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