They put the money in a silver metal briefcase and put it on a picnic table in the Miramar Reservoir. The lid came up: $ 100,000 in stacks of paper with $ 50 bills.

All these greenbacks alongside all the blue water – no wonder Lenin Gutierrez’s eyes widened.

"I've never seen anything like it except at the movies," he said.

Three weeks ago, the 24-year-old student was working at a Starbucks in Clairemont when a customer came in without a face mask. He pointed out the corona virus rules, she went and then criticized him on Facebook for refusing to serve her.

That struck Matt Cowan, an Irvine marketing and brand strategist who thinks masks are a good idea and internet bullying a bad one. So he launched a "tip for Lenin how to assert himself against a Karen from San Diego" using a social media label for overprivileged people who boil over in public.

He hoped for $ 1,000.

The campaign achieved this within a few hours, then reached $ 5,000 and continued to grow. Something about it hit a nerve and vibrated along the political and cultural lines that are destroying so much of American life today, even during a public health crisis.

Newspapers and television channels in San Diego and elsewhere spread the word and sparked donor interest all the way to Australia.

Most people gave small sums, $ 10 or $ 20, but there were plenty of them – nearly $ 8,000 – and when the money came in, Cowan said he realized that his virtual tip jar wasn't just making a statement. It changed a life.

Gutierrez grew up in Chula Vista in a family without much money. He said they ate a lot of rice and beans. At Christmas the boxes under the tree were nicely packed, but mostly empty.

When the GoFundMe drive reached $ 10,000, he was thrilled. When it reached $ 50,000, he was stunned. One hundred thousand? He has no words.

"It's more money than ever in my family," he said.

What once seemed like dreams are goals – and attainable. He plans to move from Community College to Cal State Fullerton and study kinesiology, the mechanics of human movement. His passion is hip-hop dancing, and he wants to apply what he has learned to this art form and share it with others as a sports coach.

"I feel like I have been given this incredible opportunity that I never saw coming," he said, "and I don't want to waste it."

This wasn't the first time a customer came to Starbucks without a mask, Gutierrez said. It wasn't the last time either.

"I would say about 80% of people are cooperative and wear masks," he said. “Another 10% have simply forgotten and apologize for not having one. And then maybe there are 10% who just don't want to wear one. "

His experience goes well with public surveys on the subject. A Pew Research report in late June found that 80% of Americans wore masks at least temporarily while in stores, and 65% wore them all or most of the time. Seven percent said they never wear a mask.

Gutierrez hadn't expected to get the money in cash. Cowan and a colleague, Will Collette, brought it to him last week. They did it to record the whole thing on video and post it on YouTube. It was also a way to show donors that the campaign was legitimate. There were fundraising scandals in which people collected money for supposedly good causes and then pocketed the proceeds.

"A great day to change someone's life," said Cowan at one point in the video, just before he parked his car at the Miramar Reservoir and walked to Gutierrez with the metal briefcase.

"I don't know what to say," Gutierrez said when he opened the case and saw the stack of bills. "It's just so stunning."

He lives with one of his sisters in Clairemont who was at the picnic table with him. His other sister was there too. That was his lawyer.

He has had to get smarter on a lot of things since all of this happened, he said. What is legal What is wise He also spoke to a financial advisor.

"For this reason, many doors open to me," said Gutierrez. "I want to make sure I'm doing the right thing and preparing for my future life."

Therefore, he first went to the bank after leaving the reservoir. All the money in his hand made him nervous.

He has deposited the money and is now trying to get himself back to normal, even if his Starbucks employees sometimes rip him for "famous" reasons.

He has been working part-time for the coffee shop for about three years and has no plans to stop. "I don't see this as something that means I can take a break from life," he said. "I will go on as if the money never existed."

This also includes masks.

"It's the least we can do," he said. “If all doctors and health professionals are right, we can help stop the virus from spreading. And if they're wrong, it's just a mask on your face. It's not that big of a deal. "

Unless, of course, someone makes it one.

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.

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