Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Breakfast In America

Starbucks Coffee, Silverado Plaza, Napa, California, USA

October 21, 2006

This essay, Breakfast in America, is the second in an open group with titles borrowed from Songs:

I'm up before the dawn. I drive down the hill to the gym and swim a mile alternating butterfly, freestyle and breaststroke easily but at a fast pace. Out in the wine country the harvest colors are changing: from shades of only green to yellows, pastel purples, mahogany, deep reds, and browns in the clean valley air, the usual photographer's dream come true. It's the kind of morning when anything can happen. And probably will.

On my way to work I stop at a local Starbucks for a muffin and a tall caffé latté  the way I like it: "skinny" (non-fat), foamless, extra hot. Breakfast of champions. Breakfast In America.

Then I see the homeless man. I watch him through the plate glass window as the girl behind the counter steams my milk. He's sitting outside in the plaza on the edge of a flower box. I've seen him there before. But I've never seen what he looks like. He always wears a filthy dirty parka with the hood up obscuring his face no matter what the weather. I've seen his hands, however. They're blackened with ingrained grime. They haven't held a cake of soap in ages.

Oddly I wonder "Doesn't his skin itch? How can his toes stand not being near warm water?". I also notice I'm scared of him and I have no idea where the fear comes from. Is he mentally ill? Is he violent?

And then I notice something else really  odd which suddenly catapults me into another level of wakefulness.

I've got breakfast. The homeless man has none.

I've stepped around homeless people sleeping on sidewalks. I've ignored panhandlers jangling paper cups of change in my face. I've looked away from disheveled men holding ripped cardboard signs saying "Vietnam veteran - will work for food.". And suddenly I'm totally confronted with something which for the first time in my life shows up as truly  bizarre.

This is America. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Yet the homeless man has no breakfast in America.

Now don't get me wrong. I love  America. I'm an immigrant to these shores. I assert to truly appreciate America you have to come here from somewhere else. Often I'm challenged when I wax lyrical how great this country is. They'll say to me "How can you say this is a great country? Look what a bad job  the president is doing in Iraq.".

And I'll say "You may be right about Iraq. You may be wrong. But what you don't get  is you're free to criticize the president in America and no one's going to come and take you away in the middle of the night without an arrest warrant because of your anti-government opinion.".

I know what I'm talking about. I'm not just a guy in a diner  about this. I grew up in South Africa South Africa in the halcyon days of apartheid  when such occurrences were routine.

I'll say "Here in America you're free to speak.". And they just look at me, puzzled. They've had that freedom for so long they take it for granted now. They have no clue what a privilege and a gift it is.

So when I say it's bizarre the homeless man has no breakfast in America, I'm not talking about America the nation nor about America the political and socio-economic entity. I'm talking about America the space I am. I'm talking about America the context for my life. I'm not blaming  America the country or America the system. America the country, America the system is the way it is, whatever it is. It is I  who's responsible for my experience of the homeless man having no breakfast in America. And it shocks me to see I have no generosity toward him.

I take my caffé latté  with me out onto the plaza and I tentatively walk up to him. There's that fear  again ... where does  it come from? Will he yell at me? Will he insult me? This is dumb. What am I getting myself into? Yama yama yama ...

When I'm close enough to him for him to realize I'm approaching him, he looks up. For the first time I see his face. And I'm totally blown away  by what I see. What was I expecting? An old  man? A deeply lined visage? No teeth? Wild bloodshot eyes? It's none of the above. He has the face of a child!  It seems to me he couldn't even be twenty years old. He's smiling at me. He's  totally at ease. I'm  the awkward one. The man in the filthy dirty parka, the homeless man, the man with no breakfast  is creating the space for me  to be at ease around him  ...

I gather my composure. "Hello!" I say. "Would you like something to eat?". And he says, simply, "Sure.". And he's smiling as a communication. He's not patronizing me. He didn't expect my offer and he certainly didn't ask for it. He just smiles to acknowledge my greeting and my offer and my presence. The homeless man may not be many things, at least in my opinion. But one thing he is for sure, and that is he's clear.

I go back into Starbucks and I order him something to eat that looks healthy. There's a few sandwich items with chicken, lettuce and tomato on nice bread which I gravitate toward, forgoing the stodgy pastry stuff. And as I pay for it, as I give the girl at the cash register my money, I feel a strange new sensation. Ordinarily my money seems to be doing everything it can possibly do to stay in my wallet. But this  money, this money which buys breakfast in America for the homeless man, is doing everything it can possibly do to get out of my wallet and be spent. And for the first time in my life, without any artificiality, without any added opinion, without any interpretation, without any conceptual or intellectual framework, I get the possibility of being generous.

Back out in the plaza I say to him (still inexplicably tentatively) "Here. Have breakfast.". He stands up and takes the food. He doesn't sniff at it or disdain it which would demean me. He doesn't bow in appreciation which would demean him. He just says an appropriate "Thank You!", smiles a genuine smile, and then his face disappears again inside the filthy dirty parka as he sits back down on the flower box, and I walk away with my caffé latté  back to my car, not staying to watch him eat, my nostrils distinguishing both the aromas of freshly brewed coffee and the chlorine still lingering in my hair.

We're trapped in a world of money. Both me and the homeless man. If you've not got enough money, you're trapped. If you've got lots of money, you're trapped. We're trapped largely because we've forgotten money is merely a symbol of exchange to which we ascribe value and agreement yet which has no intrinsic value nor agreement in and of itself.

When I get I'm trapped in a world of money, when I get I'll always  be trapped in a world of money whether I've not got enough of it or whether I've got lots of it, then paradoxically I'm free in a world of money. When I'm free in a world of money, all there is to do is to take responsibility for my experience of money, and to make choices. I can make less money. I can make more money. I'm responsible for my experience of money. That doesn't mean I'm to blame  for my money situation,- whatever it is. Neither does it mean my money situation whatever it is, is my fault. It simply means I'm responsible for my experience of money and I'm free to make choices which impact my experience of money.

When I get that, I get the possibility of being generous. And the homeless man gets breakfast in America.

Listen to my daughter Alexandra and I jammin' our rendition of the Supertramp classic Breakfast in America
Alexandra, now in 2006 a sweet sixteen year old, was six when she and I recorded this in 1996.

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