December 8, 2022

From Wards Island to Amazon Warehouse in Jersey, This Commute Is Hell on Wheels

Saheed Adebayo Aare has had to navigate a lot since arriving from Nigeria and gaining asylum. His 31-mile one-way commute by bus, train and wheelchair is no exception: He travels six hours round-trip for a four-hour shift.

A little after 5 p.m six days a week, Saheed Adebayo Aare begins the odyssey to work, rolling his wheelchair down a ramp at a men’s shelter on Wards Island.

The 31-mile one-way trek takes him from a bus to two subway lines, needing six elevators, then onto another bus and finally rolling his wheelchair two miles through Carteret, N.J., to his seasonal job at an Amazon warehouse.

Aare, a 26-year-old athlete, spends more time on his round-trip commute — six or seven hours, usually — than he does at work, where he sorts orders for the online giant from 8:15 p.m. to 12:15 a.m., six days a week. In other words: He commutes about 40 hours a week so he can work 24 hours at an hourly wage of $15.25.

“I like it,” Aare said. “But what I’m trying to do is get transferred to New York once I work six months.”

The bi-state commute — which, on the return, includes a Lyft trip to a New Jersey Transit train station and a ride to the shelter on a paratransit van from Penn Station — presents a series of potential stumbling blocks for Aare.

“You have to hope every elevator works, so I am always checking the MTA app,” he said. “I want to get to work on time.”

Aare, a competitive tennis and basketball player, is used to overcoming obstacles.

In July, THE CITY reported that two of Aare’s wheelchairs were mistakenly thrown out by staff at the Clarke Thomas Men’s Shelter on Wards Island after he was placed in a Manhattan isolation hotel that had a non-working street-level lift to the lobby.

Saying the stay at the isolation hotel was “like a prison,” Aare asked to be transferred back into the shelter system he has been in since arriving in New York to escape a life in Nigeria marked by physical abuse, homelessness and gang threats.

In October, Aare landed the Amazon job, creating a new obstacle course for someone who’s navigated the city’s shelter, educational and legal systems while seeking refugee status, which he was granted in 2019.

“If I don’t make the 6:15 bus from Port Authority, I have to take the 6:30,” Aare said while waiting for an M35 bus that takes him from Wards Island to Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. “If I miss the 6:30, I have to take the 7:15 —  every elevator must work every day and sometimes, elevators break down.”

Aare said he has, on multiple occasions, had to maneuver up and down subway stairs on his own after encountering out-of-service elevators, while strangers carry his wheelchair. If he’s late for work, he’s docked personal time.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “Sometimes people say, ‘Let me help you,’ but I don’t owe anyone nothing, I owe myself.”

MTA data shows that, since January 2020, subway elevators were in service 97.6% of the time during the evening peak.

This past Wednesday, Aare’s commute was slowed mostly by a plodding line at the 125th Street fast-food restaurant where he picked up a meal that he stuffed into his backpack for later. 

On subway platforms, he goes to the spots closest to elevators. At 125th Street, he reached the platform as a train pulled in, and entered as the doors closed on his wheelchair.

“I use the subway all the time, so I have to know my way around,” he said. “But it’s hard on the wheelchair.”

He zipped through the long passageway that links the Times Square-42nd Street station with Port Authority Bus Terminal, despite ramps at both ends that are not technically wheelchair accessible because of their incline.

“It’s a workout,” Aare noted.

Upon reaching his gate at the bus terminal, police activity kept him from being loaded onto an NJT bus by lift for 15 minutes. 

The driver helped Aare from the 116 bus at about 7:45 p.m. for the last segment of his journey by wheelchair, rolling past houses, then crossing a dark road with truck traffic. Fifteen minutes later, he slipped on an orange vest before beginning his four-hour shift.

On his worst commutes, Aare said, he’s waited nearly two hours for paratransit service once he’s at Penn Station and returned to the shelter around 4 a.m.

If he eventually lands a job and his own apartment in the city, Aare figures his hellish rides will be a thing of the past.

“New York is easier for me to move around,” he said. “I’m happy to stay in New York.”

This article was originally posted on From Wards Island to Amazon Warehouse in Jersey, This Commute Is Hell on Wheels

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