Taking the Boy Out of NYC

David Foster, L.Ac.
12 min readApr 10, 2024

Seated on the long, overground train, facing the wrong direction, attempting to get writing done on my morning commute, it became difficult to focus. Across the aisle was a handful of locals, fellow commuters, parents, one of whom had run into the rest by chance, joyfully commiserating over what I labeled cliche suburban talk, in spite of my wife and I having moved to the coolest suburb possible.

They weren’t doing anything wrong — in fact they seemed lovely. They discussed one of my favorite TV shows, Succession, and I smirked to myself that I might fit in better with them, better even in this place, than I prefer to believe. Then again, there are millions of people who have almost nothing in common except for their love of The Godfather, The Beatles, or Biggie Smalls. Succession was transcendently dope. It was the remainder of the train crew’s dialogue that triggered my life’s latest loss, my fear of having failed, and *fear of missing out.*

“Yeah, Aidan just refuses to wear his 3T clothing though,” the newcomer said, laughing like it was his opening bit. “And I’m looking at him, like ‘Hey buddy, your sleeves are too short. Are you sure you don’t want to wear your new clothing that Mommy spent $79 on, and actually fits you?’ But, no, he doesn’t. He insists on wearing these 2T outfits that are all worn down, so now we have to decide: ‘Do we return these and just forego 3T altogether?’”

Insert hysterics from the friendly crowd and I wished I could stand up on the train in full Yankee uniform with a slice of pizza in one hand and revolver in the other and blow my brains out while N.Y. State of Mind, by either Billy or Nas, played in the backdrop. Probably Nas as the lead in and Billy for the final credits, that interim of stunned silence as my blood pooled the floor of some stale, metal New Jersey transit car, an ironic image as my own family plot awaits me in the iconic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

But I am still alive. Still attuned to my surroundings, which got worse. Dialogue about family photoshoots, which photographer they used, and a callback to outfit resistance in said setting. Your three-year-old doesn’t want to dress up like a private prep school student, go to some studio, pose, and smile on cue for two hours? Ya don’t say?

I rationalized that they’d gotten on the train before me. They were not from our suburb, but one of those further out from the city, one that is lamer, whiter, or wealthier, though no more expensive. Essex County is brutal.

Our town is cool. It’s Liberal — extremely Liberal, somewhat bohemian, and although my ego would have preferred a New York address, the people here seem kinder and more progressive than those from bordering New York suburbs. There is a strong prioritization of community, and it is diverse, though at times seemingly in a way that gentrified blocks in Brooklyn are. Sure, we literally see one another every day, but we don’t yet know each other. Our kids don’t go to school together, and we might be guilty of presuming presumptions by one another in our typically brief exchanges. I don’t yet *understand* the black people here, which for a lifelong New Yorker and worshipper of everything hip hop, remains a hang-up for me.

I like to think I was New York before I even truly arrived in January of ’97. I was born in Manhattan in the summer of 1978, summer of the blackout, to parents who were native New Yorkers, as were their parents before them. I was raised 15 miles north, in Rockland County. As a kid, my father would bring me into his office on E. 46th St. Mom would bring my brother and me to Central Park on the weekends. In high school I became fluent in Spanish through girlfriends and friendships with Dominican weed dealers in Washington Heights, serendipitously the same area the Jewish side of my family hailed from. New York awaited me.

Unlike most suburban transplants, my city friends were natives. They’d gone to schools like Humanities, LaGuardia, “Tech,” or UNIS; and rolling with them daily as a teenager offered me an urban apprenticeship most “transplants” don’t get. I became a stand-up comic, and by 2004 I was locally famous on the black comedy circuit. I lived in the city for 26 years, except for a two-year stint in Los Angeles, which let’s be honest, is kind of a rite of passage for any real New Yorker. I identify as New York. More than I do a (white) Jew, a Liberal, an artist, hip-hop head, or anything else, if I had to name my religion it would be “The City.

Commuter trains are admittedly great for getting work done. I never could’ve written this article on the F train from Forest Hills, that is on the rare occasion that I would have even gotten a seat. My seats have cushions and elbow rests and if I choose to I can doze off without worrying about being stabbed. That’s nice I guess, but how much of life is lost with such peace of mind? Living on a schedule is annoying, going out with friends after work and periodically checking my phone to make sure I don’t miss my train. The hundred people funneling to one exit on the train platform can be tedious, not to mention that NJ Transit’s operational reliability makes the MTA look like the PATH. Delays, cancellations, signal problems, and apparently there aren’t enough tax dollars to install chairs to sit on in Penn Station. Popping squats on the concrete steps, like a sixth grader waiting to be picked up from basketball practice, either a few feet above or below an unkempt, rambling homeless man, is the least comfortable setting in which I’ve ever waited for public transportation.

