Now that we’ve all agreed “Karens” are bad, can we start calling out the Matts and Wills?
“Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
– Sarah Hagi
One thing that has always bothered me, perhaps far more than it ought to, is the “feel-good” story that makes global headlines and quickly fades from collective memory never having been critically examined. There are many layers to this—the cringe-inducing lack of self-awareness inherent to any public performance of charity, the whole idea of “charity” in the first place, the disingenuous apolitical façade, etc. etc.
Maybe this is the reason that the story of a 24-year-old Starbucks barista named Lenin who enforced store policy and refused to serve a customer who was not wearing a mask has stuck with me since it first made headlines a few weeks ago. The customer threw a fit, swore at him, stormed out and then posted a photo with his name on Facebook, presumably with the intent to publicly shame him for doing his job/likely believing in science and with the threat that next time she’d call the cops. This not surprisingly backfired; Lenin naturally became the hero of the story and within a few days, over $100,000 was raised on GoFundMe for his “virtual tip jar.”
Of course, this story isn’t really about Lenin at all. It’s even less about the woman who read the virtual room so poorly and tried to intimidate him on social media. It’s really about two white guys named Matt and Will who tapped into the “cancel Karen” culture at the right moment and were able to fulfill what I can only assume based on how much time they spend talking about what has been a lifelong fantasy of theirs: driving around in a Tesla with a suitcase full of cash.
It’s not that uncommon for a GoFundMe campaign to be started by a complete stranger. It’s a fairly natural response in some ways to want to help when you hear about someone who has been grievously wronged. When I read about a young woman, a 19-year-old McDonalds employee, who had been assaulted by a drive-through customer yelling racial slurs and who was afraid to tell her manager because he’d already been unresponsive to many other incidents, my first thought was that someone should be raising money for her.
This is actually what got me looking back at the #StarbucksLenin story. On the post about the McDonalds employee, many were asking if she had a GoFundMe where they could donate. Others were posting updates about their attempts to find the woman and contact her about whether she’d want that.
Matt Cowan did not wait to contact Lenin to get his consent for the campaign or to ask if this kind of publicity was something he wanted.
(I think I already mentioned Matt is a white man. I didn’t mention that according to his LinkedIn profile, after college he was “self-employed” as an “Independent Consultant” where he “Traveled to various music festivals across the United States to broaden [his] network.”)
One of Matt’s first posts assures people that they will get the money to Lenin because his friend Charles lives near the Starbucks location and will deliver the funds directly to the tip jar. A day after the GoFundMe went live he updates this plan to note he's actually contacted the person he's been raising money for:
Incredible news!! We found Lenin's Facebook page and him and I are chatting. He is overwhelmed by all of your support and wants you to know how thankful he is!
Him and I are discussing the best way to get the funds handed over to him in San Diego!!!
Given Lenin’s (completely understandable) reticence to do media interviews, I’m guessing what he did not request in this “discussion” was that Matt bring a suitcase full of cash, an oversized check and his buddy who hosts a YouTube channel about expensive cars. Who knows.
So what was the point of this exercise? Hard to tell exactly from the barebones GoFundMe page, which included this much information:
Tips for Lenin Standing Up to a San Diego Karen
Raising money for Lenin for his honorable effort standing his ground when faced with a Karen in the wild.
So there’s a definite focus on “Karen hunting” (which is maybe something I just made up, but I’ll write about that later). And given the the use of the phrase “standing his ground” here is particularly strange and tone deaf. It’s all a little weird to me, to be honest.
The weirdest thing, though, has to be the video the two made documenting their journey (or rather the journey of the suitcase of cash). The Weirdest Video Ever has the title “Starbucks Lenin gets $100,000 IN CASH” under a photo of Lenin in a mask holding the open suitcase of cash on his lap.
The video begins with a someone off-camera asking “What does 100k look like?” as we see a man (apparently Matt) closing a suitcase full of money and walking into a public park wearing a surgical mask. “Hey Lenin,” he says, walking toward a small socially distanced group standing near a picnic table.
Cut to Lenin sitting on the picnic bench, smiling into the camera from behind a colorful fabric face mask, open suitcase of cash next to him on the table.
“Because they’re no longer dreams,” he says. “You guys made them goals. So thank you so much.”
Then, extremely abruptly, the video jumps to an opening sequence of some sort. We hear an announcer-like voice saying, “It’s about that time again!” The name Will Collette appears on the screen (the “i” is a palm tree graphic); the sound of a car starting plays in the background.
Then we see two white men in a car, mid/late 20s I’d say. Neither is wearing a mask. One is, however, wearing aggressive aviator glasses.
“WHAT IS UP, GUYS if you're watching this that means you've GOT ANOTHER DAYYYY,” he says in a single breath. “If you're new to the channel, welcome, my name is Will Colette and today I'm here with my friend Matt Cowan and we are on our way to San Diego, California, and I'm super psyched to tell you guys about what today is because it's so special.”
Who the fuck is Will Collette, I’m still asking myself. But now he’s told Matt to explain to us why today is going to be so “awesome.” Especially in contrast to Will’s energy, Matt slouched in the driver’s seat in a white t-shirt seems quite subdued. I can’t tell whether he’s actually stoned or if that’s just his vibe. He turns to look straight into the camera:
“Yeah, so, you know, I mean basically we're about to go take a hundred thousand dollars to
this kid Lenin. You've probably seen it on the news.
