Green Apron Vigilante


ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 28, 2020, I WAKE UP and wonder how I’m going to spend the next two days. During the week, I normally wake up, turn on my work computer so my status is active, then get back into bed. On the weekends, I can lie in bed as long as I want, without being on alert for a Teams notification.

Flipping the pillow over to the cool side, I scroll through my phone and see an email with the subject line, “catching Up . . . DAVID MATHESON.” David was my manager when I worked at Starbucks. I haven’t heard from him since I quit a year and a half ago and joined the corporate world.

I open the email and read,

How are you doing? Where are you? Are you busy? I need a little favor from you.

The email is bizarre and feels like a phishing scam. But David is just old enough to be considered a boomer, and his digital communications have always been unnatural, a second language. He signs all his texts with his name at the end.

I look at my boyfriend Matt, sleeping peacefully beside me. I can hear his voice in my head, telling me to delete the email. I ignore that imaginary voice and type,

I’m well, how are you? I’m still in Toronto. I can’t cover a shift ;)

Minutes later, there’s a new email in my inbox.

Thanks for the quick response. I’m sorry for bothering you with this mail, I need to get a Google Play Gift Card for my niece. It's her birthday but I can't do this now because I'm currently away. I tried purchasing online but unfortunately no luck with that. Can you get it from any store around you? I'll pay back as soon as I am back. Kindly let me know if you can handle this.

Someone has spoofed David’s email. I hear Matt’s voice in my head again, louder this time, telling me to delete this email. But he’s still sleeping. I think of the day stretching out in front of me. Everything is closed and fun is forbidden. The most exciting thing I’ll do today is go to the grocery store to buy cheese. But now I have a mystery to solve. Who is this person behind the email? Where do they live? What are COVID restrictions like where they are? If I play along for a while, maybe I can find out.

I’d be happy to help! How much do you want?

The response arrives one minute later.

Thank you very much. Total amount needed is $300 ($100 denomination) Google Play Gift Cards. Can be purchased from any Shoppers Drug Mart around you. I need you to scratch the back of the card to reveal the pin, then take a snapshot of the back showing the pin and then email it to me.
Once again, thanks and God bless.
Sent from my iPhone.

My mind races as I think about how to respond. This person knows they’re a scammer. I know they’re a scammer. But they don’t know I know they’re a scammer. How can I drag this out, form a relationship with this person and discover their true identity? I send a quick message to buy myself some time.

I will get on that right away! You are such a great uncle to get your niece a gift like this.

I try to imagine who is on the other end of the email. They could be anywhere in the world. Is it a professional scammer? A tech-savvy pre-teen? Does the person sending the email have a boss and a daily quota of emails they need to send every day?

I’ve moved from scrolling on my phone in bed to working on my computer at my desk, which is located directly in front of the bed in my studio apartment.

“What are you doing?”

Matt has woken up to find me intently focused and furiously googling variations of “how does spoofing work?” I explain how I’m tracking down a criminal mastermind, which is probably a lot for him to take in first thing in the morning.

“Just delete the email,” he says, predictably.

“But why are they doing this? Who is this person? Does this ever work? I need answers!”

“I need coffee.”

I take a break from sleuthing to accompany Matt on our daily, state-sanctioned walk. We get a coffee at the makeshift takeout window the local cafe has set up. I barely pay attention to where we’re going and I don’t even notice the scone selection. In my head, I’m in conversation with the scammer. Once they realize I’m onto them, they’ll chuckle at how clever I am. Maybe we’ll strike up a friendship. I’ll help them get a legitimate job. We could visit each other, we could start a podcast.

When we get home, I rush to my computer to check my email.

Any luck? Were you able to purchase the card? Let me know soon.

“How should I respond?” I ask Matt.

“I don’t know. I don’t know why you’re responding at all.”

“This is nothing. Didn’t I tell you about the time I solved the mystery of the stolen coffee when I worked at Starbucks?”

“No. Do I want to know?”

IN 2018, I WAS WORKING AT THE STARBUCKS on the corner of King St. East and Sherbourne St. in Toronto. A few blocks away there’s a homeless shelter. A few blocks in the other direction there’s a furniture store that sells ten thousand dollar couches. Some of our customers wore designer clothes and had a $20 daily Starbucks budget. Others did drugs in the bathroom and ordered cups of water. When I worked at the King and Sherbourne Starbucks, I learned how to make cold brew coffee. I also learned that the smoke from a crack pipe smells like burning rubber.

One day before a shift, I was sitting in the cafe, reading a book and drinking the free coffee I was entitled to before I clocked in. My shift was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. I watched my colleagues struggle through the morning rush, debated starting early to help them out, and ultimately decided against it.

I could hear the whir of the blender and the espresso machine grinding beans. I smelled brewing coffee and breakfast sandwiches. The melted cheese on the breakfast sandwiches had a similar smell to the crack smoke that occasionally wafted from the bathroom. Customers stared at their phones and avoided eye contact with each other.

The King and Sherbourne Starbucks was a pretty depressing place at 8:30 in the morning. All the customers were on their way to jobs they hated. The employees were already at a job they hated. Everyone was in their own little world, thinking about what they’d rather be doing or where they’d rather be.

