At Your Service
These purveyors of good cheer will give your spirit a lift
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Luisa Porter
Mention the idea of this story and a knowing smile comes over the face of the person you’re speaking with. They flash on their favorite cashier, the cell phone customer service rep with infinite patience, the smiling woman in the drive-thru window, the barista who greets you with, “Will it be the usual?”
“Oh, you need to include so-and-so at this-and-such,” they inevitably say. “She’s wonderful.”
At first, we are too rushed to notice … or care. But they persist and soon we find ourselves looking for them, disappointed if they are not there to hand us our steak biscuit at the drive-thru, check our groceries, explain our SmartPhone or concoct that mocha latté with an extra shot.
How do they do it? From where comes this unwavering cheer that seems to defy the laws of gravity? Some say they pray before their shift. All of them find something deep within, the ability to empathize.
“Lot of them, you hear the voice on the speaker, and you know who they are and what they’re going to order — ‘two buttered biscuits, please.’”
Meet Sonya Baldwin; she’s been serving up sausage and biscuits at the Highway 45 Hardee’s in Columbus for 16 years. You might encounter Sonya in the drive-thru, at the front counter cash register or in the kitchen wrapping hamburgers. On a recent weekday morning, we found her wearing a light dusting of flour and her ever-present smile.
Baldwin, 45, grew up in the Morningside neighborhood of north Columbus, one of six children raised by a single mother.
“She taught us manners — ‘yes sir, no sir, please and thank you,’” Baldwin says of her mother. “She was tough.”
She calls it “an old-fashioned raising,” and a mother of four, she’s made it a family tradition. Two of Baldwin’s children also work at Hardee’s.
As for mom, she’s developed quite a fanbase. Recently a regular gave her a $100 tip.
When asked how she handles tough customers, Baldwin is quick with an answer: “Kindness. You treat ’em with kindness and most of the time kindness will win over. A smile will take you a long way.”
And then, as if to make her point, she flashes one, and you understand.
“My mom always says, ‘What’s the point in being in a bad mood? It’s not helping anything.’”
Paige Fogarty credits her mother and their morning ritual for her irrepressible good cheer.
“She gets the coffee; I get the cereal. Then she lets the chickens and the dogs out.”
Then mother and daughter sing “The Morning Song,” a nonsense tune they’ve been starting their day with since Paige was 5. When Paige leaves the house she calls to her mom, “Paige day blessings.” If mom leaves first, it’s “Mom day blessings.”
Fogarty has been working as a barista at Coffee House on 5th in Columbus for just over a year. She loves the part-time job that dovetails with her study of biology at East Mississippi Community College.
“I wouldn’t say you have to be a perfectionist,” Paige says, “but you have to pay attention to the little things.”
A little thing like treating the customer as an individual.
“I love the regulars,” says Paige. “Once they come in here more than twice, I know their drink. When I say ‘the usual?’ a smile comes over their face.”
You can’t give good service without initiative and focus, says Fogarty. A cheerful, supportive mother doesn’t hurt either.
“You think I’m cheerful,” says the young barista, “my mother is ridiculously cheerful. I call her the ultimate anti-depressant.”
“If they are coming to a pharmacy, they are coming for relief. ‘Lord they are having a bad day; bless them,’ I say to myself.”
When it comes to dealing with the public, Lulu Watson, a shift manager at CVS in Starkville, is no Johnny-come-lately. She’s been at CVS for almost three years; before that she was seven years at Dollar General and before that Winn-Dixie for 18-plus years.
Working with the public for more than a quarter century, the 57-year-old great-grandmother has seen a trick or two.
Like a would-be underage beer purchaser at Winn-Dixie. When Watson asked for an ID, the customer said, “I’ll show you my ID,” then turned around, dropped his trousers and mooned her. Watson still laughs about it.
It’s not been all hearts and flowers, though.
“I have my moments, but I won’t let the customer see me go to left field,” she says.
When that happens, she goes to the break room and cools down.
“We all have our moments,” Watson says.
“You have to have patience,” she says. “I tell the customer, ‘I’m dancing as fast as I can.’ That just kills them.”
“A smile to a stranger can be a wondrous thing.”
As you unload your groceries onto the moving conveyor, you first notice the over-sized pink watch, then the singsong voice, then you look up and see the shy smile. In the controlled mayhem that is the checkout area at Columbus’ Kroger at late afternoon rush hour, Michelle Talley offers shoppers an oasis of sweetness and calm.
Though she doesn’t put it in these words, the veteran cashier (17 or 18 years at Kroger) views her work in spiritual terms.
“I pray for guidance before I come to work,” she says. “I feel it’s my role to uplift people’s spirits. I don’t know what’s going on in their lives.”
Talley is one of several cashiers at the Highway 45 North grocery store, who have a devoted following.
Working with the public has its moments (“I have to bite my tongue sometimes,” Talley admits.). And then there are challenges she’s invented for herself.
“I find it an adventure to see if I can get them to smile for that moment,” she says.
Judging by the expressions of those going through her checkout lane, Michelle Talley has a workday filled with adventure.
“If you put more into it, you get more out of it,” she says.
“I know I have a wife to provide for. I have a son to provide for. That motivates me.”
Finding Drew McDowell in the AT&T store on Highway 45 North in Columbus is not difficult. Just look for the smile.
The 24-year-old retail sales consultant has that rare gift of being able to make the person he’s helping feel like they are the only person in the room. Not only that, he exudes a contagious happiness.
If he’s helped you before, he remembers your name, says one of his fans.
You ask him how he does it.
“I have no idea; it’s just a blessing.”
And, when the two of you finish your business, he’s going to walk you to the door.
“That’s not company policy,” he says, “that’s a Drew thing.”
McDowell, 24, has been with AT&T for about a year and a half; before that, when he was in college, he held two jobs, one at Lowe’s and one changing diapers at a nursing home, a job he says will prepare you for anything.
The way he tells it, his present job is pretty simple.
“Every day in and out you have to listen to customers,” he says. “If I’m providing great customer service, my sales will come.”
McDowell says he and his young family pray together every morning before leaving for work.
“Whatever I’m going through, I pray that I can leave it at home,” he says.
Look at the smile and behold an answered prayer.
“As I said, I just love people.”
To walk into Rose Drug Co. on Commerce Street across from city hall in West Point is to enter a quieter, gentler era. Tucked into the corner of what was the Henry Clay Hotel — now a residence hotel for seniors — is a gift shop/pharmacy that has been part of this community for more than half a century.
The place was a hive of activity on a recent Thursday morning. Carolyn Jones, who will be 84 in May, was standing at the front counter quietly talking to a customer on the phone. She greets the visitor with eyes startling in their clarity and blueness. A soft-spoken great-grandmother, Jones exudes kindness. Her co-workers fawn over her — they call her Miss Carolyn.
“I’ve got people here at work, who love me,” she says.
That much is plain to see. She’s been here for 45 years. Started part-time in 1957 after the death of her first husband. Took a 10-year hiatus when she remarried. She works 8:30 in the morning until 1 p.m., every weekday except for Thursday when she has a standing beauty parlor appointment.
“People say to me, ‘Why are you still working?’”
For Jones the answer couldn’t be more obvious.
“I love people, and I enjoy working with people. I have a lot of friends here in West Point who depend on me.”