Riding the “S”: On the Bus with Tom Portwood

An icy wind buffeted mushrooming rainclouds in early January as two men sat in wheelchairs by a bus stop on Oakdale Road in Modesto, waiting for the 32 bus. It was running late, all the buses that afternoon likely slowed by the atmospheric river that had swept across the northern San Joaquin Valley that same day.

One of the men was clothed in jeans and bright yellow pajama tops. He had an army-green blanket wrapped around his shoulders and over a good part of his pale, sunken face. He had just wheeled himself off the 37 bus, and seemed confused; he glanced cautiously around as if to make sure he had gotten off at the right stop. He looked like someone  recovering from a serious illness; in a perfect world he should have been in the warmth of his own home and bed – that is, if he had a home to go to.  But here he was, not fully dressed, and out in stormy winter weather.

The fellow sitting in the other wheelchair (who was younger and looked much stronger), instinctively sensed he needed to look after this apparently sick man; he muscled his chair over to where the latter sat drooping in his own wheelchair and assured him that if there was space for only one of them on the 32 bus when it finally came, he would hang back and wait for the next bus.

“Thanks, bro…” the sick man meekly whispered. “Not a problem…we’re in same boat, right?”

As it turned out when the bus arrived, there was room for them both. But the fellow who volunteered to stay out in the elements as more storm clouds gathered had no way of knowing that when he offered to help.  He just knew he had to do the right thing.

That moment with those two men waiting for a bus in the rain tells you a lot about the gracious community of passengers who daily board Stanislaus County’s public transportation system. The roots of the county’s current bus system go back to 1911, when the city of Modesto sported its own trolley car lines. Over the past century, both the City of Modesto and Stanislaus County have seen the public transit system grow and evolve through several iterations. Most recently, the Stanislaus Regional Transit Authority (or “S”) was formed in July, 2021, when the Modesto Area Express (or MAX) merged with Stanislaus Regional Transit (StaRT).

Modesto Arch and bus

Even before the merger, MAX provided some two and half million rides annually, and I personally accounted for a few hundred of those rides each year, since I use the system five or six times a week, counting on buses — as so many others do — for a plethora of needs, including getting to and from grocery shopping, medical appointments, the library, and a bunch of other things.

Due to a seizure disorder that cropped when I was a kid — something that has never been fully resolved — I have largely relied on public transportation for much of my adult life. And while not driving has continually presented challenges and barriers that are sometimes difficult to work around, I’ve reached a point in my life where I realize how lucky I am, because I love taking the bus, which allows me to be out with and among people in a way that would be impossible if I were behind the wheel of a car.

Like the Stanislaus Public Library, and the public school system, the bus system is one of those institutions that acts as a kind of glue, binding the community together by providing an essential service — but, again like the library and the public school system — it often goes completely unnoticed by those who don’t use it.

However, if you use the bus system with any frequency, you’ll soon discover that many people face daily hardships with remarkable grace and aplomb – whether they are seniors in wheelchairs or people using walkers in their struggle to board the bus, they manage to do so with a big smile and a cheerful hello to the bus driver. Dazed and groggy patients recently released from hospitals and still clutching discharge papers graciously thank the driver for assisting them;  a teenager shepherds a parent, acting as the adult in the family; a family of five – including two squirming three-year olds — rides the bus to Walmart because they can’t afford a car and are likely just a paycheck or two away from homelessness.

Photo by Tom Portwood
Photo by Tom Portwood

And then there are the poignant reminders of those currently living on the street. This past summer, a shopping cart was left abandoned by the bus stop outside of my apartment complex, jammed with clothing and bits and pieces of junk. My guess is that the person who was wheeling that cart down the road needed to take the bus, and the bus driver wouldn’t allow the cart on board. The truth is that so many our neighbors are living on or near the edge every day, and in every way.

I was waiting for a bus one day when a woman sitting on the bench beside me confided that she had just been evicted from her apartment and had nowhere to go. She wasn’t looking for help, as I recall — she just needed a moment to unburden herself from the pain she was feeling, to think out loud as I listened to her. When the bus arrived, she stayed behind, saying she wanted to sit and be by herself a little longer. She told me to take care, all the while exuding a quiet dignity and strength of character that would be difficult for many of us to match.

