An undercover experience, for a price

John Kelly
Columnist November 12, 2012

“You can get away with a lot in public,” Kelly Buffenbarger says not long before proving it.

The people strolling through Lafayette Square are so focused on their smartphones that they barely notice when Kelly sits on a bench, peels off her jeans and then smooths out the bottom of the tight black dress that has been rolled up underneath.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

She then removes the grayish-green, shapeless windbreaker she’d been wearing, takes the black knit cap off her head and shakes out her hair. The final touch: a big pair of Jackie O sunglasses. Voila! Kelly has gone from frumpy tourist to chic working girl.

If I were, oh, a secret agent who lost Kelly momentarily in the crowd, I might not recognize her. That’s the point of her little exercise, performed at a recent dry-run for SideTour, a New York City-based company that is introducing what it calls “experiences” to Washington.

This particular experience is “Go Undercover With a Former CIA Disguise Technician.” That’s what Kelly was from 1997 to 2000, though “Kelly Buffenbarger” isn’t her real name. With “Argo” in theaters, I thought it might be cool to check out the tour.


"Kelly Buffenbarger" (not her real name), a former CIA disguise technician leads a tour for NYC-based company SideTour. (Andrea Hackman/Courtesy Photo)

Our group met outside a CVS on G Street NW. Kelly said agents in the field are issued disguise kits, but in an emergency you can whip up something from the aisles of a drugstore. Hair dye, mascara, a sling and shoe inserts can help you lose a tail.

You’re asking yourself: shoe inserts? A big part of pretending to be someone else is remembering that you’re someone else. If you want to change your look, why not change your entire carriage with a limp. And to remind yourself that you limp, stick an insert in one shoe.

SideTour was started in August 2011. The inspiration was a six-month, round-the-world trip that co-founder and chief executive Vipin Goyal took with his wife. Their best memories, he said, were from intimate little experiences: the craftsman who described his work, the cook who welcomed them to dinner.

It happened infrequently, he said, but each time it was meaningful. He thought: “I would gladly pay for experiences like that.”

Why, Vipin wondered, are we in “discovery mode” only when we’re on vacation? “I didn’t want to put the blinders back on,” he said. So he started SideTour, where you can pay for the sort of encounter with people you might stumble onto serendipitously.

People such as Kelly Buffenbarger, whose day job now is as a historian at an area museum. She ticks off some disguise facts: It’s easier for men, since they can add and subtract facial hair. Long hair — on either gender — is an “attractor,” likely to draw attention. Yes, the CIA can make full-face masks, but they’re rare. Just imagine if you’re an agent and your luggage is searched at the airport. When the TSA agent holds up a “Mission: Impossible”-style mask, you’re busted.

The titles of the SideTour offerings sound as if they were written by J. Peterman. In New York City, you can “Explore New York’s Hip-Hop World with Beatboxer Grey Matter” and “Train at Gleason’s With a World Boxing Association Champion.”

There’s also “Dine With a Banker-Turned-Monk at an East Village Monastery” and “Make a Meal of Samosas and Chutney with an East Village Monk.” They happen to be two different monks, monks apparently being as common in the East Village as nose-ringed NYU students.

The cost for a SideTour is about $50, and Vipin says the groups are kept small, usually no more than 10. They started in New York and have moved to Washington and Chicago. Chicago being a city built on meat, I asked if there were any meat-related tours there.

“We’re hoping to get a sausage experience on our list,” SideTour’s Joanna Ehrenreich said.

Maybe they could do something similar in Washington, but with figurative sausage: “Strong Arm a Politician for an Earmark with a Registered Lobbyist.”

In fact, few of the D.C. tours so far are especially D.C.ish. “Hand-Roll and Decorate Your Own Truffles With a Chocolatier” could be offered anywhere. How about these for prototypically Washington “experiences”:

“Go Shopping for Milk, Bread and Toilet Paper with a Suburbanite Fearful of an Approaching Snowstorm.” “Stand in a Slug Line With Someone From Manassas.” “Sit on the Curb and Pound on an Overturned Bucket With a Go-Go Drummer.”

What else?

Help Children’s Hospital

Of course, there’s no better Washington experience than donating to our annual campaign for Children’s National Medical Center. We’re raising money for the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which helps poor families pay their medical bills.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to washingtonpost.com/childrens
hospital
or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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