Scott Trynham gets a hug after Sandra Dee “Vegas” Townsend calls a customer “darling” and he asks if he’s a darling, too. “Of course you are, darling!” she says. (Photo by Jay Paul)
She makes two words feel as warm as a blanket.
Her voice plunges low on darling. It’s almost a purr.
“Hey, darling,” Sandra Dee “Vegas” Townsend says to each customer in her line at the Libbie Place PetSmart.
Some people say, “Oh, he’s darling today? I thought I was the only darling.”
They’re joking, but they are telling the truth. Most everyone wants to be called “darling” by Ms. Vegas. And the few who don’t — well, she knows without even looking at them, and spares the endearments as she rings up their purchase. “I respect that,” she says.
“I remember telling the pastor one time, ‘Oh, my job don’t mean nothing. I just work at a pet store,’ ” Townsend says. “And he told me, ‘I guarantee you’ll touch a lot of hearts at the pet store.’ ” (Photo by Jay Paul)
In the middle of buying cat treats or Kong toys, people pause to talk to her. “I’ve had grown men stand at the register with me and cry because their dog died,” Townsend says. Others don’t say a thing, but she can tell they’re suffering. “Honey, whatever it is, it’ll be okay,” she reassures them.
By the time the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, Townsend has sent up a small, silent prayer on your behalf, if you need one: “Lord, keep them at peace. Look over them, watch over them.”
Townsend, 55, grew up the third of nine children. “Childhood wasn’t all that great, but I’m here,” she says. “I don’t like to complain about things. God has brought me through a lot. … I know how people go through things. Life is hard. And it’s a struggle.”
Back in 1998, Townsend applied for a job with the Merchants Walk Food Lion on West Broad Street. No luck. The position was already filled. She stopped into the PetSmart in the same shopping center, and a woman working there called out, “Hey, you want a job?”
“Sure,” Townsend said. “You can have mine,” the woman said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.” The PetSmart manager hired Townsend on the spot. Another manager later dubbed her “Vegas,” after her hometown, and it’s been on her name tag ever since — along with a small picture of her beloved Corgi-Spitz mix, Dollar Bill, who died last year.
Townsend can’t say enough nice things about working for PetSmart: “I love it. I love the people. I think the customers are awesome.” She will mark her 19th anniversary with the company in April.
Working in a pet store wasn’t a natural fit. Townsend readily admits she’s terrified of the “creepy-crawlies” — snakes, lizards and rats — despite her best efforts to like them. But her job doesn’t require tending animals; she looks after the customers.
“I tend to gravitate toward her register. She’s just friendly. It’s like you’ve known her all your life,” says customer Sally Burford. “I feel like we’re family, in a way.”
Isobel Can’as-Flores, 4, came in with her grandmother to give Vegas a drawing she made and to get a hug. Behind her in line is Karri Luning. (Photo by Jay Paul)
People laugh when they’re in her line. People notice when she’s not there. People want her to call them “darling” in that wonderful throaty voice.
Few know, however, that Townsend is carrying a heavy burden of her own. Her beloved husband, Melvin, has multiple myeloma, a bone cancer that affects plasma cells.
The first time Melvin saw her, he recalls, “she had this big Afro.” And he thought she was cute. “I’ve got to have that woman,” he told himself. A year passed before they saw each other again at a Frankie Beverly and Maze concert in Las Vegas. “I got my second chance,” Melvin says. He didn’t waste it.
They moved to Richmond for Melvin’s job as a truck driver. They adore their three sons, who are now 30, 35 and 36, and their nine grandchildren, ranging from 1 to 17. And they take care of each other. When Melvin began suffering persistent lower back pain, Townsend wouldn’t let him ignore it. “She insisted on the MRI, and that’s when they found the dark spot in my back,” Melvin says.
He received a stem cell transplant, and had been in remission for 12 years. Recently, the cancer returned. Townsend carries a slip of paper from the doctor with his most recent numbers, labeled IgA, Kappa Light and M-Spike. None of the numbers are good ones.
Because of his chemo schedule, Melvin can no longer work as a truck driver, and instead drives for ride-sharing service Lyft. “I was out there today for 10 and a half hours,” he says on a recent Wednesday. He thought he was making good money, but then the company took its cut.
It’s hard, he says, because he has always been the family breadwinner. “I expect her to complain. But she don’t. She don’t complain. And that kind of messed with me.” One night, when they were lying in bed, Melvin told his wife he wanted to stop taking the chemo and let nature take its course. He didn’t want to spend all their money on treatment and leave her with nothing, he explains. “I would die for her. I love her that much.”
Townsend refuses to let him go that easily. Her manager, Jayne Kelley, has set up a GoFundMe page to help the couple pay their bills while Melvin is undergoing chemo and getting a second transplant. Townsend can’t mention it to anyone at work, in keeping with company policy.
But I can mention it. Because I’m one of the PetSmart customers who always looks for her at the register. I’m one of her thousands of darlings.
“Be blessed,” she calls after me as I leave. “Be blessed.”
When Ms. Vegas says it, I believe.
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