Grocery clerk Carmen Louie retains sense of community in East Van as residents keep their distance from each other

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      Even before the pandemic lockdown, Carmen Louie was a well-known figure in the East End neighbourhood where she works and lives.

      The Donald’s Market cashier is known for having memorized thousands of her customers’ names, which she has been attaching to a cheery greeting for the past 16 years as locals line up to pay for groceries.

      She has been profiled in the pages of a city weekly and a community newsletter, and CBC Radio interviewed her.

      Amazingly, Louie says she now can recall almost 11,000 names, which she diligently records in five notebooks that she reviews for several hours every two weeks or so.

      “People say, ‘It’s music to my ears,’ ” she tells the Straight by phone. “They come to my till just to hear me call out their names. It gives me so much joy, really, to hear them say, ‘Thank you for knowing my name.’ ”

      Now, during some of the most stressful times ever experienced by most Canadians—and in a district undergoing extensive change through redevelopment—Louie is an enduring and reassuring daily presence for locals who practise social distancing while queueing outside her busy workplace.

      Although many of those same customers now limit human contact to only the most essential interactions, Louie conducts close personal exchanges all day long, every day, and many customers consider her a hero for her sunny dedication to serving their needs in recent months, heedless of personal risk.

      “They’ve been very appreciative,” Louie says. “A lot of people. They say, ‘Thank you for working here.’ ”

      Louie—who was born in the Philippines and worked in Singapore before moving to B.C. in 1985—protects herself and the store’s clients by wearing gloves and a mask all day, and she doesn’t think of herself as heroic.

      “I’m nothing special,” she protests. “I think the heroes are the doctors and nurses. They are the ones really dealing with the virus.”

      Because Louie lives only a block away from Donald’s, in a house where she and her husband have raised three sons, she has an intimate knowledge of the area and can relate to residents’ concerns.

      She is also very involved in her neighbourhood, having once organized free deliveries of day-old bread from a supplier to a local First Nations church and doing community gardening at another, where she organized a social celebration/barbecue after applying for a municipal grant.

      She also parlayed her area popularity into a part-time greeter position at the local CIBC branch, and she privately solicits donations all year for the CIBC Run for the Cure cancer charity, for which she has raised almost $70,000 during her 10 years of participation.

      But it’s her community involvement during this crisis that gives her the most satisfaction. “Now, with what is happening with the coronavirus, people are so compassionate for each other,” she marvels. “This neighbourhood is very caring. People are very kind to each other, and I rarely hear people complain.

      “I’m so blessed to live in this community.” And she repeats: “I’m nothing special.”

      Video: Watch a Georgia Straight thank you to frontline workers.
      For those concerned about visiting a doctor's office because of the pandemic, a telehealth provider can put them in contact with physicians and other health-care professionals.