‘Fretting Is Necessary’ — Five Questions With ‘Person Place Thing’ Host Randy Cohen

Randy Cohen — a writer whose career has ranged from seven years in the “Late Night with David Letterman” writers room to launching “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine — is doing a live recording of his interview series “Person Place Thing” at the opening of “Ebb & Flo: Tapping into the History of NYC’s Water” on March 5. 

“Ebb & Flo” — an exhibition that explores the full history of bringing clean water to New York City — is opening at the New York State Surrogate’s Court on Chambers Street. “Person Place Thing” is an interview show based on the idea that people are most engaging when they speak, not about themselves directly, but about something they care about: a person, place or thing. 

The Downtown Alliance turned the tables and asked Cohen five questions about his process as an interviewer and how he’s preparing for his upcoming show on New York City’s water, among other things. 


On March 5 you’re chatting with Commissioner Vincent Sapienza about the history of New York City’s water and the city’s critical infrastructure. How much do you worry about everything ending? 

To keep my anxiety at a constant level — high — I try to focus on one catastrophe at a time. Currently, it is the demolition of American democracy.  

How do you tend to prepare for these interviews? Is it better to know too much or too little?

A few weeks before a show, I arrange a pre-interview phone call with the guest to learn their person, place and thing. This is partly for their benefit. Many have done a lot of public speaking and assume that “Person Place Thing” is just another interview, no prep required. (Nobody reads the entire email.) I live in fear of being on stage, asking, “So, who is your person?” and receiving a blank yet hostile stare. The pre-interview also helps me prepare. Guests typically know more than I — about Maria Mitchell, the monastery atop Mt. Carmel, a 17th century Dutch brick (each a topic in a past show). I try to make up in plodding preparation what I lack in actual knowledge.

All over the city, people turn on faucets and clean, drinkable water comes out. It’s pretty much taken for granted — but is it wrong to take it for granted? Is it misdirected to think of clean drinking water as a human right?

Both. Access to clean water is a human right, and in a decent country you’d be able to take it for granted. Alas, we live in a country whose president persistently lowers environmental standards and devotes no attention to maintaining our infrastructure, so fretting is necessary. As is a tolerance for official lies. And a supply of liquor. I hasten to add that after the fretting must come action. Then more fretting. Repeat …

In some apartments, the tampering of any tap can totally ruin the pleasure of a nice, long, hot shower. Hypothetical: If there’s a very thirsty person living with a person who enjoys long showers, whose need takes precedence?

Hypothetically? If you’ve taught your dog to operate the faucet, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.

Sparkling or still?

No knock on seltzer, our — well, my — national beverage, but when I’m at a restaurant I go with still, i.e. tap water. New York City continues to have the finest municipal water system in the country. Tasty, too. It would be gross ingratitude not to enjoy it. May I add that as an enthusiastic cyclist, the Croton reservoir system is not just visionary infrastructure, it’s a glorious place to ride.


Thirsty for more? Don’t miss Cohen’s live recording of “Person Place Thing” at the opening of Ebb & Flow on March 5. Get your tickets.