Shirley Ratliff takes three buses to her job opening the Bruegger’s Bagels on Strickland Road at 5 a.m. each day.
She knows how to drive and has been thinking about getting her license for years, but she never had a reason to because she didn’t have a car.
A group of loyal customers – they call themselves “Shirley’s Fan Club” – gave Ratliff a 1992 Buick LeSabre on Monday. They said they wanted to show their appreciation for the countless bagels and cups of coffee she has served them over the years and to ease her burden a bit.
Ratliff, 47, has has been working at Bruegger’s since 2006. She had tried to save money for a car, but she was diagnosed with cervical cancer a few years ago and experienced a financial setback. She had insurance, but treatment was still expensive.
“I’ve never had a whole lot of money anyway, and every now and then something happens,” she said.
At Thanksgiving, she had to spend time in the hospital because of complications from diabetes.
“This is the best Christmas present ever,” Ratliff said to the group of about 20 people who gathered to present her with the car. “All my friends are here, and I see that now. I knew it before, but now I really know.”
Ratliff’s Buick has 88,000 miles on it. Some members of her “fan club” said they plan to help her find an affordable auto insurance policy.
David Burton, a regular Bruegger’s customer, presented Ratliff with the car and a gasoline gift card as she finished her shift Monday afternoon.
Burton, a dentist, pulled the gift together in two days. He bought the car for $1,500 from a co-worker Friday, then collected money from fellow customers over the weekend. They gave him more than enough to cover the cost of the vehicle.
“When I asked for people to contribute, they didn’t even blink,” Burton said.
Most of Ratliff’s customers knew about her daily bus journey. After her shift ends, she takes three buses to get home.
To avoid taking multiple buses, she walks a mile from Bruegger’s to Creedmoor Road. The longer route means she has to take a bus to downtown Raleigh, then get on another bus to go home, which is on Duraleigh and Edwards Mill roads.
Ratliff, who came to Raleigh in 1995 from Rockingham, has always relied on bus service.
“I really didn’t mind riding the bus, I met a lot of people on the bus,” she said. “It never bothered me except when it rained or when it was really cold outside.”
When she was getting treatment for her cancer, Ratliff said friends took care of getting her to and from UNC-Chapel Hill. They also made sure she got to WakeMed for surgery. On days with bad weather, some of the same customers who helped buy her car will drive her from Bruegger’s to the bus stop on Creedmoor Road.
Customer Craig Boyd said Ratliff is special to so many people who see her every day.
“She’s Shirley,” Boyd said. “She takes care of us and always has a smile.”
Burton said most customers would never guess the medical issues Ratliff has experienced.
She said she just tries to make sure her customers are treated like friends.
“I just love people, and I’ve been here so long,” Ratliff said of her job. “It’s just like ‘Cheers.’ I’m so happy to be at work.”
A service industry veteran, Ratliff said she plans to stay at Bruegger’s as long as they’ll have her.
Of course, she does have one change she has to make now: Get that driver’s license.