By BRAD SCHMITT, The Tennessean undefined
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — While slinging lottery tickets and cigarettes, Regina Johnson constantly talked and laughed through the sunflower mask a customer made for her.
The 58-year-old generates an endless stream of affirmations and mild flirtations at the customer service counter in the Green Hills Kroger.
Just like she has for 13 years at this store.
Just like she has for 35 years for the supermarket chain.
She hasn't changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the middle of hoarding, anxiety, long hours, purchasing limits and supply shortages at grocery stores, Johnson still shines. She continues to connect with customers and coworkers with effervescence and empathy.
During a 50-foot walk across the store, Johnson nodded to or greeted eight customers, eventually stopping in front of the radishes to chat with an older woman shopping.
"How's your husband?" Johnson began while gently touching the woman's elbow.
"She's the queen of Kroger!" coworker Alisha Huddleston, 42, gushed. "Everybody in here loves her."
Johnson, a 1980 Hillsboro High School graduate, grew up in South Nashville with her mom and three siblings after her dad died when she was a young girl.
Johnson learned to work hard and to share what she had from her bus driver mother, who sometimes paid neighbor's utility bills when they hit hard times. Living in service to others brought Johnson a joy that often spreads to her work family.
"I would say she's probably the biggest reason I come here," said 28-year-old paralegal Briana Vito, who shares pictures of her children with Johnson during each visit.
"When I come in, I'm looking for her," Vito said.
Church staffer Evelyn Allen also applauded Johnson's warmth.
"They would have to close down the Kroger if Miss Regina didn't work here," Allen said. "I think she genuinely cares about everybody, and she goes out of her way to help people."
Each Christmas, many customers give Johnson cards with cash, enough so that she doesn't touch her checking account for two months, Johnson said.
Like her mother, though, Johnson often uses that money to help Kroger coworkers and others who need it.
The start of the pandemic was the toughest time, Johnson said: "It was a struggle."
Long lines and some frustrated customers created tension to the workplace. One shopper threw a package of toilet paper at a clerk after being told there was a one-per-customer limit.
Johnson's response: "I kept laughing and having fun with my customers because I know they were stressed."
Johnson said, even though she has diabetes, she doesn't fear coronavirus, in part because no employees at her store have been infected with it.
And, she added, "I've got my will and my obituary ready. When it's time to go, it's time to go."
But Johnson said she prays that's no time soon because she loves to work and she loves her Kroger family.
"I pray to God that nothing stops me, health-wise, from working."