Adam Gopnik and Martha Parker, 1985.
Earlier this fall, I got an amusing call from the writer Adam Gopnik. He’d come to Los Angeles as part of the tour for his new book, At the Strangers’ Gate, and was making his way down the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. I was stunned: first of all, it was high noon on a hundred-degree day—the town was absolutely baking—and second of all, he was walking, a rare activity among Angelenos. Luckily, he happened across Greenblatt’s, an old-fashioned deli on Sunset, and sought solace in some chicken soup and a corned-beef sandwich. All of these activities seemed to me evidence that Gopnik was a quintessential, incurable Manhattanite, far away from his natural habitat and relying on his New Yorker instincts for survival.
Gopnik is a virtuosic writer; since joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1986, he has written nine books and covered a myriad of topics for the magazine, from the emigration of the European Roma to the complicated legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald to gun control in America. For many readers, he is synonymous with the pleasures of Paris: he was the magazine’s correspondent there between 1995 and 2000 and wrote the best seller Paris to the Moon, about his young family’s triumphs and travails as modern American expats. (The French Republic even bestowed upon him the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.)
Yet New York City—where he lives with his filmmaker wife, Martha, and their two children—has been an endless source of fascination and material for him. When he first started at The New Yorker, he dispatched himself all over the city, covering table-hockey tournaments in Flatbush, slack-rope walkers who dwelled in boats on the Hudson River, and a community of rivalrous fresco painters. In Strangers’ Gate, a blend of memoir and social observation in which Gopnik specializes, he revisits his arrival in New York from Canada in the early 1980s. The book is a love letter to that vanished town, then an eccentric metropolis of all-powerful magazine editors, landlines, Kodak film, artists’ lofts in SoHo, and bookstores on every block.
At the Strangers’ Gate also seems, at first glance, a whimsical counterpoint to Gopnik’s recent writings about America’s fraught political landscape. Although he once told me that he had never wanted to be any sort of pundit, he was an early whistleblower in the pages of The New Yorker about the threat to democracy posited by Trump, and has been unrelenting in his criticism since. “I feel a sense of emergency every morning,” he says. “We have to bear witness, even if we can’t change minds.” (He is already working on his next book, a political essay defending liberalism). Yet, he maintains, the seeds of today’s landscape had already been planted by the era he documents in the book; the eighties were “the first domino in a line of dominos that have fallen,” he says, leading to the post-9/11, post–financial collapse, Internet-and-social-media-driven realm in which we dwell today.
Gopnik and I spoke about the New York of his salad days, the attributes that make the city uniquely (and peculiarly) alluring, and how New Yorkers seem innately equipped to handle these unstable times.
Why did you feel that this was the moment you wanted to revisit and document 1980s New York?
Two reasons, I think. There’s that beautiful opening line of a novel—what is it? The Go-Between. “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” And for the first time, the eighties seemed like another place—remote enough that you could write and talk about how differently things were done without it seeming too minute to matter. The idea that I could now explain the decade where I came of age to the youngsters who were now coming of age—that was one motive. Also, romantic comedies about young couples in cities are an evergreen form, and I realized that I was remote enough from my own experience to write one about myself, or at least with someone not completely unlike myself, and my wife, at the center.
How would you summarize the book?
It’s sort of two books in one. I mean, they’re not separated at all—they’re adjacent on every page—but half the book is essentially a romantic comedy about a young couple from Canada arriving starry-eyed in New York and about how the stars get knocked from their eyes and replaced by cockroaches. How they learn to look a little less up and a little more down. Tales of young love in tiny spaces, bad first jobs and worse bosses. It’s about how the poetry of imagined New York gets replaced by the prose of experienced New York. The other half of the book is a series of mini-anthropologies about the way the world was organized—the fashion world, particularly the art world, the literary world, and the real-estate world.
Was New York a literary destination for you? What were your goals in coming to the city?
