Starfish and Coffee

I remember Fall in Minneapolis vividly.

The air smells like water and earth and the lakes that spread throughout the city become deserted of people. They now walk around the lakes bundled up in what is the last fall jacket one can get away with wearing. I loved it and I loved what was to be an extremely beautiful time in my life. Instead of the long drawn version, I can narrow down one particular day in the fall of 1986? Maybe 87? That was to be the day I wrote Starfish and Coffee with Prince.

Sitting around the kitchen table was Prince, his engineer Susan Rodgers, and myself. It was a time Susan and myself spent every day with him recording or keeping each other company. Prince and I spent many hours together, either in the studio working, or driving around Minneapolis talking to each other and listening to music. We talked about our histories and our secrets but on a couple of occasions I told him stories of a 12-year-old girl named Cynthia Rose. My sister Wendy and I knew Cynthia intimately because we shared six years in a classroom, plus a bus ride to school with her. It was on the bus rides that I got to know Cynthia.

Cynthia never had much interest outside of her own personal space, so watching her was an unedited version of what was going on in her head. I’m certain if Cynthia were in school today she’d still be as interesting and extraterrestrial as she was then. I think Cynthia was dropped off from another world filled with extraordinary images. Images only Cynthia knew the meanings behind.

Her favorite number for many years was the number 12.

I knew this because she’d rock back and forth in her seat asking you if you knew what her favorite number was for the day. It was always a shock to her that you knew her favorite number was 12.

I’d say “I think it’s 12, right Cynthia?” She would be totally amazed and joyous that you guessed it right. Who’d a guessed it. Again I’d watch how she would ecstatically experience the world.

Cynthia would tell you over and over again how amazing and meaningful the number 12 was. I’d ask why? The answer never changed. It was always because, “it makes me happy.” That while she’d etch with her finger on the damp foggy school bus window a huge happy face. On many of those bus rides, Cynthia sat rocking in her seat gently repeating her favorite number. Cynthia would also tell me what she had for breakfast, and every day it was STARFISH AND PEE PEE.

I never understood the combo meal. And frankly nobody else could. This seemed like the deal breaker for most kids. More importantly, the kids in our class  had no interest in how Cynthia came to get her morning breakfast. I thought it was tender and funny, and listened to her tell me anything she wanted to say whether it was firmly planted on earth or from her planet of tender-hearted people who love numbers and draw smiley faces…

Sixth grade was the last year our class was to be together. And it was on the first bus ride that year I noticed that something was different about Cynthia. She sat quietly in her seat staring out of the window. When we arrived at school and as the bus pulled into the lot, Cynthia turned my way, looked me in the eyes and asked if I wanted to know something special.

I couldn’t wait!

We stepped outside of the bus, walked a couple feet, when she leaned into me and said…”Do you want to know what my favorite number is?”

I said, “It’s 12 right?”

Cynthia’s answer? ….. “It’s 20!!!!”

Then in her beautiful Martian-like way, she smiled into her hands and said, “Because it really makes me happy!” Then she was off running in her Groucho Marx, Martian kind of way, repeating the number 20.

That year turned out to be a very funny year for Cynthia and I. On two occasions I happened to leave class for a ladies’ room visit. I’m about to walk out of the bathroom when I hear water splashing and giggling in one of the stalls. I somehow had a feeling it was Cynthia Rose. The giggle sounded unattached to a real person. It sounded naive and desperate, almost like the sound of crying into a jacket; muffled and hysterical.

So, I knocked on the stall door asking if it was Cynthia. More giggles, no answer. I looked under the stall and saw Cynthia’s shoes. I asked what she doing in there. She threw the door wide open with a big red apple in between her teeth and soaking wet hair and face. She took a bite of the apple and said “I was bobbing for apples in the toilet. It’s so much fun!”

I was horrified.

Cynthia looked at me for what was to be the last time we would ever have eye to eye contact. She became long-faced and reflective, something I’d never seen with her. Cynthia took my hand while I grabbed as many paper towels I could gather to dry her off. Cynthia looked at my hands drying hers without a peep from her.

This is the story about the exceptional Cynthia Rose, who was just one of 25 kids like Kevin, Christopher, Wendy and Susannah – just to name a few of us – who spent everyday together for six years. Moreover, for those six years every day we started off greeting Ms. Kathleen outside her classroom door. We’d all be in line outside the classroom, she’d open the door, one by one we would greet and shake her hand walking to our seats for just another day at school.

And all of us were ordinary except for Cynthia Rose.

This is a true story I would tell Prince every so often when asked about it. We both agreed that she was worth writing about, Cynthia being so tender. We both wondered if Cynthia Rose was still living and number’s drunk. Because, it made her happy.

It was this fall afternoon in Minnesota at our kitchen table when Prince came up the stairs from his studio, sat next to me and asked if I would to tell him the whole story of Cynthia Rose. A few hours later he asked if I’d write it down for him. On that afternoon when Prince asked if I’d write this story, I would have no idea what was about to transpire downstairs in his studio. Prince requested I not go downstairs until he was finished with the track. Just before he went downstairs he sat down at the table and said to me, “The Pee Pee‘s got to go. He then asked if coffee was doable instead. Yes, yes yes, of course!

Ten hours later Susan came upstairs to get me. I walked into the studio, Prince was standing at the console with a tired but gentle smile on his face. He said, “Here it is.”

The rest is history.

To me, Starfish and Coffee is about kids and adults who are on the spectrum. Prince played only a few charitable events and autism was one of them. Starfish and Coffee is about bringing awareness to all those who experience their lives as Cynthia did. I want to reach the world with this story so my goal with this initiative is to band with the autistic society and introduce Cynthia Rose to the world – and have us all dance with her.


Here are the lyrics to the song:

It was 7:45 we were all in line
2 greet the teacher Miss Cathleen
First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me
All of us were ordinary compared to Cynthia Rose
She always stood at the back of the line
A smile beneath her nose
Her favorite number was 20 and every single day
If U asked her what she had 4 breakfast
This is what she’d say
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham
If U set your mind free, baby
Maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam

Cynthia wore the prettiest dress
With different color socks
Sometimes I wondered if the mates were in her lunchbox
Me and Lucy opened it when Cynthia wasn’t around
Lucy cried, I almost died, U know what we found?

Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham
If U set your mind free, honey
Maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam

Starfish and coffee

Cynthia had a happy face, just like the one she’d draw
On every wall in every school
But it’s all right, it’s 4 a worthy cause
Go on, Cynthia, keep singin’

Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham
If U set your mind free, baby
Maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam


  • Eric Johnson

    Beautiful,and a much deeper meaning than I ever would have thought.

  • Geraldine

    This song always and forever will have a special place in my heart, loved it before I read the story a few years ago and love it even more now it has great purpose in raising awareness ???

  • Tracey

    Love u hun this was such a beautiful thing to share ! Thank you for being such a beautiful person! I am honored to have finally have met you in person at the Wiltren in Los Angles….. sending you and your beautiful twin positive healing energy! Get well soon Wendy !!!

  • Maryanne West

    This story makes me love the song even more, if that possible…….

  • Salena

    As I sit hear and read the story of Cynthia Rose I can’t help but think she may have been autistic and my eyes are fullnof tears. I have loved this song since the first time I heard it. And now so many years later as I’m reading the story I can’t help but to think of my beautiful nephews that are autistic, and this song means just that much more to me. Our sweet Prince was such a genius. Thank you for sharing. ? ?

  • Kevin

    One of my all time favorite songs!

  • Elena

    Thank you for sharing this story about the writing of the song and the back story.????

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95% of life is spent on autopilot.

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