to worry about the time she’s allegedly losing talking to a piece of cardboard because for her, that might not be “lost time”…that might be “quality time”.

  20. The article didn’t mention a uniform, so it probably isn’t one of “flat daddy’s” sent to families by the Main National Guard.

    “‘As you know couples do the announcements here and I wouldn’t be a couple without Craig, our flat daddy,’ Jennifer Bailey told The Early Show’s Hannah Storm. ‘I’m so glad he’s here, and he had a face lift. He looks really nice today.’

    “The cardboard version of Bailey also sits with the family at the dinner table, something that Jennifer Bailey said ‘freaks out’ visitors.”

  21. years ago you would said she was nuts..now you just write it off as someone gathering material for a Blog

  22. I was also going to mention “Lars and The Real Girl”. It felt incredibly awkward to watch at first, but as the story about a lonely man who falls in love with a mail-order sex doll unfolds it became one of the of the most touching and powerful movies about the fundamental human need for love and connection.

    Lars’ brother and sister-in-law are by turns delighted when he excitedly tells them that he’s met a girl online and is bringing her to dinner, then stunned and horrified when she turns out to be a giant doll. Other folks in their small town share the shock, but rally around Lars and with their acceptance and support he begins to blossom and find real love and friendship. I know it isn’t the kind of recommendation that makes you want to run to your netflix queue or video store, but this is the kindest movie I think I’ve ever seen.

    On the flip side, there’s “Love Object” which starts from the a related premise — lonely guy orders his sexbot as a substitute for the hot chick he doesn’t think he can get — but things go very, very wrong when the jealous doll starts to run his life.

  23. Peter/Stan is a two dimensional. Peter Parker/Stan Lee are famous from Comic Books. Comic Books are two dimensional.

    Look at it! Just look at it.

  24. Just let us know when it’s legal to marry a horse. I know a lot of people who will be happy when that day comes.

  25. maybe I’m too conventional, but when I read this I immediately assumed the original Peter/Stan was simply deceased, and this is her way of grieving.

    Occam’s razor and all that.

  26. In San Francisco (and many major cities in the US) the object of affection is likely to be an iPhone, and the attachment is some hybrid of object/person affection.

  27. This is not so very unusual. I have known a few cardboard cut out guys who have gone on a date with a real woman.

  28. There is such a thing as Objectum sexuality, where at its most basic the objectum sexual person has a intimate, sexual relationship with an object. These cases generally occur when a person is starved of human contact, be it because of existing emotional issues, severe cases of abuse that have lead to mistrust of all humans, and so forth.

    It’s important to note that these relationships are not entirely sexual. While there is a strong sexual aspect to each relationship, most Objectum Sexuals will talk of romance, love, poetry and so on, things we would associate with a classic romantic relationship.

    Human beings need to feel a bond with others, be it family, friendship, a relationship or just a familiarity between people. When we are starved of this, we reach out to fill the gap. Some make up characters and events as if they had a full social life, some escape into a fantasy world like WoW, some project the feelings they need fulfilled onto inanimate objects. One of our basest instincts is the libido, which is why this will commonly be the first stage to manifest in a person-object relationship, followed by companionship and romance. Just look at the owners/partners of ‘real dolls’, Edward Smith who has had sex with 1000 cars, or Amy Wolf who is in love with and writes poetry for a german fairground ride.

    Tom Hank’s character and Wilson the football is an excellent example of fulfilling our need for companionship when faced with crippling loneliness. I am by no means saying the woman in this story is an Objectum Sexual, but at the very least thought it was an interesting thing to bring up. The comments seem to be going that way, in any case.

  29. hey, the gummint thought they were worth trying; see boston dot com/news/local/articles/2006/08/30/guard_families_cope_in_two_dimensions/

  30. NO ONE bats an eye when a man sits alone at a restaurant. In fact, waiters and waitresses will be more flirtatious and servile around him, especially if he does not have a bad smell, etc. BUT IF A WOMAN IS ALONE IN A RESTAURANT, she is often ignored. There’s no way to ignore a woman with a cardboard man, I don’t care what anyone says.!!!!!!

  31. Sounds like Flat Stan, grade school kids make their relatives take pictures with Stan. Usually he’s like a foot tall though.

