21 questions

Adam Gopnik Is Addicted to Kombucha

Name: Adam Gopnik
Age: 50
Occupation: Staff writer, The New Yorker; author of, among other things, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.
Neighborhood: Carnegie Hill

Who’s your favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional?
Adding fictional, the first image that comes to mind is the little girl in the blue tam who, in Salinger’s Zooey, is seen from an apartment window, hunting for her dachshund. Certainly if one could be in one room in New York it would have to be that crowded Gershwin living room — on Riverside Drive? — in the years when George would play the piano for friends after dinner, and for hours.

What’s the best meal you’ve eaten in New York?
The best? Certainly the one that comes first to mind was one of the first, a dinner my father-in-law, generous man, treated us to at the old Le Lavandou on East 61st Street, high French cooking of a kind that my current chef friends would regard as non-seasonal, hypertraditional, overmanipulated, and under-local: chicken breast stuffed with forcemeat and scribbled with truffle sauce and so on. I loved it, though, and — while today rigorously dining on Hudson Valley ramps and Long Island roots — still secretly miss that old world of rose banquettes and captains and soufflés.

In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job?
In one sentence? In one sentence: I put down one sentence, turn it around, and then turn it around again. Okay: sentences.

Would you still live here on a $35,000 salary?
Well, we did live here once on $3,500 a year (1980, basement, winter, Papaya King), so I suppose it might be possible, though obviously very hard. Like everyone, I worry that the intake of newcomers, on which this city depends as much as a lake depends on an intake of fresh water, becomes more tricklelike every year.

What’s the last thing you saw on Broadway?
In the Heights, which revived our faith — this recurrent third-person refers merely to my wife and myself, not to some superintending editorial presence — in musical theater that begins in real experience rather than cynical calculation, not to mention in Disney movies.

Do you give money to panhandlers?

What’s your drink?
I’ve been converted recently to Kombucha, a strange Himalayan drink that tastes like homemade ginger ale, looks like swamp water, and seems half-alive, with strange filaments of undisclosed origins floating in it. It is, I’m told, the elixir of life, the warder-off-of-all-ills, the kind of thing the 100-year-old man in National Geographic holds up — smiling, toothlessly — in explanation of his years. The wince it brings to the mouth is proof of its good intentions.

How often do you prepare your own meals?
Nightly, for self, wife, and children. This week, salmon with citrus sauce seemed to go over, and chicken breasts breaded with Parmesan, my daughter’s favorite. Cooking is — for men, I sometimes think — a form of false labor, or at least an imitation of it: It begins in hope, passes in pain, and ends in amnesia — amnesia about how messy it is, and how middling the results usually are, therefore encouraging another go.

What’s your favorite medication?
All that Kombucha, obviously. I couldn’t drink it for pleasure.

What’s hanging above your sofa?
A high shelf of hopelessly unsorted books and a white library ladder.

How much is too much to spend on a haircut?
I still remember my first haircuts in New York, at a grim, taciturn barbershop on East 89th Street. They had two prices: one for long haircuts and one for short, and I could never figure out, or get up the courage to demand, whether it was the duration of the haircut or the length of the hair that determined the difference. In any case, I got charged for the long one, and in wedding pictures can still be seen in perfect bowl-cut, unvarying on all sides.

When’s bedtime?
On school nights, we dream of 10:30, though the children sleep when they do.

Which do you prefer, the old Times Square or the new Times Square?
Hmmm … answer the new, and one becomes the advocate for Disney; say the old, and one becomes a nostalgist for squalor. So I’ll say the slightly dimmed, shabbier, but still safer and more lovable Times Square yet to come.

What do you think of Donald Trump?
The right answer is not much; the truthful answer is that there must be something admirable, something big, about someone who can bully his way even into larksome questionnaires.

What do you hate most about living in New York?
Hate? I don’t hate anything about it; I wish that there were more bookstores, record stores, and all the other kinds of weird small stores selling odd small stuff, that make walking in the city, my favorite pastime, less dully monotone.

Who is your mortal enemy?
Surely our lives should be spent, given that we are mortal, not having any other enemy but mortality itself. If I had to answer seriously, I might say anyone who believes that war, and making war, is a form of brisk moral hygiene or spiritual therapy for the prosperous or a sign of moral seriousness.

When’s the last time you drove a car?
Shameful confession: I have never driven a car and, ever-longer odds are now, never will. On summer holidays I sit beside my wife, trying to look like a man who had his license suspended for compulsive, if entertaining, speeding. How this came about is a long story, involving a life spent only in city blocks and city flats and city sneakers, not to mention a bad case of odd wiring and jumpy coordination.

How has the Wall Street crash affected you?
Like everyone else lucky enough not to actually lose all, through anxiety, apprehension, and attrition of accumulated value.

Times, Post, or Daily News?
The Times and the Post, where I read Phil Mushnick with particular pleasure; his war with Mike Francesca, Mr. Know-It-All, being the last of the fine tabloid feuds. (And listening to Mike in the afternoon, now that he is Dogless, remains a daily pleasure — now less a remake of The Honeymooners and more like a grim Beckett monologue.)

Where do you go to be alone?
The New York Society Library; but the joy of New York is that it provides the gift of anonymity even in the midst of a crowd.

What makes someone a New Yorker?
Since the pleasure of New York is its variety, presumably there is no one kind. But the New Yorkers who seem to thrive here longest — I think of Phillip Hamburger and Brendan Gill, two old and much-missed colleagues — have a particular lightness of heart, a lightness of internal steps, that allows them to shake off nostalgia for the older New York that is disappearing every day and to welcome, not with faked enthusiasm but with real delight, the new one just arriving now. It’s the same kind of fragile but unimpeded pleasure that New York kids take in a midwinter snow, insisting on sledding on one bare quarter-inch of powder and somehow managing to make it a scene right out of The Magnificent Ambersons. Sledding on thin snow.

Hear Gopnik speak Feb. 13th, 7 p.m. at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble, 97 Warren Street; 212-587-5389

Adam Gopnik Is Addicted to Kombucha