If I go too long without a ride, I forget how much I miss the MTA. I mentioned this to a friend who looked at me like I was expressing a longing to have thumbtacks flicked at my face. But if you’re a New Yorker you can’t help it; it’s like trying to get others to fall equally smitten with the unique quirks of the partner you fall in love with. The unique touch of her soft, clammy hands or the way her head juts forward and eyes squint closed when she laughs. These are not listed as desires on anyone’s dating profiles, anymore than the grit and grime, unpredictability, or interpersonal coldness are on most checklists for where to live. But I love it.

I get excited to step on the 2 or 3 train once a week (for my other job location). I get to see “everyone,” and they see me. It’s like a reunion, but I’m the only who knows it’s taking place. Maybe it’s an extrovert thing, a city-boy thing, maybe those are one in the same, but I love scanning the car and in one fell swoop seeing the entire world encompassed in its capital.

Is it the superficial diversity of New Yorkers that I recognize as “my people,” the infinite variance in styles, vibes, and presentation? Statistically, NJ Transit might be almost as racially diverse, but racial diversity isn’t the only kind of diversity. On morning commutes, for example, my train is filled uniformly with 30–60-year-old employed people. Where are the teenagers and old’s, the homeless or impossible to labels, and the who-the-fuck-knows? How are young black and Asian kids dressing these days? How are young women accentuating beauty this winter, and who will be the winner today, of best costume or most functionally insane? On commuter trains I’ll never know, as we can see only the one or few people next to us. New Jersey is an obvious cousin culture to New York, but it’s not the same. It’s just not home.

You can tell someone doesn’t get it when their lead remark in sympathy is about the food. “You must miss the restaurants in New York, right?” is an easy way to diagnose a privileged transplant who doesn’t understand New York at all. While I do love and miss fine or sexy dining by top chefs, I spent most of my decades in the city around the poverty line, rarely able to explore them. It isn’t the restaurants or theater for which real New Yorkers love New York. It’s the beat and mystique, the intangible sense of being in the center of the world, where no two days are the same, no two blocks are the same, where hip hop was born, John Lennon died, and I experienced most of my greatest joys and heartbreaks in life. It’s the annual Puerto Rican Day or Pride Parades — not that I necessarily need to ever attend either again. I just want to walk out my front door in the morning and feel their impromptu presence, to spend the day inadvertently bathed in the peripheries of their celebrations, even if only as the backdrop of my own story. ‘Namean? Plenty of suburbs­ — especially ones like ours — have lots of “cool” or “fun” events that you can go to all year, but you must go to them. Get in the car and have a plan, find parking, and attend them to experience them. New York, on the other hand, happens to you even while you are happening to it. It’s like great sex in its organic reciprocation of energies, our personal agendas fueling the city as the city inspires our agenda on a simple walk to the train. Add a dash of Wu-Tang or Illmatic in your headphones and the intoxication is enough to momentarily delude you into believing life is great.

My new walk from the train (to work) takes me down Broadway, from 31st to 21st Street, and shortly after moving in I saw scrawled in black paint on one of the sidewalk squares on 29th and Broadway, “New York isn’t the same without you.” On days when I am in good spirits it brings me down a bit. On days when I feel bad I feel a bit worse. “Is this some kind of sign, that I failed myself again?” For the moment, who cares? I’m late for work. I have to pee, my aging mom is calling me, and my hands are cold from the brisk air blowing off the intersection. I roll my eyes, walk over the vandalized cement, and put it behind me.

I married a Jersey girl, a home body and an introvert, and strangely I kind of love these things about her, almost as much as I love the way her eyes squint and chin juts forward when she laughs at my jokes. As a failed stand-up comedian, it’s important to marry an easy crowd. She is my opposite, my complement, which is perfect, but also challenging in our opposing values of what fuels us.

My wife grew up forever determined that she would be a homeowner. When we got serious, “engaged to be engaged,” I relayed to her that I’d never leave the city, so we compromised, vaguely the way newbies in love do, on a more suburban area of Queens. There she could have her house and I could remain in New York.

When the pandemic hit and we got pregnant everything changed. Her needs for space, everyone’s need for space, skyrocketed along with the cost of houses. The only actual cribs in Queens within our budget looked like absolute shit, as my friend calls them, “Oscar the Grouch houses,” that were so far from Manhattan we might as well be in Jersey. We argued for years, stuck in a game of marital chicken over hard lines that came to define our dynamic. It scared and frustrated both of us, and surely created an invisible barrier to our affection, each one perceiving the other as standing in the way of their dream.

