I started grad school just before the recession, which is a horrifying thing to both say and experience. I went to school in the Twin Cities and I didn’t have a car, and the thing they don’t tell you about Minneapolis is that it’s uninhabitable for half of the year, so to escape the snow and constant threat of frostbite, I liked to take the bus and then the train to the Mall of America.
If you need concrete proof that we live in a dystopian capitalistic hellscape, go to the Mall of America during a recession. That shit is bleak. But once you have a smoothie and ride a few escalators up and down, it’s actually kind of relaxing.
My friend Maggie and I would hang out at the American Girl Store on Friday nights. We always had the place to ourselves. There’d be one lonely employee braiding a display doll’s hair—in bountiful times, they’d hired three or four hairdressers just for the dolls, but I guess the dolls were cutting back too.
At one point we saw a double stroller facing a wall, and Maggie assumed someone had abandoned actual children.
“Oh my god! Someone left their babies!” she cried. “What is going on in this country?”
The babies were actually display versions of the twin baby doll set that cost one hundred and fifty dollars. Because we teach little girls that having twins is the most magical experience a woman can have. You get to dress up two babies and push a sweet double stroller, who doesn’t want that?
Until you grow up and realize that twins would destroy both your vagina and your life savings.
Maggie would always rail against American Girl dolls for being materialistic and giving little girls unrealistic expectations. She grew up really poor (and not just poor for a grad student, she was below the poverty line. Her family’s phone was the pay phone at the gas station), so it was understandably offensive to her that the dolls that were supposed to represent the “girls of today” always had fancy clothes and bunk beds and gymnastics equipment and at least one horse.
Even the historical dolls had too much money.
“This doll is supposed to be an immigrant in 1914 and she has a full bedroom set?” I said. “She’s supposed to live in a tenement.”
“Is that like a duplex?” said Maggie.
“My grandma grew up in a tenement that was two rooms big, with ten brothers and sisters,” I said. “She didn’t have a four-poster bed, she had ringworm.”
I was excited to tell Maggie that the new doll for 2009, the first recession-era doll, was going to be a homeless girl named Gwen Thompson.
Maggie was pumped up. She said, “Let’s go the mall right now!”
We went to the American Girl Store, empty as always, like the entire mall, with desperation and pop music leaching from the walls. There is an aquarium underneath the Mall of America—how much money does it take to keep the lights on all night in that thing?
Maggie was very gregarious—she befriended a sniper once, but that’s another tale—and she walked right up to the lone employee, braiding a doll’s hair, and said, “Where’s the homeless doll?”
“She’s not homeless!” hissed the employee.
I should mention the fact that at this very moment, the American Girl Company was getting serious Internet flack about selling a doll for over one hundred dollars that was supposed to be homeless. None of their dolls are ever going to see the inside of a homeless shelter. Not unless Daddy Warbucks starts hanging around.
“Doesn’t she live in her car?” said Maggie.
“She lives in her van, and for only a few days,” said the employee, who I should mention was probably not making enough to buy anything from this store, because capitalist hellscape.
She pointed us towards the doll, and Maggie was dismayed to find that Gwen Thompson lived in a van that by all standards qualified as a camper—the roof was high enough to fit a loft bed, and the side of the van folded out into a nice picnic table, and there was a cute little wardrobe for her accessories, which included a laptop.
She was actually doing very well for a nine-year-old. Her van was more like a tiny house for grade-school hipsters going off the grid. She even had the means for outdoor activities.
Maggie was not happy.
“How did she get a hot air balloon?” she said. “She can’t afford that!”