Back then I really wanted to be a songwriter. I had written a college show about the life of Vladimir Tatlin, the great Russian Constructivist architect, and I simply assumed that I was six weeks away from Broadway with a show about him. And we also had once met someone who had been to dinner with someone who had spoken to the sister of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist—some relationship like that—and I had made a cassette of my best songs to send to him, and I never heard back. Still haven’t, in fact. But of course, I was also literary, and my literary infatuation, not surprisingly, revolved around The New Yorker magazine. I began writing pieces for The New Yorker as soon as I arrived. Of course, they didn’t know that for another six years. They were these wry little observational pieces about New York, about fifteen-hundred words, and I would read them out loud to my wife, Martha. If she approved, I would take them down to The New Yorker offices on West Forty-Third Street and slip them under the door.
After about a year of that, I got a mildly encouraging note from someone there, and I am one of those people who cannot be mildly encouraged. It drove me to then start sending them two pieces a week. This went on for six years, and finally they accepted something of mine, a piece about baseball and art history. I joined the magazine a year later.
You’re the poster boy of perseverance. Why did The New Yorker in particular hold such a grip on your imagination?
My love for New Yorker style was rooted in an older generation of writers I had grown up reading—Thurber, White, Liebling, Mitchell, and even more obscure writers like St. Clair McKelway and Wolcott Gibbs. My father, a professor of eighteenth-century English literature, had a keen appreciation for that New Yorker style. He saw The New Yorker as being in a direct line from Addison and Steele, and Sam Johnson. It was very much a presence in my upbringing.
In At the Strangers’ Gate, you write about your early years at Conde Nast. Give us some color about the atmosphere there at the time.
Well, these were the luxe days of the 1980s. Everybody had a car all the time—they lined up outside 350 Madison Avenue. For a while, I was at GQ, and a fashion shoot in those days was like a visit to the circus. I loved every minute of it. It was an escape from graduate school. There’d be two vans parked outside wherever the shoot was going on, jammed with glamorous haircutters, stylists, and makeup artists. The photographers were surrounded by assistants, who were constantly reloading cameras. This was a time when magazines, and fashion magazines in particular, were very much at the center of the culture. When there was an internal revolution, or I suppose I should say an imposed putsch, in a magazine, as happened with Vogue, it was front-page tabloid stuff and on the evening news. It’s hard to imagine that happening again. Also, the line between the published and the unpublished was much fiercer than it is now in the age of the Internet. And, as everyone knows, these days the specific authority of any one magazine or newspaper is much diminished.
You—and The New Yorker—still seem to command quite a bit of authority.
Gopnik at GQ. Photo: Brigitte Lacomb
It used to be total authority. [Laughs.] Magazines traffic in counterfeit authority. One of the things I keenly enjoyed in my GQ years was making up all of these completely arbitrary edicts for men’s grooming. I would sit in my tiny little nine-by-eleven room, and I would write things like, “Always shave in the shower, but never after 10 A.M.” I’d just make things up, and they took on a certain kind of spurious authority by virtue of appearing in print.
That kind of spurious authority is much lessened now. The good part is that we’re not intimidated by fake wisdom in the same way, but the bad part, of course, is that, as everyone says, you no longer have gatekeepers, or any authority at all. I remember when Time Magazine, for instance, published an editorial about Nixon in 1973 saying the president should resign—it was a real tremor, an earthquake. Now it’s impossible to imagine Time Magazine, or any magazine, being able to fundamentally shake the political world by saying anything.
What do you think the biggest change for writers has been over the last few decades?
It’s never been easier to be a writer than it is now—and it’s never been harder to be a professional writer. The space between the availability of instruments of communication and the money you can make by playing those instruments is huge. When my assistants leave me and go out into the world, they all get seen, but they have a hard time getting paid. Right now, we’re in a highly unstable literary economy, and that creates anxiety and anger among writers and readers.
Let’s talk about the Trump factor. Has this administration given the traditional media industry—which has been so beleaguered in recent years—a sense of renewed purpose?
Yes, I think it’s given us both a sense of renewed purpose and a sense of renewed audience. It’s no secret that subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker have accelerated hugely in the past year. I think we may be at an all-time high at The New Yorker. I also think that there’s been a kind of bonding mechanism that’s gone on in the face of this emergency, with people recognizing not only that they have to get more reliable information but that they want to identify with, they want to bond with, the embattled purveyors of that kind of information. So, yeah, I do think it’s given us a sense of renewed significance.
