In the summer of 1999, while I was living in the suburban sprawl of Atlanta (pop. 500,000), I found myself on vacation in Southport, North Carolina (pop. 3,800). We spent a quintessential "beach week" with extended family on neighboring Oak Island, in a rental cottage two rows from the ocean. Days were filled with bobbing about in the briny Atlantic, and exploring the boutiques and souvenir shops along the riverfront in town, where the intersection of ocean, the Cape Fear River, and the Intracoastal Waterway provides an ever-changing nautical backdrop . Evenings found us playing miniture golf, whirling around on questionable carnival rides, and taking over karaoke at a local dive bar. Life was good.
As if this week-long repreive from the eternal Atlanta traffic jam wasn't already sweet, sweet relief, our visit coincided with the annual North Carolina 4th of July Festival. (If you've ever wondered what it would feel like to live in a Hallmark Channel movie town, spend the 4th of July in Southport - and don't forget to pack your very best star spangled tee shirts!)
Somewhere between my third and fourth mint chocolate chip ice cream cones that week, I made the decision that Southport would become home. It was as if this tiny town had hung out it's red, white, and blue bunting just for me! After one final bike ride through town, the final oom pah pahs of the 4th of July Festival parade band hanging heavy in the air, my mind was made up. By the time the next festival rolled around, I would be a full time resident.
As I spent the next ten months envisioning my new, relaxed coastal lifestyle, I struggled with one consistent, anxiety inducing question: where would I work? My sister gifted me with a subscription to the local weekly newspaper, The State Port Pilot (a Good Newspaper in a Good Town). Published every Wednesday, it's ink-smeared pages were delivered to me in Atlanta about five days later. And there in the last section, I would scour the Help Wanted listings. Yes, friends, that is a thing we used to do! You may have seen it in a movie once.
It just so happened that in late 1999 and early 2000, Southport was having a bit of a growth spurt. The Help Wanted ads, usually rife with listings for part time restaurant workers or even more part time boutique employees, were soon teasing out "Now Hiring" notices for a new Walmart, a new Lowe's Home Improvement, and... the new Hampton Inn. The week my UHaul rolled in to town, the asphalt of the Hampton's newly paved parking lot was just beginning to set.
It was the combination of gentle urging from my mother - "I bet they offer health insurance!" - and a bank account that was running dangerously low, that brought me to the hotel on a day in late June. It was a day or two before opening, and contractors buzzed around with punch lists in hand. A very nice woman positioned at the front desk, offered me an application.
I half expected to be interviewed on the spot (they NEEDED me, I was sure of it!) However, several days went by without a word. I filled my days exploring Southport on foot, this time as a resident. The red, white, and blue banners were once again strung across downtown streets, their plastic-y fluttering sounds already creating core memories for me. I volunteered to help along the parade route, and joined new neighbors at the street dance, where "beach music" floated in the air while I marveled at couples shag dancing by streetlight.
On July 2nd, I called them. The hotel had opened on the 29th, and surely things had calmed down enough for someone to review my application (I obviously had no idea how chaotic it is to open a hotel, much less a hotel in Southport, during the 4th of July Festival). After a lengthy time on hold, the general manager came on the line, and the interview progressed like this:
Do you have any hotel experience? No
Do you have customer service expereince? Yes
Can you work 3-11 pm? Sure.
When can you start?
There may have been a few additional questions, but they are lost to me now. Listen, they needed someone to work in the evenings, and I needed a job. I dutifully showed up at the appointed time on the afternoon of July 5th. The Hampton Inn had been open for five and half days. The 4th of July Festival had ended with the literal bang of the fireworks the night before, and the entire staff was slightly overwhelmed. I announced myself at the desk, and took a seat in the lobby to wait.
It was my very first hotel shift. They NEEDED me. And I... well I had no idea how much i NEEDED them.