“Lenin is a barista at Starbucks in San Diego. Long story short couple weeks ago a Karen came in [here Will literally giggles in the background], yelled at him, refused to wear a mask. Kind of
went viral and we made a GoFundMe to get tips for Lenin.”
“You made a GoFundMe,” Will yells from off camera. “He made a GoFundMe.”
“I made a GoFundMe to GoFundMe for Lenin,” Matt says. Then he awkwardly turns toward the camera, extending both hands palms up. “All of you—I’m sure everybody that's watching—saw it, donated, thought what Lenin did was something that he shouldn’t have been bullied online for.”
Now if you remember at this point that Matt is driving a car while this is being filmed, this description of him taking both his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road might alarm you. It concerned at least one YouTube viewer who commented: “It's not safe to drive while you are looking into the camera. Please be careful.” To which Will responded, “The Tesla was self driving but we’ll keep that in mind next time. Thank you!”
But I digress. Matt does not. He doesn’t offer any further insight into this endeavor. The story is simple: Woman bullies barista; Matt Cowan, Digital Channel Manager and Brand Strategist for Music Artists, solicits donations on behalf of this barista to whom he has never talked.
“And so we’re about to go to San Diego and, uh, give him the money in person.”
And now Matt and Will do digress. They digress so much that I am not convinced it’s a digression at all. Given the amount of time devoted to the subject, it honestly seems that this suitcase of cash is, in fact, entirely the point of this video.
Will’s face pops back into the frame. He has an almost maniacal grin.
“WHICH MEANS THAT WE HAVE $100,000 IN CASH SITTING [haha] RIGHT BEHIND US! Which is kind of just like walking around with a Lamborghini in your pocket. It’s a little odd, I’m gonna say, it was even kind of weird to go to the bank and pull that much money out.”
I’m not saying that Matt set out to raise this money for this purpose of documenting himself delivering a suitcase of cash. There seems to be no clear point to any of this, which is one of my main issues with the stunt, and it’s painful how hard these two are trying to create a narrative.
After Matt describes for the first time the process he went through the withdraw $100k in cash, Will jumps in to add context:
“The reason why this is so exciting is not just because—like, you know, people who make this much money, people win this much money—but, like, this kid just a couple weeks ago never knew that any of this was gonna happen. Just because of some actions—small actions—of things that all you guys are doing, his entire life is gonna change. And $100,000 is plenty of money to be
able to totally shift the course of someone's life.”
Will turns to Matt: “Did he tell you a little bit about what he's doing with it? Like where the money’s going?”
“Right, I haven't delved too much into it with him, but I mean for the most part he wants to go to school. He wants to get a degree in kinesiology. He's about to get his AA degree—he’s been working on that for a few years. He really wants to give back to the dance community that has helped him get to where he is in life. He does want to donate a little bit of it to charity, but I mean at the end of the day, this money's gonna change his life. It's really cool because he feels this immense responsibility to do right by everybody that donated. I’m excited to see how this changes his life.”
There are boatloads of evidence that winning the lottery (i.e., suddenly receiving a large and unexpected amount of money) often ruins people's lives. Just saying. But for now, we're still in a self-driving Tesla heading from Orange County to San Diego with a suitcase of cash in the backseat and two bros who have put more thought into the staging of this event than its actual implications. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it's less clear where we'll end up on this freeway paved with a complete lack of intention.
When my twin sister and I were nine or ten, my mom asked if we wanted to sign up for sailing lessons that summer or get our own sailing dinghy. The way this was posed was much like the time my mom, inspired by a story in our Highlights magazine about how sugary cereals didn’t actually taste very good, decided to buy us a box of Lucky Charms for us to taste test.
That’s another story, but this choice was also framed expertly by my mom as a no-brainer for me and my sister: the cost of the eight-week session for the two of us was more than it would cost to buy a sailing dinghy of our own. Our own boat. Summer after summer of sailing, not just a few weeks.
It was not a racing dinghy—it was a tubby rowboat with a sail. Mostly we paddled from wind pocket to wind pocket in the protected harbor. But we were on our own. And we’d already learned the basics of sailing from our dad; from before we could remember, our family vacations and summer weekends were spent on our 26-foot Pearson sailboat, essentially camping on the water instead of driving a small RV to a campground. It was fantastic.
Of course, I developed a lifelong inferiority complex about my sailing skills. Even after six summers working at a local marina and then three full years on the dock staff of a sailboat charter company after college, I constantly feel the need to qualify my boating abilities and bona fides. I constantly am adding in the caveat that while I know how to sail, I don’t know how to sail sail. Sailboat racing has always been “real sailing” to me. If you’ve grown up riding horses, you’re probably not constantly telling people that, well, sure you can ride a horse, you’ve been doing it your whole life, but you never got into dressage. Or horse jumping. Or whatever other equestrian specialization you find yourself lacking in experience.
But for some reason, I have always felt that recreational sailing—cruising, casual daysailing—doesn’t really count. Though I know lots of accomplished dinghy racers who have no idea how to bring a sailboat to the dock under power.
Not surprisingly, this is not the only area in which I suffer from impostor syndrome.
Cecilia Kiely is a semi-professional writer and editor and amateur parent. She’s never sure which is worse, listing a single publication or none at all, but her creative work has appeared in Sinister Wisdom. She also writes about boat-related things for Passagemaker. She lives down a half-dirt/half-paved road somewhere in New Hampshire.