As a family sat down for pancakes at the IHOP on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in late August the manager saw a man come off the M35 bus, walk over to the restaurant's 10-foot tall windows, unzip his pants and urinate right in front of them.
The man using the sidewalk as a bathroom had just gotten off the M35 bus, which around 1,000 men use each day to travel to and from homeless shelters and other residential facilities on Ward's Island. These men, many of them ex-convicts and registered sex offenders, walk the streets of Manhattan to work, look for a job, go to medical visits, see their case workers, gather recyclables, or—some allege—loiter until they return the Ward's Island.
"It's a disturbing situation," said Nina DeMartini-Day, who owns two buildings in front of the bus stop, referring to the chronic filth and congestion on 125th Street.
She and other community members are trying to ease congestion and crime in the area by pressuring the MTA to move the bus stop and the NYPD to enforce loitering laws in the area. On the weekend of September 21st, officers made 20 arrests for aggressive panhandling near the bus stop; it was not clear how many came from Ward's Island.
The sidewalk in front of the IHOP still smells like urine. In late September, Lexington Avenue between 125th and 126th streets was covered in cigarette butts, empty cans of beer, crumpled up wads of napkins and pink, chunky vomit. It's unclear whether men from Ward's Island made the mess, but local residents blame the M35 riders for the unsightly conditions.
The M35 makes three Manhattan stops but most people get on and off the bus on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. From there, it makes multiple stops along Randall's Island at the golf center, the FDNY Fire Academy and Ichan Stadium until it reaches the Charles H. Gay Center on Ward's Island.
The disgruntled residents proposed moving the Lexington Avenue stop to 125th Street in front of the Pathmark, closer to Third Avenue. The store gave them a letter of approval signed by the company's director of public affairs, Rich Savner, but the MTA does not want to move the stop because it is in a major transit hub where multiple bus and subway lines meet, according to an MTA spokesperson. A subway stop and three other MTA bus routes rest on that intersection.
Every day during rush hour the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street fills up with people coming home from school or work, families eating out and homeless men returning to Ward's Island.
On a Friday in late September, a group of homeless men made catcalls while waiting for the M35. One of them chased the prettiest women coming out of the subway but never caught them. A bad limp forced him to walk with a cane.
A tough job search
Also waiting for the M35 was Stephan Ruffil, 34, an Army veteran who moved to New York City from Richmond, Va., a few weeks ago. He was homeless in Richmond and he is homeless in New York.
"It's better here," he said. "There's more opportunity."
Ruffil leaves the shelter on Ward's Island at 8 a.m. every morning to look for work. He turned in around 80 job applications as he walked through Harlem along Lexington Avenue as far south as 30th Street.
The only job he heard back from Chuck E. Cheese's on 125th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue. But they took the offer back when they found out about Ruffil's visible tattoo—the words South and Side on the back of each hand.
He got the tattoo in Colorado while serving in the Army with the 92 Sierras in Fort Carson.
"Laundry Specialist," he said referring to his job in the Army.
Ruffil hopped on the M35 at 5:13 p.m. It was full of men, including the catcallers, heading back to the shelter. No one paid to get on and the bus driver didn't seem to mind.
As the bus crossed the Triborough Bridge, a man in the back played a song on his phone. The men around him, some drinking out of 24-ounce cans hidden in brown bags, nodded their head.
"Tupac," said Ruffil, "Ain't nothing but a gangsta party."
He struck up a conversation with another man on the M35. Derrick Harris, 37, was recently released from Bare Hill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in upstate New York where he lived for the 13 years while serving sexual assault charges. Prison prepared him for life in the shelter.
"It's the same mentality," he said. "The only difference is that you can leave anytime you want."
According to residents of the shelter, most people on Ward's Island have a criminal history. One hundred and four registered sex offenders list Ward's Island as their permanent address. The Department of Homeless Services, which provides its own shuttle to and from Ward's Island free of charge, would not comment on the residents' criminal records. "We strive to provide a structured, positive living environment for the men on Ward's Island where they are linked to employment and city supports to gain self-sufficiency and return to the community as quickly as possible," said a DHS spokeswoman in a statement.
Some of Charles H. Gay Center's residents remember talking to David Albert Mitchell days before he raped an elderly woman in Central Park. They said he lived there shortly before the crime.
Waiting for a ride
The M35 reached the shelter as the sun set. It was peaceful compared to the chaos of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.
There was plenty of open space to watch the orange sky and few fall buildings to block the view. A large football field with artificial turf lay across the street but the residents weren't on it. It was used by a coed flag-football league that came on and off of Ward's Island on rented school buses.
Inside the shelter, Ruffil shared a room with 15 strangers. Lights go on at 6 a.m. and most of the residents are out by 8 a.m. Some of the shelters (though not Charles H. Gay) lock bedroom doors from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. to encourage residents to get out and look for work. Curfew is at 10 p.m. and if residents aren't back, they end up spending most of the night outside.
After Ruffil headed in, a large man on a wheelchair came out. He was heading to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue to buy cigarettes. Daniel Ampo, 51, showed up early for the M35 because there's only room for two wheelchairs. If there are more than two, and there often are, he'll be forced to wait for the next bus.
Ampo, an amputee, lost his job and his right left after a motorcycle accident in 2007. A year later, he lost his home.
"I can still work whatever job they give me," he said. "I got a right to work."
The shelter doesn't offer many services for disabled people, he said. Ampo felt stuck in that shelter on the island and spent most days rolling around the complex, reading and watching TV. Shelter operators recently limited TV time to two hours.
"They're trying to cut back on energy," he said. "I can charge my chair but sometimes I can't charge my phone."
Ampo waited for everyone to get on the bus before being lifted by a special wheelchair elevator. The M35 was crowded and he ends up sitting near a man who recently completed a nine-week training program where he learned to cook. The shelter hired him to work in the kitchen. But the newly employed cook left Ward's Island to eat dinner in East Harlem.
"The food isn't so good there (in the shelter)," he said. Then added, "Don't use my name. I don't want to lose my job."
The 40-year-old cook was trying to save enough money to move out of the shelter. As the M35 rode through East Harlem, he eyed potential apartments.
Life on the island was beginning to depress him. Staff members don't always differentiate between the crack heads and the rest of the residents, he said.
"Those of us that want to get out we get up and we work," he said.
When the M35 gets to East Harlem, the cook rushed off toward Lexington Avenue. Ampo, who was quiet throughout the bus ride, waited for everyone to get off before the bus driver could lower him onto the sidewalk.
On the sidewalk, he was almost directly in front of Sinergia, a non-profit that helps people with disabilities.
Myrta Cuadra-Lash, the organization's director, dedicated over 40 years of her life to community service and has seen how quickly one's life can change.
"I know that if it weren't for a little bit of luck I would be on that bus," she said. Cuadra-Lash hoped that moving the bus would help clean up the street but also help the people that ride it every day.
"I can relate to those people," she said, "When I see those people it just breaks my heart."
Ampo turned his chair away from the building and headed to a store for his cigarettes.