Another time, again as we waited for a bus, a man shared with me that this ex-wife was sick with ovarian cancer but he’d been able to see her every day that week because the bus system was having one of its “No Fare” months. He told me he had to watch every dime he spent, and that he couldn’t even run the air conditioner because it cost too much and, of course, he had to take care of the kids no matter what. And yes, he added, he still loved his ex-wife and worshipped the ground she walked on.

If you take the bus often enough, you’ll have your heart broken but you’ll also find cause to celebrate the triumph of basic human kindness — you’ll see how passing strangers can care for one another and become something of a real community.

That community includes the bus drivers, many of whom set the tone for the entire ride. One driver, always in a jovial mood, serenades his passengers with Broadway show tunes, often inserting lyrics about Modesto that he makes up along the way —  for example breaking into a few off-the cuff bars of  “Hello Modesto” to the tune of “Hello Dolly.”  He’s a big favorite among riders.

For that driver, singing is another way for him to connect with his passengers, knowing — as he does — just how difficult many of their circumstances are once they exit his bus.

On the “S” – as in life – we’re all in this together.

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  1. I am a bus driver for the S. I want to thank you for your recognition. It was a lovely article. I just wanted to add that this article meant a lot to me because before having this career I was a passenger just like everyone else. I had to take 2 busses to work and 2 busses home every day just to work a 4 group. Shift. After 3 and a half years of doing that I got to know my drivers. One day a driver said, “why don’t you drive the busses? ” I never knew that was an option. I have been driving for Modesto for 5 a n days a half years now. I absolutely love it. And this is coming from someone who 9 years ago was a homeless meth addict God us good and not a day goes by that I don’t thank him for blessing me with my job. Again thank you for your article 🙏 😊

  2. This is a great article about riding the bus. I currently still drive but when the day comes I can’t I will definitely take public transportation. I remember always riding the bus when I lived in San Francisco as a child. It definitely connects people to community which is so important to us all.

  3. I loved this article. It was written with such passion and heartfelt realism, that it brought tears to my eyes. I drive, but have been in circumstances where things were not very good. I’ve never lived on the street, but was homeless for 2 weeks, living in a motel with my kids. I’ve taken the bus and know how people with hardships deal with daily dilemmas in their lives. I hope this article will give others a sense of compassion towards others dealing with hardships and inspire more community services for the underprivileged, instead of calling them names and wanting them just “gone”. Not everyone is lucky enough to have family or good fortune.

  4. I AM A CITY BUS DRIVER AND I ALSO WAS A PASSENGER 1ST…We are so blessed to have such wonderful people to drive us around..

  5. Tom Portwood, you are a genius. Your gift of compassion is pronounced.

    When I first came to Modesto, I embarked on each and every bus route. I sat back and took in all the sights. It was my way of discovering the city and the way the various routes come together. I suggest any, not familiar, to take such rides.

    And, yes, the passengers are the best part.
    I know exactly who the bus driver is who sings. He is quite the entertainer. Any one fortunate enough to take a ride on his route is in for a very unique experience. One cannot help but LOL, and time flies.

    Thank you for turning us onto the “S” and it’s many potential passengers, all in a day’s ride. Thank you, one and all.

  6. Yes, passengers are helpful to one another. We’ve got each other’s backs. Most drivers are helpful, but some are totally lacking in compassion and patience. Twice, I witnessed the driver refusing to take a 2nd wheelchair passenger aboard because the bus was “too full”. Both times, I immediately spoke up and said: “WE can MOVE”, and the person next to me moved along with me. No problem. Drivers need to be reminded that elderly and disabled persons have priority seating. [I’m hearing and vision impaired, age 65, so I usually sit up front; but, I can easily move to make room for a wheelchair or walker, etc.]

    • I am sorry to hear that you have witnessed drivers trying to refuse to take on passengers in wheelchairs. My experience is that most of them are not only quite helpful, but many are tuned in to the needs of their passengers. That said, the “S” is a big organization with lots of bus drivers. And I’m not at all surprised that you and other passengers spoke up, and made room for the passenger in both those instances – good for you!!

  7. God Loving Divine Plans for everybody in the story. Hopefully more blessings on future S! bus routes. Yes.
    Thanksgiving. In Jesus’ Name. Amen Gary Nicholas

  8. Thank so much, everyone, for your very kind comments about the story. I’ve enjoyed reading what some of you have shared about your own experiences riding the “S”

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