In one afternoon I found my inner mean girl, contemplated the authenticity of travel, and sacrificed every last scrap of dignity I have.
It’s a Saturday morning in Midtown Manhattan and I’m about to embark on the unofficial Gossip Girl bus tour. The party bus that pulls up next to me seems better suited for a bachelorette party absconding to Atlantic City, except that I’m in line with teens and their legal guardians, and instead of slots and well drinks, I just paid $47 to take selfies 20 minutes away from my apartment.
“Hello Upper Eastsiders, Gossip Girl Here,” says my tour guide, echoing the show’s familiar refrain over the bus speakers. Her voice drips with a certain conspiratorial pleasure. Still nursing a hangover, I trudge to the back of the bus. Before we have pulled away from the curb, the tour guide asks the important question: “Who here is a Chuck Bass fan?” There are squeals. Every hand is raised.
“Chuck Bass is husband!” shrieks a girl in the front row, unencumbered by either braces or a thick Eastern European accent. The three girls in front of me snicker at her.
For those unfamiliar with the Gossip Girl empire, it all began with a series of young adult novels that ballooned into a television series penned by Josh Schwartz, the creator of both The O.C. and The Carrie Diaries. If Schwartz has made a career out of chronicling the exploits of teenagers with disposable incomes, then Gossip Girl is his pièce de résistance.
Sure, the dialogue is stale, but trust me, it doesn’t matter. Gossip Girl is about rich, white teens who anonymously, ruthlessly blog about one another within the confines of the Upper East Side. Their names are Archibald, Waldorf, and van der Woodsen. They talk with the confidence of adolescents who are wearing cashmere socks. Gossip Girl, and the Gossip Girl bus tour, is about social ascension as bloodsport.
Ostensibly, I’m an adult woman who pays rent and can legally purchase alcohol, but I’m consumed by a need for the sovereign approval of a 15-year-old. I contemplate snickering along with the cool clique on this bus.
Did I really just consider bullying someone 10 years my junior? It’s only five minutes into the Gossip Girl bus tour, and I have no dignity to speak of.
As we’re deposited onto the steps of The Met, I square my shoulders and approach a group of girls with cigarettes taking selfies. If anyone’s going to keep it real, it’s them. I ask for a light. As they hand me an Ed Hardy lighter (thank you!), I ask them if they've ever been inside, motioning toward the museum. "We probably won't have time." They already have tickets to Jimmy Fallon and plans to meet their family at Magnolia Bakery.
And, you know? I'm OK with that answer. After all, my experience with high-society Manhattan is equally fraught, if more initmately familiar. My grandmother lives on the Upper East Side and my grandfather rang the New York Stock Exchange bell four times before his business collapsed. My mother, a disgraced debutante who now lives in Philadelphia, went to a private school much like Constance Billard.
And so each stop is vaguely familiar to me. Nate’s townhouse is a few blocks away from my mother’s childhood home, and I used to grab slices of pizza next to Maison Ladurée on Madison Avenue. When I was seven, my Grandmother forced me into a Bendel’s dressing room. I didn’t buy anything.
Through this lens, I realized the significance of the Gossip Girl bus tour. Gossip Girl has taken the city, faithfully translated it, and unintentionally produced an entirely new, more interesting city. Rising in the place of the Statue of Liberty and the Chrystler Building is an entirely new kind of monument: the semi-fictional one. As someone told me: “The Met steps have never been as iconic as they are now because of a couple of bitches dumping yogurt on each other."
The tour bus, plastered with television monitors replaying Gossip Girl’s most iconic scenes, has all the trappings of a postmodern fairytale: The rhythm of a familiar narrative, kept in an air-tight container. Henri Bendel, The Palace Hotel, The Metropolitan Museum are all relics of Gilded Age New York, stripped of their cultural capital and transformed into monuments to Blair Waldorf.
Nothing about these tours is "real New York," and maybe that fairy tale is why I (and dozens of others) got on this bus. Striving for an "authentic" travel experience, especially here, is a pipe dream. Why not embrace the fakeness? Who's to say what part of New York—what part of the Upper East Side—is real or worth knowing? Certainly not me. I have more fealty to my arsenal of passwords for streaming television than to the misguided aspirations of my Blue Book ancestors.
Two rows ahead, a girl has her iPhone pushed up against the dirty bus window, Instagramming a photo of Harry Winston’s storefront. I introduce myself and regurgitate the story about my friend who couldn’t make it in an attempt to appear marginally less pathetic to girl whose skin is encased in body glitter. Finally, I ask, “Why so many photos of the Harry Winston boutique?”
She answers my question in a tone that suggests I am very simple and in need of placation.
“Um, this is where Chuck buys Blair’s wedding ring. The tour guide said that, like, a million times.” I continued. “But, like, have you heard of it outside of Gossip Girl?”
I shrugged. "Cool; me neither."