Cruising in style in new senior bus

KEARNY —

Well, it took some doing but Kearny finally has a new bus to help transport senior citizensaround town.

John Sarnas, the former municipal health officer, got the wheels rolling in 2011 when he applied for a state Enhanced Mobility of Seniors & Individuals with Disabilities Program grant to acquire a new vehicle.

The Health Department had two buses for full-time use and a back-up but they were all showing signs of age, as evidenced by frequent breakdowns and repairs.

Unfortunately, a lot of other communities in New Jersey had similar woes so there was a lot of competition for those grants, explained current health officer Ken Pincus, and Kearny had to wait.

Last year, Pincus renewed the application process and this spring, Kearny was awarded a grant for $58,392 for acquisition of a 2016 Ford E450 Extended Mini-Bus.

Pincus said the vehicle, which seats 12 and is equipped with a wheelchair lift, is leased through NJ Transit for five years, after which the town will own it outright.

It’s air-conditioned and outfitted with comfy cushioned seats with belts attached.

There’s no communications device so if a bus breaks down or if there’s a medical emergency, the driver uses a cell phone to call for assistance.

The bus was tested out and, ultimately, put on the roads a few weeks ago on one of the two Monday-to-Friday routes assigned to driver Alexandra “Sandy” Walsh.

Pincus said the department’s spare bus, which dates from 1989, has been decommissioned. Presumably, it will either be auctioned or scrapped.

Last Tuesday, July 25, two representatives of The Observer were permitted to ride the route with Walsh during the afternoon.

It’s a godsend,” said passenger Lorraine Gretchen, who was aboard that day for a shopping excursion.

A Kearny resident since the ‘50s, Gretchen often takes the bus as many as five times a week, typically to destinations like Walmart and Marshalls.

“I also use it to go to hair appointments, the drug store, the doctor,” she noted.

Since she doesn’t drive, the bus is an essential mode of transport for her and many others like her, Gretchen explained. Her only other recourse, she said, would be the bus – either NJ Transit’s 76 or 30 route.

“The service is excellent – both Sandy and Carmen,” said Gretchen, referring to Carmen Valcarcel, operator of the longer weekday route. Valcarcel has been driving full-time for the past four months but, prior, was a fill-in driver for nearly two years.

“And you can flag down the bus if it’s on the route,” she said.

Another frequent passenger is Catherine McGrath, who told us – in between engaging in entertaining chit-chat with our driver – that she enjoys the ride to ShopRite, among other places.

From the estimable woman, we got a bit of history.

A native of Paisley, Scotland, McGrath – whose accent still rings true of her native land – came to the U.S. in 1961 to work in the shipping and receiving department at the former Worthington Pumps in Harrison.

The pumps, she reminded us, were also coming from Scotland.

She said her Irish grandfather had enlisted in the British Army – because he needed the work – to fight in WWI and was killed in the fighting in Belgium where he lies buried.

These days, McGrath – who adopted Kearny as her home more than a half-century ago – is using a cane to steady herself but she’s ready and willing for a mobile ramble at any time.

Walsh, a veteran bus operator who was born in the old West Hudson Hospital, has been driving for Kearny full-time since 2001; before that, she was a fill-in for a year and also drove a school bus.

“This is a nice bus,” Walsh volunteered. “It rides nice. The others, which are six years old, are diesel but this is gas-powered and the ride is quieter, smooth steering.”

As for the job itself – she drives the same meandering route three times in the morning and threemore times in the afternoon with an hour off for lunch – “I love this stuff,” Walsh said, even having to maneuver around double-parkers on Kearny Ave. and impatient drivers itching to pass.

“It’s the best job ever. I’ve become friends with a lot of my passengers, she said.

The number of riders varies each day, from a handful to full, with the ranks typically diminishing during the summer, Walsh said. “The heat holds them back but you do have the troupers.”

Most of her passengers favor shopping at the malls on Passaic Ave. or Kearny Ave. stores or doctors, she said, “but there’ve been a few who go to LA Fitness because the insurance pays for it [as therapy].”

Having the bus as a transportation option is critical, Walsh said, because “some of the seniors have never driven and others had to give it up. And people in the senior building can’t afford cabs.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.