NORTH CENTER — Try walking to the bus stop and waiting for your CTA chariot to arrive, all the while schlepping a 10-pound container of laundry detergent. When you're in your 70s.
For senior citizens in the 47th Ward, navigating life's daily activities just got a little easier with the return of free bus service, discontinued in 2010, to and from the grocery store.
The bus, courtesy of Mariano's, will run twice a month, picking up seniors at the Chicago Housing Authority complex at Clark Street and Irving Park Road and the North Center Senior Campus at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue. Initially, it will drop passengers off at the Mariano's in the Riverview Plaza Shopping Center, 3350 N. Western Ave., until the new Mariano's opens at Lawrence and Ravenswood avenues in 2014.
The charter bus that arrived for the bus' inaugural trip on Wednesday proved an uncommonly sweet ride, a considerable upgrade from the yellow school bus most had expected, prompting a chorus of "Let's go to the casino."
About 30 seniors were on board for the first trip, grocery lists and reusable shopping bags at the ready.
Some, like Lois Stanley, are "fair weather drivers," skittish about conditions like rain and snow.
"I can't carry things very well," she added.
Others, like Sue Rich, are limited by health issues.
"I have a car, but I can't drive it since my stroke," she said.
Her grocery-shopping has been limited to what little she can carry on the bus, or delivery service, and "delivery is expensive," she said.
"When you're used to being independent, it's really hard," Rich continued. "Which is why [the bus] is really important to us."
A number of seniors don't have cars at all. That means frequent trips to the nearby CVS, Walgreens or the mini-mart across from the senior campus.
"Things like laundry detergent at Walgreens, they don't have the big size, or it's hard to get perfume-free. It's a limited selection," said Pat Drennan, who refuses to "get on a CTA bus with a grocery cart."
"If you buy cans, they're heavy," chimed in Iku Shimizu.
The door-to-door service provided by the bus meant shoppers like Shimizu could stock up on several bags' worth of food at a time, regardless of how much their bags weighed. Items were transported home via the charter's luggage compartment.
Shana Viernum, whose cataracts and recent knee-replacement surgery preclude her from driving, had piled a motley assortment into her cart: carrots, Egg Beaters, a turkey meatloaf and the fixings for fudge — because it's always someone's birthday at the senior campus, she said.
The Senior Bus, originally paid for by the city's Department of Aging, fell victim to the budget ax in 2010. Since his election in 2011, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) had been looking for an alternative source of funding for the bus, which costs "upwards of $10,000" annually, he estimated.
During the development phase of the Lawrence and Ravenswood avenues store, officials from the company came to the alderman wanting "to know what they could give back to the community," according to Dara Salk, who works in the ward office.
"The light bulb went off for Ameya," Salk recalled. "He said, 'If you could give us a bus ....'"
Pawar said the bus was not a "quid pro quo" from Mariano's for $4.4 million in Tax Increment Finance dollars allocated to the development.
"They wanted to make sure they embedded themselves in the community," he said.
The discontinued bus service, he noted, only ran once a month and took shoppers to the same shopping center on Western Avenue — then occupied by Jewel and Dominick's.
Asked whether it was fair to limit the seniors to Mariano's, Pawar replied, "At the end of the day, Mariano's is paying for this."
The seniors weren't complaining.
"Mariano's is what I would go to if I had a car," Rich said. "Some items are more expensive, yes, but they have low-price too. Their Roundy's brand it equal to low-price."
"Their variety of produce is very good. They have a big baked goods area. Their ready-made is very good," Shimizu said.
As the bus headed back to the senior campus, the passengers had a message for Salk to take back to the alderman.
"Tell him thanks a lot."