As I pulled into the parking lot of a Philadelphia Dunkin Donuts (this is not a plug, Dunkin is at the bottom of my list when it comes to coffee a notch above Starbucks), a police car pulled in and parked next to me. Before you run the bad jokes through your mind, understand that there are a million and a half crazy and contradictory traffic signs in Philly, so for a moment I thought I might be getting a ticket. After the two cops got out and walked to the door, I realized I was safe, and then started thinking of the jokes.
Two cops walked into Dunkin Donuts… that’s it, that’s the joke. At least that was as far as I got because the first cop paused for a few seconds, to make sure he held the door for me, as did the other at the inside door. I was impressed. Not anything I expected. And no, they didn’t get donuts.
What does that have to do with a Styrofoam cup and the price of tea in china? Nothing at all. But think about what a Styrofoam coffee cup actually means to you. And the hundreds (in my case tens of thousands) you have used and thrown away.
After getting my coffee, and my donuts, I sat down at a table as two of my associates arrived. We immediately got pretty deep into a conversation about life. We talked about how we tend to keep our lives full of others who detract from it. We tend to show resentment towards those who we think are doing life better than we are. We scoff at the guy driving the Bentley or Ferrari, we say the wealthy never worked for their money, and we stay right where we are in life…
This is where the older black gentleman two tables over politely asked if he could interject into our conversation. Of course we said yes. What he had to say was so on point with what we were talking about. He said…
“Our problem is that we don’t build bridges. We dig ourselves into a hole and the deeper we dig the higher the dirt outside the hole gets. We look up at the people who could help us out, and resent them for not being in the hole too. When we see success, instead of trying to build a bridge, we consider the successful an enemy. Why is this so? We all want to live better, more successful lives, and we all know the best way to learn something is by being taught by someone who has done it. So why do we stand at odds with people who are exactly where we want to be? Because we don’t know the value of a Styrofoam cup.
For you, that Styrofoam cup means that you got a cup of coffee, and it’ll stay hot while you drink it. For me, this cup… this cup means I have achieved a dream. I’m sitting in a Coffee shop... in Philadelphia, in America… I’m inside an air conditioned shop when it’s hot outside. And I can pick up a hot beverage without burning my fingers…
I grew up in West Africa. For the longest time I resented those who had left, went to America to live their dreams. Until I realized that I was keeping myself down by digging my hole deeper and keeping the barriers up. Until I began to build bridges with those who had went to America, until I had really started relationships with those I had resented, it wasn’t possible for me to get where I am now.”
We went on to talk to Tubman for almost an hour. He shared his life story with us. He built a bridge with us. And now that he has attained the dream he had when he was young, he is going back to Africa to build more bridges and help others attain their dreams.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at a coffee cup the same. I’ll never sip another sip of coffee without thinking about building bridges with people. I may at some time make a cop and donut joke, but in retrospect, that’s exactly what those two police officers did, built a bridge. They took a moment out of their day to do something polite for a random stranger in their city. I won’t forget Tubman, and because of him I won’t forget those two either.
And that is the real value of the Styrofoam cup.
I am tagging this story with Styrofoamcup because I'd like to hear your stories of life lessons learned from complete strangers.