Aug 22, 2023
I lived in New York in 1999. It wasn’t like Sex and the City
As the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sex and the City, Amber Older reflects on the realities of living in New York City during the show’s heyday. When I moved to New York City in 1999, I
As the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sex and the City, Amber Older reflects on the realities of living in New York City during the show’s heyday.
When I moved to New York City in 1999, I knew exactly how my life would look. Every weekday I would glow, but not sweat, through an early-morning gym session. Then my creative juices would flow at my PR agency job, where I’d deliver compelling copy about hot new products. Several nights a week, following cheap and cheerful takeaways, I’d ditch the power suit for a classic LBD and slink off to a neighbourhood bar to sip cosmos with girlfriends, swap industry gossip, and find the man of my dreams. On weekends, he and I would stroll together through art galleries on the Upper West Side, go window shopping on the Lower East Side, and enjoy swanky dinners in Midtown on his limitless tab.
Thanks, Sex and the City.
As fans around the world celebrate SATC’s 25th anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on the life lessons I learned in New York City – a city captivated by Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha. When I landed just before Y2K, images of the fabulous foursome abounded in subway stations, on buses and, of course, on TV. They promised glamour, guys, girl talk, and a bit of graft to support the shoe habit.
I was 29 and had just left my husband and a professionally energising but personally enervating life in Salt Lake City, Utah. Moving to Manhattan was my way of coming home – literally, because I had been born (but not raised) there, and emotionally, because during my marriage I had grown increasingly divorced (pun intended) from the true me. I wasn’t quite sure how, but I knew that biting into the juicy Big Apple as a newly single woman would help me rediscover who I was and wanted to be.
Who I most wanted to be was Samantha. Of all the SATC heroines, she was the sassiest, sexiest and by far the most secure-in-her-skin singleton. Embedded in the crystal-clear vision of my life in NYC were Samantha-inspired, torrid one-night stands, sultry weekends in the Hamptons, and a job that encouraged long liquid lunches. In true Samantha style, on my first day in New York, I bought three things: a cordless electric drill, a can of mace for my keychain, and a vibrator.
At first, my life seemed to mirror my beloved TV show. Just like in the SATC episodes, simply walking around New York was an act of agency and adventure. I was surrounded by a tantalising tapestry of smells, sounds, styles, colours, conversations, curses, and chaos. I channelled my inner New Yorker and started each morning (post gym) with a cream-cheese bagel and a coffee (“CAW-fee”) from the local bagel guy. Symbolically, they secured my place on the busy streets as I power-walked to my Times Square office.
I savoured each step of my 25-minute walk to work, enjoying the bustle of my fellow pedestrian commuters, smiling at those who met my eye, and mingling with the curbside crowd as we waited for the traffic signal to cross. I was living my best SATC life and was eager to share my joy with strangers on the street, even if it undermined my attempts to look like a native (read: sullen) New Yorker.
Outside of work, I devoured the delights of the Big Apple. Attending the 20th anniversary special screening of Nine to Five, I sat right behind Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman. On a Saturday night in Harlem, I jitterbugged with an elderly African American gentleman who knew his way around a jukebox. I went Sunday-afternoon horseback riding through Central Park. And as the New Year’s Eve ball dropped in Times Square, I joined the revellers and ushered in the Millennium waving my French-manicured nails in the air, toasting with top-shelf bubbles, and snorting an illicit substance through a $50 bill. How very SATC.
Over time, however, I noticed changes in myself. Making my way to work each morning, I began to mimic the masses: walking with eyes straight ahead, I no longer acknowledged the people around me. I grew frustrated by the slow-walking woman in front of me and by the loved-up couple holding hands and strolling two abreast – didn’t they know I had a job to get to? I stopped smiling, I stopped savouring. Was the Big Apple losing its sweetness?
The job, too, was starting to sour. I had been hired to work with clients that included a noble bookshop chain and a sexy new line of spirits. Instead, I was consigned to the lower depths of PR hell: pushing paper towels, tissues, and bog roll (sorry, “bath tissue”). My brain was bored, and my soul was withering under the ennui of the corporate consumer division. So much for hot products and liquid lunches.
And, in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t having any sex in the city.
What was going on? Were other New Yorkers feeling the schism between the bright, shiny, bling-filled world gracing our TV screens and the grimy grind of daily life? My colleagues seemed so exhausted from hours-long commutes and endlessly accounting for their work in increments of 15 billable minutes. I couldn’t imagine them living it up after dark. The handful of friends-of-friends I knew all flatted together in the funky East Village and rarely ventured beyond a two-block radius that offered Monday night half-price butter chicken, Tuesday night $2 tacos, and a 24-hour donut shop. I’d promised my parents I would live in a building with a doorman so I was stuck in a hotel row just south of Central Park, overlooking a hotel named after a certain ex-US President and a bunch of parking garages. And just like that, I realised I didn’t know a soul who was living the SATC life in NYC.
Slowly, painfully, I began to accept the chasm between my fantasies and real-life experiences: the showers at my gym gave me athlete’s foot; my neighbourhood bar was an overpriced tourist trap; and the rent was so high for my shoebox studio apartment that, even on a decent PR salary, I couldn’t afford takeaways. I often felt like the only person in New York who used their oven as a cooking appliance, not a cupboard. Plus, my colleagues were either way younger than me or had families in the ‘burbs to get home to.
In mid-2000, eight months after I arrived, I turned down a better PR job and ditched the Big Apple in favour of the familiar fruits of Aotearoa; the country where I was raised. I admit I felt a mix of disappointment and relief when I stepped off the plane in Auckland to start another new life.
But failed fantasies can bring reflection and resilience, and that’s the lesson I relish most from my SATC-inspired stint in New York. Walking the streets of a crowded, sleepless city didn’t make me feel part of something. I felt alone. Feeling alone while surrounded by millions of people is the loneliest feeling there is, and it forced me to think about what really mattered in my life. What mattered was connection, with others and within myself. Today, when people ask if I miss Manhattan, I paraphrase the ever-quotable, magnificently meme-able Samantha: “I love you, [New York City]… but I love me more.”As the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of Sex and the City, Amber Older reflects on the realities of living in New York City during the show’s heyday.