Historically, New York City has used its islands in the East River to contain institutions it wishes to keep close at hand but comfortably insulated from polite society. Randall’s Island has, at various times, held an almshouse, a reform school, an orphanage, a rest home for Civil War veterans and an “idiots’ asylum.” Its conjoined twin, Wards Island, housed a pauper’s graveyard, a hospital for destitute immigrants and, since 1937, an immense sewage plant. Now mostly parkland, the two islands still host a residential substance abuse treatment center, two homeless shelters and a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. All are served by one bus: the M35.
Every day, more than 1,000 men, most of them temporary residents of the islands, take the M35 into Harlem to see doctors, visit family, work and look for jobs before returning home in the evening. Measured by duration, the M35 is Manhattan’s shortest bus line. Without traffic, a round trip takes just 22 minutes—a directness perhaps intended to dissuade the M35’s patrons from straying into other neighborhoods.
I watch the bus pull up to 125th Street and Lexington and disgorge its passengers onto the sidewalk. It’s only a few minutes before the next trip is scheduled to depart. The bus driver stands in the empty aisle doing stretches. On weekends, he works as an associate pastor at a church. He has been driving city buses for 14 years, and having earned enough seniority to pick his own route, chose the M35. He hoped the experience might make him a more patient minister.
Men waiting to board cluster around the corner and take one last drag off their cigarettes. One man kneels down, stubs his butt on the pavement and slips it into his work boot. In the front of the bus there’s a hydraulic lift for the disabled. The other passengers wait for a man in a wheelchair to get on before crowding in. The chair’s brakes are broken, and as the bus begins to lumber forward, the man rolls backwards and slams into a seat.
The M35 rumbles through the streets of Harlem, making two more stops before scaling the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to Randall’s Island. The passengers all have the tired, closed-off look of commuters. One man takes an application form out of a manila folder and studies it. Another empties a prescription bottle into his hand and counts the pills. Another, wearing headphones, video chats with a woman on his cell phone; he doesn’t say anything, but watches her talk until his battery dies. An old man is drinking ice tea and staring out the window. Every few sips, he discretely reaches into his jacket and pulls out a plastic pint of vodka, which he tips into the bottle.
A man sitting in one of the handicap seats tells his friend that he hasn’t been able to find a job, so he’s taken to knocking on the doors of houses and asking to wash their windows.
“I say, ‘Sir, I’m homeless, but I’m not helpless. I’d like to clean your windows, earn myself some money.’”
“They like it?” I ask.
“Love it. Some people hear it, they just get out their wallets, like, ‘Son, you don’t even have to clean my windows.’”
“You just take the money?”
“Nope. I always do the windows. I say, ‘Oh no, sir, I don’t want a handout. I want honest pay for honest labor.’ They love hearing that. Some pay double.”
A few seats in front of me, a young man, barely out of his teens, murmurs something. A man sitting across from him stands up.
“The fuck you say to me?” he hisses. He is wearing bulky, institutional-style plastic eyeglasses and is built like a rugby player.
The young man stares ahead, not seeming to notice.
“Say it again,” the big man says. “Say it the fuck again.”
Another passenger comes running up from the back of the bus.
“He didn’t mean nothing,” he says. “Sometimes shits fall out his mouth. He has mental issues.”
The big man stares at the intervener.
“I know him,” the intervener says. “If he said it, he didn’t mean it.”
The big man balls his fist.
“O.K.,” says the intervener. “My mom? She works in the U.S. attorney’s office. You hit me, you hit him? You’re gonna be in jail with a case you can’t win. Right now, you should be thinking about your freedom.”
Everyone is staring now. The big man looks around. Reluctantly, he sits down.
“My man,” says the intervener.
A moment later, the bus driver gets on the PA. “The next stop is for my philosophical passengers,” he says. “Manhattan Psychiatric Center.”
The bus pulls up to a colossal, characterless complex of dun-colored buildings. The big man watches the other men get off the bus and follows them into the night. In the back, two men are mulling the way violence seems to seek them out.
“Someone starts beef, you get swung on,” one says. “Next thing you know you’re in the bullpen looking at two years off an assault charge. For nothing.”
The other nods. “I was coming in last night, and White Mike was trying to start some shit. Now, White Mike has a hernia, and he knows if I hit him in his hernia, he ain’t getting up.” He shakes his head.
Across the aisle, a man in a dirty sweatsuit sleeps spread across four seats, cradling his face in his hands. No one disturbs him.
A few minutes later, a handful of glum-looking men deboard next to the Odyssey House, a residential treatment drug center.
“Give it for the brothers doing the right thing!” shouts someone in the back. A modest round of applause follows.
The last stop before the turnaround is the Charles H. Gay Shelter for Men. A dozen passengers get off, leaving the bus almost empty. An older man with a walker begins to descend the back stairs but misses a step. His walker goes flying, and he falls, face-forward, onto the sidewalk. Men rush to help him up.
The bus enters a roundabout, circles, and makes its way back up the island. As it trundles across the bridge, the lights of Manhattan fall into view. The driver begins to sing softly to himself.
Sometimes the way gets so rough
And the nights are so long
In my hour of weakness, that old enemy tries to steal my soul
But when he comes like a flood to surround me
My God will step in, and a standard he'll raise
Jesus, be a fence all around me
Jesus, I want you to protect me
As I travel along the way
* * *
Matthew Wolfe's work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, and The Nation. He can be reached at matthew.m.wolfe (at) gmail.com.
Simon Moreton is a cartoonist and academic based in Bristol, UK. His regular comic series, Smoo, is all about everyday life.