  32. I know I may ruffle some feathers saying this, but is it any worse than a lonely adult who brings their toddler with them *everywhere*, not caring if it’s somewhere a 2 yr old would want to go. And they treats them like their best (adult) friend. I love the daily FaceBook updates from some lonely mommies or daddies about the complex topics they discuss with their child. (No, sorry, your toddler does not get physics, economics, or politics)

    People are lonely. Some people pretend cardboard cut-outs are capable of real adult friendships. Some believe their booger-encrusted 2 year old is. Some are just lonely. Who are we to judge?

  33. As I drink my third glass of Black Label for breakfast, I can only say one thing, “Who cares.”

    I will agree that San Francisco is not only a bad represenitive of the United States but for the state of California itself. San Francisco is a City State unto itself. A unique schizophrenic city on the bay.

    Seriously as long as the woman doesn’t walk over to my table with the cardboard cut-out and asks me for the pepper, why should I give a crap. I have enough bullshit to deal with in my life, one more crazy lady doesn’t bug me.

  34. Do you want to know the real reason she dined out with a piece of cardboard?


    Oh I kill myself sometimes.

  35. It’s worth noting that Peter and Stan are the two main characters on Seth MacFarlane’s shows, Family Guy and American Dad. Just sayin’…

  36. I would argue that some musicians do treat their instruments like people. The instrument can have a temperament and a soul.

    WBR, Donn

  37. well in a way I’m not surprised by this happening in the USA, especially in San Francisco out of all places (No offense, since I considered it one most eccentric cities).

    I’m just quite amazed how bold she was in doing that without fear of what others thought of this, it just makes me wonder if more people in the states will start doing what she did due to getting coverage on that.

  38. Who gives a flying flip, she probably had great conversation and a romantic evening. People suck hardcore and I totally don’t blame her for going 2-D.

  39. Anonymous – I agree, San Francisco does not represent the view of the USA – for instance, it cares about the rights of homosexuals.

    I absolutely think this is an art-work rather than anything else. And if it is an artwork the purpose is to challenge all those people who would judge her, when she has done nothing harmful to others. So you all have made the art-work really work. Excellent.

  40. This is an anthropologically valid behavior for higher mammals. Apes and chimps willingly adopt a stuffed animal or even a stick as a replacement ‘other’. Humans love to believe we are so evolved but really we are only slightly smarter than apes. If we were smart enough to communicate with other species we would probably find many have IQ scores comparable to ours.

  41. Actually the most worrying thing about this is the fact that she still hadn’t been served after 45 minutes of waiting. That plus she gets shopped to the media for doing something that’s probably just something she goes through to make eating on her own slightly less embarassing. Could you publish the name of the restaurant so I can avoid going there?

  42. Sure it’s a little weird, but as has been pointed out, this behaviour is probably not hurting anyone (unless she is neglecting someone who needs her).
    Adults behaving strangely is not really a cause for concern.

    As for the person with the imaginary friend from childhood, of course you knew he was imaginary, it’s just annoyingly straight laced adults who think kids are stupid and don’t know the difference between reality and imagination. And a (good) psychiatrist would look for other much more scary issues before even starting to look at an imaginary friend as a clinical issue.

  43. San Francisco is full of little improv groups, like ImprovEverywhere and the Cacophony Society. There is even a city-wide game organized around these sorts of strange events. It could be an art piece, but I remember someone posting on the cacophony list about bringing a cardboard or fake date to dinner. We also have a Santa pub crawl, a Ride the BART in your underwear day, and a group of salmon that run the Bay to Breakers race (which is already crazy to watch!) backwards.

    In all likelihood, she took the cardboard date just to get people thinking and to keep SF the crazy city I fell in love with!

  44. I’d be impressed if halfway through dinner the woman slipped away while the waiter wasn’t looking and a similar-looking friend took her place, just to see if anyone noticed.

  45. Hey, I’ve got a video game character/cardboard cutout I’d date too, if they somehow could fulfill my need to actually hold and talk to someone. Cardboard and JPEGs are just no good at that.

    Got to admit, she’s certainly more respectable than most people I see every day.

    (I have considered jokingly taking her to dinner just to see peoples’ reactions, but she’d get all creased and probably spilled on…)

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