First published in the Nov. 19 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
The groceries may cost money, but Sonia Silva’s friendship is free for the asking.
“I come in and help in any way I can,” Silva said. “Everyone has different tastes, and everyone is different. Every day was something new.”
Silva spent 44 years helping customers at three Vons or Pavilions grocery stores, including the past 25 at the Vons on Fair Oaks in South Pasadena. She started as a so-called box girl when she was 17 years old. Earlier this month, she finally called it the end of this stage of her life.
“There’s never been a dull moment,” she said. “I like the idea of helping people. I may have changed some lives just by listening and they have changed me.”
The 5-foot-tall Silva said people sometimes come into the store just because they want to have someone to talk to while they check out.
“It’s a gathering place,” she said of the grocery. “Everyone has their own situation. Sometimes people come in, buy a bag of Cheetos, and some of them just want someone they can talk to at least once a day. You really learn a lot about people.”
Silva loves to smile, with a hello and a “how are you doing?” sometimes, and she said that leads to a quick conversation and a quick connection.
“They seem to be grateful that I was there,” Silva said, “and it’s made me open to change. Sometimes I come in and may think I have a problem. Then I talk to some of the customers, and I realize that my problems are not so bad after all.
“If you give them a smile, maybe they’ll smile back,” she added. “You have to go more than what you are paid to do. You’re there for them.”
Silva, who now lives in Monterey Park, started at a Vons in Los Angeles as what was then called a “courtesy girl” or, as she remembers it, a “box girl.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said that lots of people left, but she felt a responsibility to the company which she said treated her well, and to the customers.
“It was stressful, but I knew that I had to do it. It was my job,” she said. “I was hoping to get them through the day with a smile.”
She’s come a long way, and has a plaque, a retirement party and the thanks of lots of her customers to prove it. She told lots of her regular customers that she would be leaving, and she said that she got several bouquets and cards from those she has waited on over the years.
Silva — a single mother of two grown children — says that her departure “really hasn’t sunk in yet.” The reason she chose to leave at 62 was personal. The death of her mother meant she had to deal with her trust; she just wanted to get on with the rest of her life in good health. That also means spending more time with her children.
“I wanted to leave on a good note, and get on with my life,” she said.
Silva said she loves to bake and used to sell baked goods at a farmer’s market near her home.
“I think I’ll take the time now to get myself reorganized,” Silva said. “Maybe I’ll bake and donate what I make to schools for fundraising activities.”
Whatever she does, she’ll do it with a smile.