Any writer has a double obligation, as a citizen and as an artist. And at any given moment, those two obligations are always going to be in some kind of contest. We like to say that they complement each other, but they don’t, not necessarily. You want to write about young love, and you’re obliged to write about old hatreds. Sometimes your obligation as a citizen transcends your obligations as an artist, and vice versa. Right now, citizenship seems to me supreme. We have to constantly remind readers of the reality of what’s happening out there—and refuse to engage in normalizing what will never be normal. It terrifies me every day when I see one more outrage being accepted. I hate when I see reporters essentially being compliant with the Trump regime by treating it as though it were normal, by trying to placate in order to get more access. That’s a game reporters have played as long as there have been reporters, and it’s fine to play it in normal times, but it’s wrong to play it in a time of emergency.
Many of your readers associate you with Paris, but can you describe your particular love of New York City and what makes the city uniquely alluring?
New York is dedicated to three principles, or it may be to three minor deities—plurality, verticality, and density. Plurality in the sense that New York has always been a city that’s unashamedly plural in its peoples. Paris has many kinds of peoples in it, but it’s never had an easy conscience about that pluralism. New York has always been proudly plural, and its part of our delight in the city, or it always has been, to go from Chinatown to Little Italy to the Lower East Side and feel each as an equal part of New York.
And then verticality in the sheer physical sense. Manhattan—because it couldn’t grow outward—had to grow upward. It creates half the specificity and a lot of the comedy of New York. And, finally, density. New York has two patterns of busyness, one laid on top of another. There’s the nineteenth-century grid of city streets and subways, trains, trolleys, and cars, and then there’s the twentieth- and twenty-first-century grid of electronic, speed-of-light communication, of texting and emails and tweets. Anybody who’s a citizen of New York is living in both of those worlds at once. Now you can continue staring at your phone even when you’re riding the subway. So you’re living both within nineteenth-century metropolitan busyness and twenty-first-century cosmopolitan limitlessness. That’s the energy of New York, and it’s one of the things I love about it.
Then you add to that a quality that’s, in my experience, sort of unique to New York—the possibility of momentary escape. Paris is a city that’s filled with magnificent public spaces—Champ de Mars, the Luxembourg Gardens—but they’re public and you feel public in them. In New York, I can escape that grid of perpetual busyness by going to, say, the Chapel of Saint Luke in the Fields down in the Village or the reading rooms in the New York Public Library. They’re uncannily silent and removed, little chapels of escape in the huge cathedral of noise.
I’ve seen you in LA recently and I know that you crave the feeling of being back in the city. Can you describe the feeling of New York to me?
David Remnick once said, There’s really no good reason to leave New York. And John Updike said that New Yorkers feel that anyone who’s not living in New York is in some sense kidding. I always have a sense of unbelievable relief when I’m coming home, when I see the skyline of Manhattan crossing the RFK bridge, coming back from the airport, on one of my endless stops on what we call the Perpetual Tuition tour. We all feel insanely lucky, those of us who are pilgrims, who arrived here rather than who grew up here, to have any space in it at all. Night after night, I leave the Duane Reade across the street from our place—because I’m always being sent out for another bottle of San Pellegrino or a tube of toothpaste—and I look up at the windows of our apartment and I feel this rush of pleasure and utter disbelief that Martha and I have made this place, that we actually live here. I always expect to be exiled, expelled, or, at minimum, sent back to live in our first basement apartment. I have that dream most nights.
But New York has this ineradicable appetite for destruction, which is one of the themes of At the Strangers’ Gate. All of the places that Martha and I knew when we moved here only thirty years ago are gone. Yorkville, the German Hungarian neighborhood that we moved into, has vanished. Eighty-Sixth Street is indistinguishable from Fourteenth Street now. SoHo, which was a coherent village devoted to painting and sculpture, is now just a mall like any other. You’d have no idea that it once was the center of Western art making. Things just vanish in New York. Paris is a city of continuity, and New York is a city of total discontinuity.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that New Yorkers can have very light-footed memories. Richard Avedon is sort of the hero, the Gandalf, of my new book, and one of the things that was striking about him is that though he’d lived in New York his entire life, he was totally immune to nostalgia about the city, about his own past in it. So he lived very happily here as a consequence. In that sense, at least, I’m ill-suited to New York because I am weighed down by nostalgia, the way Marley’s ghost is weighed down by chains.
