Along with the turning of the weather and the lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Center, there is another surefire indicator that Christmas is nearing in New York City. I am inside American Girl Place on Fifth Avenue fighting through hordes of mothers and their children, trying to buy dolls and doll accessories for my nieces.
For those of you who have the great pleasure of being blissfully unaware of what American Girl Place is, here is a quick primer: American Girl Place sells American Girl dolls. They’re not just any old Barbie dolls. No, these dolls — sorry, “characters,” as they are called — are roughly the size of a toddler and are dressed in period clothing from a wide variety of American historical eras. They each have their own name and their own backstory. There’s Felicity Merriman, a girl living in colonial times (who probably owned slaves). There’s Kaya, a Native American girl living in the 18th century Northwest (whose land was probably stolen by Felicity’s family). And there’s Kitt Kittredge, a girl living through the Great Depression (who probably worked in a factory and died of Polio). And there’s another dozen dolls in between and beyond.
American Girl Place not only sells these dolls, but also clothes and accessories to dress these dolls in. The best (creepiest?) part of all is that the clothes also come in regular children’s sizes, meaning girls can dress exactly like their dolls. And if their doll breaks, they can take them back to the store and have them admitted to the doll “hospital” where a “nurse” dresses the doll in a hospital gown, puts a hospital ID bracelet around its wrist and brings it into “surgery” where it is repaired. There’s also a photo studio, a hair salon and a cafe — if you can get to them. All three floors, plus a mezzanine, are perpetually swarmed with moms, kids and the strollers they inhabit. Conveniently enough, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is located across the street from the store, just in case you’d like a priest to administer your Last Rites before embarking on a suicidal mission into this labyrinth of plastic, snotty noses and cacophonous crying. Sure, the smiles on my nieces’ faces on Christmas morning more than make up for having to navigate this insanity, but in the moment, it’s death.
First and foremost, I hate crowds. A common misconception about New Yorkers is that large crowds don’t phase us. We live in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world — we should be used to it! Wrong. The truth is, we hate crowds. We hate crowded sidewalks, we hate crowded subway cars and we hate crowded stores, especially tourist traps that are filled to the brim during the holidays. No sane New Yorker walks into the 34th Street Macy’s two days before Christmas, sees throngs of slow-moving mouth breathers packing onto the rickety wooden escalators and excitedly exclaims, “New York, gotta love it!” It’s not that I don’t like people. I like people just fine. I just don’t like them when they’re in my way, and they’re in my way all of the time in this city.
But American Girl Place isn’t just a crowded store. It’s a crowded doll store, which is a perfect storm of awkwardness for me, a 29-year-old man. I stick out like a sore thumb when I go. I clearly haven’t come to the store with a child in tow, nor do I seem old enough to be shopping for my child who’s at home. No, it looks like I came to American Girl Place to either shop for dolls for myself or to try and meet little girls — whichever is worse. And if I happened to forget to shave that day, forget it. My patchy pedo facial hair is an automatic AMBER Alert situation. There’s nothing more awkward than having to lean over a 3-year-old girl and her mother to grab the last cheerleading outfit off a rack of tiny doll clothes. Even though I’m merely there to shop just like everyone else, I can’t help but feel a little sleazy. There are so many moms and daughters there that I always feel like I wandered into some private affair that’s not for masculine eyes — kind of like when I accidentally walked into a woman’s changing room when I was a little boy. I didn’t know why it was wrong…but I just knew it was.
Luckily, the people who work in the store recognize my struggle. In fact, the employees really are the only saving grace of the entire American Girl Place experience. They normally approach me first, and are eager to help me find just about anything I have on my Christmas shopping list. They must be specially trained to seek out guys like me, before we go completely insane and impale ourselves through the eye with the sharpened end of a candy cane. Or maybe they’re just happy to see someone who isn’t crying, throwing up on themselves or throwing a tantrum — and that’s just the mothers who shop in the store.
Despite my past horrors and better judgement, I continue to go back almost every year. Why? Because I’m a pretty damn good uncle. And instead of filling up my nieces’ heads with nonsense about charity and gratefulness and “the true meaning of Christmas,” I buy them plastic things from crowded stores, because that’s how you get children to like you. So, if you happen to be in the American Girl Place in the middle of December of any given year, you’ll probably see me paying upwards of $35 for a doll hat that my youngest niece will probably lose by New Year’s Day. And when you do see me, punch me in the face. It will take my mind off the pain of being there.
Featured image courtesy of Barf Blog