My Long Ride With Alice

Claire Bellerjeau recounts her experience navigating the 9 Town Transit Shoreline Shuttle. Claire is Director of Development & Outreach with The Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries and she rode the shuttle to better understand the everyday challenges facing those who rely on 9 Town Transit service. Following is her testimony at the public hearing in Westbrook on April 3, on behalf of the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force, against possible reduction in transit service.

9 Town Transit Shuttle
The Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force recognizes the significant importance of the 9 Town Transit Shoreline Shuttle on the ALICE households of our communities.  We know that 22% of our households are Asset Limited, Income Constrained yet Employed households and an additional 8% of our households are living in poverty.  Public Transportation is often the most viable way for financially compromised people to move around in our community.  The proposal to eliminate the 7:30am, 12:30pm and 3:30pm weekday stops in Old Saybrook has a significant potential for negatively impacting those who need to get to appointments and more importantly employment opportunities.  We understand the struggle when making tough decisions during budget cuts but think that Old Saybrook is a vital hub for our transportation system.  We would be interested in learning more about the studies that were done to determine how the three stops, out of the thirteen, were deemed the less likely to impact the households in our area.
My Long Ride with ALICE
As I neared the Stop & Shop in Madison, walking the short distance from my house, I nervously checked my phone for the time. 6:53am – and the 9-Town Transit was due to leave the Madison Gazebo at 7:00am. I’d never taken the bus before, but in preparation for my 10am meeting in Essex I had poured over the brochure with the bus routes and timetables, and unbelievably, in order to make my meeting on time, I had to catch the 7:00am bus.
Sure enough, there it was, right on time. The driver was walking over from the store, and one other rider, a man in his early 20’s, was sitting at a nearby bench. When our driver was in her seat, we got on too, dropping our $1.50 in the clear plastic box. “Transfer, please,” I said, and she tore me off a paper slip, along with a schedule to double check my connection. I’d be taking the “Riverside” bus after arriving at the Old Saybrook train station. The driver plugged her phone into the sound system, and to the tune of upbeat 80’s pop songs, we were off.

The young man told the driver he was headed to the Shell Station, not far up Rt. 1, and I imagined he might be a cashier, or possibly an auto mechanic. His shoes, clean black loafers, looked a bit too nice for the latter, though.

Next we picked up a red haired young woman waiting on the side of the road. The driver greeted her by name, and she took a seat by a window and closed her eyes. There was no mystery as to where she was headed – the McDonalds logo was clearly visible on her short sleeved shirt. After her, we picked up a quiet young woman, who may have had an intellectual disability. She sat away from the rest of us without making eye contact. The young man got off at the gas station, and two women boarded, talking animatedly to each other, one in her late 20’s and the other much older, perhaps in her late 60’s. They sat apart, but kept chatting across the aisle, speaking Spanish to each other, and English to the woman in the McDonald’s shirt and the driver. “What’s the matter, hon? You look tired,” said the younger of the two. “Yeah, long night,” she answered. “My kids are sick. You going to work?” “No Water’s Edge for me today. It’s my day off – but instead of relaxing I’ve got to go to DSS in Middletown. So I’ve got to get the bus that goes up there from Old Saybrook.” That trip, she explained, would take over 4 hours, one way.

The bus took a turn off the Post Road, heading up Rt. 81, past the Morgan School. Stopping near Sweet Water Farm, we picked up another woman in her early 30’s, who also seemed to know everyone else on board. She sat next to the woman going to DSS, who right away asked, “Did you get the results?” She did, she explained. “It’s not cancerous, but I have to go in for an operation soon.” The elderly woman across the seats urgently asked about her in Spanish, and was given the good news about the diagnosis. She replied to the women in English, “I’m happy it’s not cancer, too.”
I wondered if this older woman was also a housekeeper at Water’s Edge, but she got off outside a nail salon and walked slowly up to the building. I thought about her life working there, as a senior. No doubt the hours were long, and she was exposed to harsh chemicals all day as she gave manicures and pedicures to well-to-do women.

Now back on Rt. 1 again we picked up several more folks, including an older man in a jacket and tie. I wondered where he was headed – maybe an office job of some kind? With the music blasting “Under the Boardwalk” we made our way from light to light, with the group of travelers chatting over the music like old friends.

Once again the bus turned off Rt. 1, at the Clinton Motel. Our latest passenger was a very elderly woman, clasping a small flotation device along with her bags. After we had traveled a short distance up, our bus turned around in a rural graveyard and headed back to the shoreline.
At the Clinton Stop & Shop several more came aboard, including a large man in his 30’s wearing an Apple Rehab uniform. I concluded he was a physical therapist perhaps, and his outgoing personality came across as he greeted the other riders. Then we stopped along the side of the road for a very athletic young man riding a bike. He quickly mounted it on the front grill of the bus, using a special attachment that I hadn’t noticed was there. As he boarded and sat down, I recognized the logo on his shirt from the drum manufacturer, Zilgan, and wondered if he might be a local musician.