You know, when I’m leaving New York, I always feel that I haven’t understood it or encompassed it. I don’t feel that way about leaving Paris. When I’m leaving Paris, I always feel a rush of sadness, but I know that I’ll be able to come back to it—and to a remarkably intact experience there. I know what it feels like to be in Paris. Still, after all these years, I still don’t actually know what it feels like to be in New York. It always feels like something that I’ll get the next time I visit.
My favorite story about coming back to New York. When my daughter, Olivia, was about three or four years old, we went away to Cape Cod for a month in the summer. We felt obligated to give the kids a break from urban dwelling, but Olivia was very dubious about sand and trees and coyotes. As soon as we were back in New York, we went out to a pizza place on Second Avenue, Nick’s, and you could see she was so happy to be back. We heard some poor benighted drunk cry out, Fuck you, asshole! And Olivia’s ears perked up because she recognized it as the cry of the jungle that she knew. And she looked at me and said, Daddy, aren’t you glad to be back in U Nork?—which was the way she spoonerized her pronunciation. So for true New Yorkers, it does always feel great to come back, no matter what.
Despite New York’s appetite for relentless reinvention, are there common elements that keep New York New York-y as the eras go by?
Yeah, I think so. Firstly, that strangers are welcomed in New York. When we first got there, I felt an enormous sense of possibility. I think that continuing sense of possibility for the pilgrim is a peculiarly New York attribute and attraction. The other thing, of course, and this is a darker attribute, is that New York embodies one of this country’s biggest contradictions—public squalor versus private affluence, as many have called it before me. I still get enraged when the train pulls in to Penn Station and you compare it with any other comparable place in Europe—Waterloo Station in London or the Gare du Nord in Paris—and you realize how terribly impoverished public spaces are in New York unless they’ve been reenergized by private money. You can’t look up at Trump Tower, that kind of Barad-Dur of glitz, without feeling enormous indignation. That’s the other side of New York, aside from all the parts I love, which you have to be conscious of. New York is a city of profound possibility and equally profound injustice, and both of those are integral parts of our experience of it.
Now that Trump is coming up again, this brings me to another one of the city’s eccentricities. Donald Trump is one of the city’s homegrown creations, even though so many people here disown him. When he’s in town, there are hundreds of New Yorkers standing outside Trump Tower screaming, New York hates you! Please riff on this idea of New York’s ability to create these sorts of extravagant characters, for better or for worse.
The first time I encountered the image of Donald Trump, I was working at GQ magazine and I think it was the spring of ’83, or maybe ’84. We did the first cover story about Donald Trump, if memory serves, and I think it does. Graydon Carter wrote the piece. Graydon pointed out that Trump referred to Sixth Avenue as “Avenue of the Americas”—and he was the only person who ever did that. No New Yorker ever refers to the “Avenue of the Americas.” He’s always been regarded as an oafish outsider by real New Yorkers. I think he knows that, and it’s part of the fuel of his enormous resentment and rage. He’s a man who lives on resentment and rage caused by the specter of humiliation and rejection.
I was in the room—the only time in my life I went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—when Obama, with enormous elegance and deftness, took him apart piece by piece in 2011. And you just had to look across the room and you saw a man who was in the grip of humiliation and rage simultaneously. It was terrifying to see. And there’s no doubt in my mind that was the fuel that drove him forward afterward. That sense of being an outsider, of being an alien, being mocked, I think, one thing that drives him on. It’s one of the things that drives vengeful tyrannical autocrats on always, whether it’s Robespierre or Stalin—that strong sense of being excluded.
