A Chapel Hill Christmas Story

Many years ago, I worked at a restaurant here called The Flying Burrito. It was my first waitressing job, and I got it when I was a sophomore in college, then stayed there for the rest of my time at UNC and a few years afterwards. The Burrito was legendary here in Chapel Hill, then and now. Even over twenty years later, there are people who still recognize me in the produce department at the grocery store as the girl who brought them chips, salsa and their Flying Chicken. (A great burrito, by the way: just writing it, now I want one.) The Burrito closed awhile back, and it is greatly missed. I have so many memories—a lot of which I have turned into stories in my books—but this is my favorite one.

It was Christmastime, and as usual when I was a waitress, I was broke. Or close to it. I want to say this was before I sold my first book, That Summer, in 1996—yes, I continued waitressing after selling a book, and yes, it was a surprise to me as well I wasn’t suddenly wealthy enough to do otherwise—but I have a feeling it wasn’t. Anyway, it was a few days before December 25th and I was running out of chances to make enough money to cover my bills and gifts for my family. Now, back then at the Burrito, we were old school. We didn’t take credit cards and dealt only with cash and personal checks. So there I am, my last shift before the holiday, and thank goodness it was busy. I was feeling cheered that I might actually pay my power bill AND get my mom a decent gift. But then, at the end of the night, I sat down to do my money and something wasn’t adding up. Despite all my sales, and good holiday cheer inspired tips, I was off on what I owed. WAY off. I finally figured out I’d lost a check a customer had written me for about a hundred bucks. So instead of making that much, I now owed it. And would make nothing.

I was so tired and discouraged. I searched under every table, in every other waitresses’ cash box, every single place I could for that check. It was nowhere. All I can think is it got tossed with some trash by accident. I finally had to accept it was gone. I so remember sitting there, at the desk in the Burrito office, my money in piles around me, trying to figure out what I was going to do about the holidays. Out in the restaurant, I could hear my bosses, Phil and Vicki Campbell, who were hanging out with friends at the bar. Everyone was laughing and “Please Come Home for Christmas” by The Eagles was playing, and I just wanted to cry. To this day, when I hear that song, I feel helpless. Which stinks, because I love that song.

A few minutes later, Phil and Vicki came back into the office, saw me sitting there slumped and choking back tears, and asked what was wrong. The party was still going out at the bar. “I dropped a check,” I said. “I can’t find it anywhere.” They looked at each other. Then Vicki said, “Don’t worry about it. Just count it like it’s there.” I stared at them. “Are you sure?” Phil nodded at me. “We can afford it more than you can,” he said. “It’s okay.”

And so I left with money to buy presents, but also with something more: a true admiration for people I already thought the world of to begin with. It’s just the smallest thing, at the holiday, but all these years later, I still tear up when I think about it, and when I hear “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Kindness counts for so much. You never, never forget it when you are on the receiving end of something like that. The Burrito may be gone, but Phil and Vicki are still around, and while I haven’t seen them awhile, I hope they know what a difference they made for me. And if you have a chance to do something nice, or kind, at this time or the year or any other, I hope you will. You have no idea, really, what it can mean.

Happy Holidays, everyone. (Especially Phil and Vicki Campbell, wherever you may be right now: thanks from the 24 year old struggling writer then, and the mom and author I am today. You guys rock.)