Passing marinas full of luxury powerboats, we stopped to pick up a man in his 40’s wearing a Walmart shirt. He was friendly and looked around at the passengers, seeing who was on board that day. I think he might have been a member of the Vista community.
Turning off again, past the Turtle Café, I looked at my phone. It was 7:45, and the sun was really beginning to heat up the inside of the bus, now nearly full.
At the Valley Shore YMCA, our senior lady disembarked, confirming that she was on her way to an exercise class at the pool. The athletic hipster also jumped off, deftly removing his bicycle, which he leapt on and pedaled quickly away into the interior.

Back again on Rt.1 in Westbrook we picked up a thin, somewhat bedraggled young man with long dreadlocks, smelling strongly of cigarette smoke. He sat down and pulled out a newspaper crossword puzzle and a pen. We dropped off the therapist at Apple Rehab, so his long day helping others could begin. The mystery of the well-dressed was answered as we drove into Benny’s. For male employees there, a jacket and tie are required. As an older man, I wondered if he might have taken this job on part-time, as a retired person needing extra income. Maybe he brought a lifetime of knowledge about fixing things to the job, where customers often asked for household advice.

Now in Old Saybrook we stopped at the Walmart, where three or four employees got off, several likely from Vista. Around the bend to the Stop & Shop, where our dreadlocked puzzle-solver left us, perhaps also starting his workday.  At 8:10 we pulled into the Old Saybrook train station, now just myself and two other women, one going to DSS in Middletown, and another visiting her grandma in Haddam on her day off work.

“Do any of you ladies need to use the rest room before you transfer to your next bus?”, asked our driver. That was because the parking area for the busses was in the new lot, far from the station building. No one took her up on the offer, though I thought it was awfully kind of her to ask.
We disembarked, and I walked ahead to a few other 9-Town busses that were parked nearby. One was my transfer route – “Riverside”. Just when I thought I would be able to begin my next leg, the door opened and the driver, an older man, stopped me. He explained that, although he was going to Essex, first he had to go on a different loop, which would take 30 to 40 minutes. “Can I go with you?” I asked, thinking that was better than waiting at the bus bench. “Sorry,” he said.
So I took my place on the benches with the other two ladies and resigned myself to the delay. Before long I was explaining the reason for my 3-hour trip to Essex, letting them know that I was a part of the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force. I told them about our efforts to inform the public about the ALICE study, and its research of the “working poor” in our area. That I was taking the bus so I could better understand the little everyday struggles they faced trying to get from point A to point B.

“That’s me – I’m totally Alice,” said the woman traveling to Middletown. “Me, too. And my boyfriend, too.” said the other woman. “He’s a volunteer at the Fire Department, and he also works at Subway,” she said. We talked about the bus schedules, and the long time it took to go relatively short distances. One woman explained that the bus normally got her to work 15 minutes late. “But I can’t be late – I can’t lose my job. So I get the bus that leaves earlier. I get to work an hour early, but at least I’m not late.”

A third woman, in her late 20’s, waiting for a different transfer, told her story. “I was in the hospital for my anemia. They had to give me an iron transfusion. But when I got out, my boss at Dunkin Donuts cut my hours. Now she thinks I’m too weak to do the full shift, but I’m better. I found another job in Chester, but the bus doesn’t go the whole way. I’d have to walk the last part, and it’s a pretty long way. In the summer, maybe – but when it snows? That job pays $12 an hour. The problem is, I’d lose my food stamps and my health insurance. But maybe I could move out of my parent’s house and get an apartment with my boyfriend. Maybe I could afford a car. I don’t know.”

By 8:40 the Riverside bus was back, and I got on board as the only passenger. When I told the driver I was headed to the River COG for my meeting at 10am, I also told him about the ALICE report. He said most – if not all – of his regular passengers fit that description. He said he had been retired, but 8 years ago had started driving again for 9-Town. He proudly spoke of his grandkids who lived at his house. I realized that as a senior, he was now the sole provider for two children again.
Arriving at the Bokum Center in Essex at 9am, my driver once again informed me that he had an extra loop to make, but that after he returned, he could drop me off right next to my meeting location. “So I have to get off again?” I asked. “I guess you can stay on board, since you’re here to see the bus route”, he agreed.
We wove through the roads of Ivoryton, Centerbrook, and Chester. At around 9:30 we picked up a young couple, who were setting off on a trip long enough to need a transfer. The young man had snuffed out his cigarette, which was half-gone, and tucked it behind his ear for later. I thought of the earlier conversation with the woman at the train station who hoped to live with her boyfriend. This couple seemed to be barely holding on to a similar plan of self-sufficiency.

At 9:55 my driver took me right to the corner of my meeting location. I thanked him for all his help and conversation, and disembarked. My three-hour trip had been well worth the effort, with so many examples of community members who were working very hard to make ends meet. ALICE was everywhere, traveling the shoreline in every seat on the 9 Town Transit bus.

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