Vexed in the City

"Our Man Sietsema" ventures out on the Sex and the City tour around Manhattan

For the last five years, On Location Tours has offered Sex and the City excursions around Manhattan. For $39, the tour promises to show you 40 locations used on the popular TV series. Twice a day, from my bedroom window, I can see the solemn line of fans snaking down Bleecker Street and turning onto Perry Street. Then they reverently queue up at 66 Perry Street to have their pictures taken on Carrie Bradshaw's television doorstep. In a neighborhood that's gone from being livable a few years ago to being one of downtown's more annoying tourist traps, I blame Sex and the City. But curiosity about the tour participants—and a perverse desire to become part of that line—led me to take the plunge. I also invited my editor, a fan of the show, as a sort of walking Carrie Wikipedia.

Our tour guide, Emily, stood before us at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue waving a blue pennant. She was a short, energetic woman with brown hair piled on top of her head in a swirl. Words poured out the moment all 55 of us filed onto the bus and took our plush seats: "What a great way to spend an afternoon," she exclaimed. "Isn't Sex and the City the best show in the world?" Our fellow passengers roared in appreciation. They were mainly white women in their thirties, well-dressed and showing a fair amount of cleavage. They had a few sheepish boyfriends in tow, seven by my count. "We've got a lot of boys here today," Emily enthused. "Say hi to the boys, girls." Another shout of affirmation went up.

As the bus mired in Fifth Avenue traffic, Emily used the time to describe scenes from the show that had occurred at Tiffany's, Bergdorf's, and Takashimaya, as clips flickered from drop-down screens overhead. I quickly realized that Carrie and company's obsession with acquiring luxury designer goods was every bit as important as their sexual hook-ups.

We eventually reached Madison Square, where a doggy gang bang from the first season caused the fans to leap from their seats to stare out the port windows, making the bus tilt to one side. We next found ourselves pulling up in front of the Pleasure Chest on Seventh Avenue South, where the bus would disgorge its passengers for a 20-minute shopping spree. Without a trace of embarrassment, the girls filed into the store and began rifling through the inventory. Several purchased the Rabbit, a vibrator with two extensions shaped like bunny ears, then emerged from the store clutching their little silver bags and wooden paddles distributed by the store for free. Others bought the book Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell, which offers bios of the stars and plot synopses with scholarly accuracy.

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photo: Robert Sietsema
Meanwhile, we cornered Emily across the street as she was getting a cup of coffee. Overhearing her trade thespian shop talk with a friend named Charles, I realized she was an actress in real life. Outside, we inquired how she got the job. "It was on Craigslist," she explained, "Of course, you have to first be a big Sex and the City fan. My friends and I used to have our own Sex and the City parties." Later, back in the bus, she waved at Charles out the window, and recounted how she'd just heard that he'd sat next to Sarah Jessica Parker in the Waverly Inn the previous evening. The passengers were ecstatic—she really knew how to push their buttons. The remote possibility of actually seeing a celebrity was one of the lures of the tour. Later, on 13th Street, several of the girls thought they saw David Schwimmer.

There was no doubt that Emily was awesomely competent at her job. Throughout the tour, she kept us busy with trivia quizzes. "Twelve times Samantha went home with guys she didn't go all the way with. Who can name them?" For their part, the passengers were equal to the task. Excitedly shooting their hands skyward, they recounted 11 of the incidents in vivid detail, causing me to change my initial impression of my fellow participants: They weren't frustrated housewives desperate for cheap sex, but rather Shakespeare-scholar intellects who'd chosen pop culture as their milieu.

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Shakespeare-scholar intellects?
photo: Robert Sietsema
After weaving through the narrow streets of the Village, taking several tight turns the bus could barely manage, and traversing the meatpacking district twice, we looped back to Hudson Street. There we passed the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a sidewalk café where Carrie and Miranda both discovered their exes drinking with new girlfriends. We stopped next at Hudson and Bank. Trooping out, the fans were offered a choice of small, colorfully frosted cupcakes from a box on a park bench. "These are from Magnolia Bakery," Emily had said, gesturing toward the famous cupcake bakery across the street, itself a location for the show. But later, when she caught us poking through the garbage and examining the cupcake box, Emily confessed to the entire bus that the cupcakes weren't really from Magnolia, but from Butter Cup Bakery. (Magnolia limits customers to a dozen cupcakes a day.) She assured us they'd been made with the same recipe by the former partner of Magnolia's current owner. We felt ashamed for bursting her bubble.

The time had come for the sacred pilgrimage to Carrie's house, which, we were warned, was used only as an exterior. "When we turn the corner, you'll be amazed at how familiar and beautiful it is," she intoned poetically. "This is where everything happened." The participants fell silent as they lined up quietly across the street, awaiting their turn to take photos. Meanwhile, I led my editor around the corner to Charles Street, where Sarah Jessica Parker's real brownstone stands. TV house and real house looked scarily alike.

Back in the bus, we set off for Soho, "where anyone serious about shopping goes shopping," Emily observed. Afterward, we found ourselves stopping in front of Onieal's Grand Street in Little Italy, which had served as a location for the bar Scout on Sex and the City. Emily encouraged us to drink as many cosmos as we could manage in 20 minutes at the discount price of $8. I wondered how we would manage to drink any at all, until I saw the small pre-made drinks lined up on the bar.

We asked Emily about her future at On Location. "I used to think the tour would stop after the show was canceled on HBO," she noted, "but the tour kept getting more and more popular, so that now we do 20 a week. And the Sex and the City movie is about to start filming. When it's released in 2008, who knows what will happen?"

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