One of the reasons Trump has always been excluded from New York is that he’s not a philanthropist. It’s easy to buy your way into New York society—it doesn’t require pedigree or any real “social climbing,” you just have to give money to good causes. The Koch brothers, whatever one thinks of their politics, are active in naming theaters and building plazas outside the Met. That may cause a sort of moral confusion for a lot of us because we don’t know how to feel about it, but they do it and you can’t deny it. But Trump never has. I think of Trump as being the anti–New Yorker, and just as the anti-Christ can be confused with Christ, the anti–New Yorker can be confused with the true New Yorker.
Is New York unique in its ability to spawn such an extravagant personality, even if he does embody the antithesis of what we believe New York embodies?
Look, New York provides a circus tent for that kind of personality. I always thought somewhere in the back of Trump’s mind is not so much Roy Cohn—even though he was educated by Cohn in the dark arts—but rather, George Steinbrenner. I’ve always thought Steinbrenner was Trump’s inner demon, in the Greek sense. Steinbrenner in the seventies, when Trump was sort of being formed, ran the Yankees as Trump tries to run the country—as a perpetual series of melodramatic episodes. And clearly Trump regards Rex Tillerson exactly the way George Steinbrenner regarded Billy Martin—he thinks it’s entertaining to threaten to fire him and then rehire him, and I’ve always thought that Trump has Steinbrenner from the seventies inside him as the model of arbitrary authority. But it’s funny when it’s the Yankees, and it’s not so funny when it’s the American government. If you put George Steinbrenner’s finger on nuclear weapons, his feud with Billy Martin would cease to be amusing.
What do you miss the most about the New York City of your early days?
I hate it when people are nostalgic for the sordid, run-down, crime-ridden, and violent eras of the city. That was a large part of our early experience, as I say in Strangers’ Gate. When Martha went to work as a young film editor on Ninth Avenue, they found a dead body in the dumpster on the first floor the first day she worked there. Now, the same building is surrounded with French and Thai and Tibetan restaurants and boutiques and it’s part of the endless monoculture of New York consumerism. But on the whole, I think that’s an improvement. I don’t want to go back to the Ninth Avenue of 1980. I don’t want to have false nostalgia for murder.
At the same time, that New York was still in many respects a manufacturer’s New York, it was a New York of small industries. There was a store devoted to everything, from muttons to bulbs to Brazilian literature. There was a store near us when we first moved in that sold nothing but Hungarian paprika. These amazing small artisanal businesses were part of the joy of New York, and they’ve now largely vanished, or have largely been exiled. I enormously miss New York’s eccentric, weird retailing, that sense of a thousand small cities within the one big city. I used to go walking all day Saturday. As I explain in the book, two of the great inventions of the eighties were Nike sneakers and the Walkman, because the Nike sneakers emancipated the flat-footed Jew to walk as long as he wanted without getting march fractures, and the Walkman allowed you to have your own soundtrack to your wandering. And I used to walk everywhere in Lower Manhattan, from Tribeca to SoHo to the Lower East Side to Chinatown, past John Gotti’s hangout on Mulberry Street. You had this enormous sense of variety.
I miss the prevalence of the kind of jazz I loved when we arrived in New York. You could go to Bradley’s or the Carnegie Tavern and hear that swinging cabaret jazz that’s my favorite music in the world. You still can, you still can. But it seems less like part of the daily interpenetration of life and more something you have to pursue as a special experience.
What do you treasure most about the city now?
I treasure at this moment two things above all. Firstly, the incredible aplomb with which New Yorkers deal with terrorism. We just had another horrific massacre. But people around the country get panicked in a way that New Yorkers don’t. New Yorkers, after 9/11, realized you could live your life or you could live your fears—and New Yorkers chose to live their lives. I admire that, and it’s one of the things that makes me indignant at the way that fear of terrorism is successfully manipulated among those who will never face the possibility of terrorism. Those of us in New York who do face it are the ones least inclined to panic in its face. And at the same time, I treasure the spirit of common resistance to autocratic assertion—the spirit of Trumpism—that I feel so strongly here, and have felt every day since the election. These are the things I’m proudest of, and that give me the strongest sense of citizenship in New York.
Lesley M. M. Blume is the author of Everybody Behaves Badly.
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