Ray Duckler: After picking up the tab, Ellen Degeneres takes care of Henniker's Sarah Hoidahl
Sarah Hoidahl, 22, jokes with once-a-week regulars, Alan and Trudy Dunn, of Center Ossipee, at Ruby Tuesday's in Concord on Tuesday afternoon, November 12, 2013. Hoidahl, a single mom, received $10,000 in October and recently a new car from Ellen DeGeneres after she voluntarily paid a tab for two National Guardswomen who ate lunch at the restaurant while on furlough during the government shutdown. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
The lone figure rolled the Bissell sweeper over the carpet, near a section of empty booths.
It was quiet, about 3:15 p.m., midway between the lunch and dinner crowds at the Concord Ruby Tuesday restaurant.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Here was a small-town girl doing what she could to make ends meet.
You’d never have known that Sarah Hoidahl, a 22-year-old single mom with a blinding smile and an omnipresent, booming laugh, had recently been handed a $10,000 check the size of a dinner table by none other than Ellen DeGeneres.
And you’d never have known that, just last week, Ellen pranked the Henniker resident by sending out her talk show’s producer to Ruby’s, masquerading as a TV reporter before unveiling a new Hyundai – Hoidahl’s new Hyundai – in the restaurant parking lot.
“She’s changed my life forever,” Hoidahl said. “I love that woman.”
There’s a whole lot of loving going on in this one, shortly after Hoidahl’s kindness on the job attracted the attention of the comedienne and talk show hostess.
There’s Hoidahl’s love for her little boy, and her love for those who serve our country, and her mother’s love for Hoidahl, and Ellen’s love for Hoidahl, and, finally, Ellen’s love for a good story.
A really good story.
This one broke last month, all around the world, after Hoidahl the waitress became Hoidahl the celebrity with one simple gesture:
She picked up the tab for a pair of National Guardswomen whose pay had been cut off because of the government shutdown.
Hoidahl’s manager, Brian Hinckley, told his mother-in-law, a Guard member, who posted news of the good deed on the Guard’s Facebook page.
WMUR and NECN jumped on the story. Then came more Facebook.
Then came Ellen.
“Two days after the deed, my dad called,” Hoidahl said yesterday. “He told me the Ellen show called me and wanted to talk to me. Are you kidding?”
No. Her kindness touched Ellen, whose public relations wing did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But the story stands tall on its own. Dig a little deeper and the star turns out to be an unpretentious child of the tech age who still uses a flip phone.
“It calls, it texts,” said Hoidahl. “What else do I need?”
It’s the story of a Concord High School graduate who, at 20, told her boyfriend she was pregnant, two days after that boyfriend had moved to Colorado to start a new life.
Hoidahl knew he was leaving, and she supported his decision and planned to visit him at Christmas in 2011. That trip was canceled when Hoidahl was told she’d be a single parent if she had the child.
His name is Ashton. He’s 16 months old.
“I was barely 20; I just found out I was pregnant; my boyfriend left me,” Hoidahl said. “I was very mad, very hurt.”
Then came that smile, that light in her deep blue eyes, and this:
“It’s almost been a blessing,” Hoidahl said. “I didn’t want Ashton growing up feeling unwanted by one of his parents, and if I had forced (Ashton’s dad) to stay, he would have resented me and Ashton. So as far as Ashton is concerned, it’s just me, and that’s fine, because we have a lot of love to give that little boy.”
“We” includes Hoidahl’s mother and father, who divorced when Hoidahl was 3. She lived with her mother, Linda Hoidahl, in Concord until Linda lost her job as a home hospice nurse, forcing their move to Henniker.
It’s a rented cottage, with a small living room and kitchen area downstairs and one bedroom upstairs. Hoidahl and Ashton sleep in the bedroom, and Linda, now a nurse at New England College, sleeps downstairs, in a recliner.
Linda calls it “cozy.” Hoidahl calls her mother a role model for the ages.
“The greatest thing my mother did when raising me was saying that we may not have a lot of money, but we’re rich in love,” Hoidahl said. “That’s what she always said to me.”
Now Hoidahl, barely an adult herself, is doing the raising. Could she change her priorities, something Ashton’s father wasn’t willing to do?
“I’m very impressed with her,” Linda said. “She stepped to the plate. Her life did a turnaround, and I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. She just said, ‘Okay, this is my life now.’ ”
The tab came to $27.75
Her life changed again last month, after two women dressed in their Guard uniforms came into Ruby Tuesday. They mentioned to their waitress that they had to keep their order light, that they were no longer getting paid due to the shutdown.
They went with the salad bar, one adding the buffalo chicken minis, the other grilled chicken. The tab came to $27.75.
“My mother lost her job, and we lost our house in Concord,” Hoidahl said. “This kind of hit home.”
Hoidahl wrote a note and slipped it inside the leather check holder. She then laid it on the table.
Thanks to the gov. shutdown the people like you that protect this country are not getting paid. However I still am. Lunch is on me! Thank you for serving ladies! Have a good day!
Hoidahl went home with $8 in tips that night, but she felt quite rich. As Linda said yesterday, “I always tried to encourage that when you do something for someone else, it’s like doing it for yourself.”
Hoidahl and her mother had always loved Ellen, watching her in their Concord home while Hoidahl was pregnant, dancing to the opening music and Ellen’s now-famous shimmying.
More than a year later, after losing their home and moving to Henniker, Ellen flew Hoidahl to Los Angeles, put her up in a hotel and sent a car to bring her to the Burbank studio. Hoidahl told her story, and Ellen reached into her giant cat purse and pulled out a tiny change purse, to pay back the $27.75.
She counted dollar bills, one at a time, and jingled change, handing the money to Hoidahl. Then she gave her a 50-inch TV and $10,000, written on one of those giant checks.
More than anything else, Hoidahl remembers “the bright lights” and a fear of tripping in her high heels as she walked on stage.
Great story, right? Packs a punch, no?
You ain’t heard nothing, yet.
In the weeks that followed, media outlets, including a German TV station based in New York City, sought the waitress/bartender, a part-time psychology major at New England College.
Facebook messages poured in, too, from Malaysia and Taiwan and Romania and Switzerland and Australia and Malta.
Then, last Thursday, Ellen sent her producer, undercover, to Ruby’s. He posed as a TV reporter, doing a follow-up for Ellen, who had learned that Linda and Hoidahl were sharing a 2000 Subaru with 150,000 miles and an engine that ran hot.
During the interview, Hinckley, Hoidahl’s manager, brought a phone into the bar and told his employee she had a phone call.
“It’s Ellen; just checking in.”
“Hiiiiiiiiiii!” Hoidahl said, in a high-frequency pitch.
It was then that Hoidahl looked up, to the monitor on the TV camera, and noticed Ellen was talking directly to her.
Soon, a staff member from the show walked in and gave Hoidahl the button – not the keys, mind you – to start her new Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.
Hoidahl, shown on a split screen with Ellen, went outside, climbed into the shiny red car and began sobbing.
Ellen then teased to her next guest, Rob Lowe, and that was it. The episode ran this past Friday.
“Overwhelming,” Hoidahl said.
Ellen’s gifts have not arrived yet. The car was a model for the show, and the real one, plus the money and TV, are on their way. Hoidahl said she’s giving part of the cash to a charity that benefits military families with financial problems.
Meanwhile, she’s back at work, serving drinks and food, flashing her million-dollar smile and rolling a Bissell sweeper near empty booths.
“I’m still the same person,” Hoidahl said. “I still wake up and go to work every day. I have to do my job.”