Hers was the easier, more logical argument: Cost, space, safety, schools, etc., versus the “magic,” “vibe,” or “culture” of New York. Though I’ve always taken exception to the ubiquitous assumption (by outsiders) that once you have kid(s) it is a given to leave the city, as if literally millions of people from all social classes don’t raise their kids in New York. I understand it is harder, but so is respectful parenting, so is self-discipline, or artistic pursuits.

We compromised on “SOMA,” South Orange/Maplewood, where every hipster-yuppy “from Brooklyn” (which is to say lived in post-Giuliani Brooklyn for 5–15 years) recently moved to, thereby surging housing costs while diluting the diversity that attracted them in the first place, ironically. The food mostly sucks, but there is culture, and it seems like everyone we meet wants to chill and build community. The town pool is a five-minute walk, the downtown is ten, as is my train station. I don’t have to drive and park in some sad commuter lot or take a bus into the Port Authority. I love sitting on my front porch situated just a few steps from a sidewalk that boasts at least as much foot traffic as most blocks in Los Angeles. There are barbeques all summer, and I’ll never understand how people have made barbeques synonymous with trite, domesticated Dad culture. If you think barbeques are uncool surely you’ve never been to Harlem in the summertime.

I literally cried at my desk on the first weekend after we left. Existing in a state of low-grade anxiety, of becoming the kind of suburban muggle I spent the entire first half of my life detesting, defining myself as other than, now seated next to him, as our train traverses the uninspiring fields and rusted smokestacks that hug the Jersey Turnpike. I feared losing touch with civilization, even as I continued commuting in and remain close with city homies. I fear losing my geographic knowledge of the five boroughs, of being able to visualize nearly every corner in Manhattan and having at least one distinct memory from there.

But on my better days I see SOMA as possibly more “New York” than 21st century New York is. Recall images of the outer boroughs and even Manhattan in the 1960’s and 70’s, where there was a sense of neighborhood and cultural identity, block parties, which in modern NYC is all but lost, with the exception of certain low-income hoods. Mom and Pop stores that once defined New York have been replaced by CVS, 7–11’s, and other institutional chains of middle-Americana that dilute the romantic allure of our city of the 20th century. To this end, there are days where it is not my wife’s steadfast determination for a house that I resent, but New York, for allowing itself to evolve in a direction that became unhospitable for someone like myself. I agree, New York is not the same without me, and it’s New York’s fault I’ve been replaced, by some pseudo-right wing white collar from Montana who just bought a loft in Flatbush. If the city was a person, I’d curse him out in Spanglish and Ebonics, spit on his shoes, while blasting Redman and Fugees out of the window of my huge fuckin’ crib. I am mad.

There should be a discount for natives — some kind of rent or mortgage reduction for those of us who come from here and contributed to its cultural history, as opposed to the out of state vampires just passing through to leach off of our energy and food, inadvertently pricing out its greatest source of nourishment so they can take and squat for a few years.

A protagonist’s role in old New York was my dream, and on my better days in SOMA I wonder if it’s something I haven’t in some way achieved. While my ego may never get over the fact that on our next trip to Paris I have to answer, “New Jersey” as home, it is possible my existential reality is more Brooklyn than it would have been in Park Slope, living next to some over-stressed marketing executive who has no interest in block parties. I’ll never know. Beyond the lame commuter trains, plus the high cost and hard work of home ownership, I have little to gripe about. Honestly, we probably landed in the best possible suburb in the tri-state area. But PLEASE–for God’s sake, don’t move here if you’re not cool. You know who you are.

On one hand, I will always be a New Yorker. I was born there and lived most of my life there. I care not for the remainder of America any more than America does for the rest of the world. My family plot is in Brooklyn, where my body will one day spend all of eternity. On the other hand, I didn’t technically grow up in New York City — friends who did will always remind you as much. I am not raising my daughter there. These are significant facts that I hope one day will no longer bother me. Maybe the day that it does I will be finally free, if not finally unaware that I am finally uncool. I’ll crack jokes on the train about my child wanting to wear unfitting outfits at family photo shoots, and a warm circle of friends whom I love will laugh.



David Foster, L.Ac.

Acupuncturist and Chinese medicine in NYC, special focuses in neurological, psychiatric, orthopedic, and autoimmune conditions. Hip Hop Head, '88-'98