At my last table on my last day as a waitress in Chapel Hill, I served a polite, little old man. As he finished his meal and I took the plate away, I asked him how everything was. "Just as good as I remembered it." He paused, and then asked me, "Did you go to school at UNC?"
"Yes," I said. "I graduated a few years ago."
"How did you like it?" he asked.
"I loved it."
"That's what every UNC kid in Chapel Hill says," he said.
He went on to tell me that he used to work at UNC and has since worked at other universities. In Chapel Hill, he said, students seem happier and more satisfied with the town and school than any other place he has been.
"Well," I told him, "that's why I'm still here."
The unfortunate truth is that I left the next day. After working all over town in just about every industry I could think of, I finally decided to go to grad school—in Atlanta.
Now the sting has set in. I am not sure what I miss the most: the hula-hoopers on the lawn at Weaver Street on Sundays; the ability to walk across the street without getting hit; a rush hour that involves a quarter-mile backup on 15-501 (in Atlanta, rush hour involves a 10-mile backup on an eight-lane highway—for four hours); or even waitressing at Breadmen's, where I got to know a lot of people—including the majority of Chapel Hill's cops.
I regret that I never tried a BLT at Merritt's Store, and that I never spoke to the older woman with the long white hair who walked up and down MLK Boulevard. I miss the town that I fell in love in, where I first heard Spoon play a show, where I met my best friends, and where I worked, played and grew for the past six years.
I think what I miss most is driving past Hillsborough Road on Franklin Street. Every time I made that drive, passing under a canopy of leaves to come upon UNC's North Quad and then the downtown charm of Franklin Street, I felt proud to be a Carolina girl. And then I'd shudder and silently vow to never, ever buy one of those "Carolina Girls ... Best in the World!" T-shirts.
Maybe it's the small-town feel that I miss, but I think it's more than that. In Chapel Hill, people give you directions with a smile. It is also a town full of intelligent people who take pride in their community and act to keep it great.
When I told my last customer that I truly enjoyed my stay at UNC, I meant it. But I also enjoyed my time as a resident of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I think there are few better places to learn to grow up. I'm not so naïve as to believe that Chapel Hill is without flaw, but as far as picking a place to stumble into adulthood, I could have done worse.