I was frustrated to be working at Starbucks at 30 years old. I had worked there on and off throughout my life, and I could recall telling a colleague I would kill myself if I still worked at Starbucks when I was 30. When I turned 30 in a green apron I didn’t kill myself.

“If I still work here when I’m 40, I’m really doing it though,” I told my fellow baristas.

At this point in my life, I had been trying to find a writing job for five years. Even though my work had been on the cover of magazines and nominated for awards, no one was willing to pay me a living wage to write. I had applied for hundreds of jobs, been to dozens of interviews. Twice, I had made it through multiple rounds of interviews, only to get a rejection via email when I was in the Starbucks bathroom, pretending to clean it.

I looked up from my book and noticed a man on the other side of the queue. He was standing beside our take-home coffee bean display. He was wearing a massive dark blue coat in the middle of summer. His pants were the same colour, also quite oversized. On his feet were what I had recently learned were jail shoes.

“What are jail shoes?” I asked my colleague Jissa, who had pointed them out on a different customer a few shifts ago.

“They’re the shoes they give you in jail,” he said in his talking-to-white-girls voice.

I watched the man in navy blue place a dozen one-pound bags of coffee into a tattered tote bag. Then, he simply walked out, and I was the only witness.

I had known for a while we had a theft problem at the store. On more than one occasion I found the coffee display completely empty after a morning rush, even though we hadn’t sold any take-home coffee.

When I encountered a freshly pilfered coffee shelf, I wasn’t bothered by the theft itself. It wasn’t my money. It wasn’t my merchandise. I got paid no matter how much coffee went unaccounted for. What bothered me was the motive. It made sense when our tip jar went missing. But why would someone steal bags of coffee from Starbucks? No individual can consume that much coffee. They must be selling it. But where? And how? And to whom? Where is the Starbucks coffee black market and how does one access it?

As the thief left, I didn’t think. My legs moved automatically and walked me out the front door after him. I didn’t want to get the police involved or see him go to jail over some stolen coffee. I just had a burning desire to know where the coffee contraband was headed.

I followed him north on Sherbourne half a block and watched him walk into a convenience store. I continued my pursuit, opening the door and entering the store. I spotted him immediately. He was chatting with an employee behind the cash register, his elbow casually resting on the counter. He eyed me knowingly as I walked in, but bore no trace of guilt or shame. He chatted with the man behind the counter as if they were old friends.

I wandered up and down the aisles, wondering what to do next. Should I say something? How would that conversation even go?

“Did you steal that coffee?”


“Okay then.”

I quickly played out a few more hypothetical conversations in my head when I stopped dead in one of the aisles. On the shelf were a dozen bags of Starbucks coffee, priced at half of what Starbucks charges. I recognized the bags from last month’s display, bags that had disappeared mysteriously.

I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the display. I snapped a pic and noticed the time. My shift started in two minutes. I left the shop and felt the man in navy blue and his friend smirking behind me.

I walked back into work, put on my green apron and clocked in. I steamed milk and poured espresso. I re-made a latte because it had too much foam for a customer’s liking. I cleaned the post-rush bathroom and re-stocked the empty coffee shelf.

Dan, a regular who lived across the street came in for his usual iced vanilla latte. I told him what my sleuthing had uncovered.

“That shop is full of stolen shit,” he said. “The owner gets homeless people to steal for him and he pays them in cigarettes.”

The man in navy blue wasn’t a criminal mastermind. He just wanted a pack of cigarettes. I blended a frappuccino and felt a wave of hatred wash over me for the true villain of this story: the convenience store owner. Here I was, working full-time and barely able to pay my rent. The convenience store owner didn’t even have the guts to steal himself – he got other people to do it for him, putting them at risk while he lazed behind the counter.

I had become so used to feeling powerless. It didn’t seem to matter how good of a journalist I was, how many jobs I applied for or how much I networked. Someone else was always going to decide my fate. Whether it was an editor or a customer, I felt like I had no control over my own life. I had to do something to make myself feel like I had a tiny bit of power in the world.

Two hours into my eight hour shift, I had a fifteen minute break. I grabbed a milk crate from the back room and walked back to the convenience store. The man in navy blue was gone, but the same cashier was behind the counter. He looked at me apprehensively as I approached the counter.

“Where do you get your coffee from?”

“What coffee?”

“The Starbucks coffee on the shelf. Where do you get it from?”

“From a supplier.”

“What’s his name?”


“Bill who?”

The cashier hesitated.

“You stole this coffee from the Starbucks I work at.”

“No I didn’t. It’s from Bill.”

“I’m taking it back.”

I stormed over to the shelf with the hot beans and started throwing them in my milk crate.

“You can’t do that!”

“What are you going to do? Call the police and tell them you have a store full of stolen stuff?”

“You can’t do that!” the cashier repeated, less enthusiastically.

“Stop stealing from my store!” I shouted at him, marching out, wishing I had come up with a better parting line.

“I got our coffee back!” I exclaimed as I walked back into my store, expecting a cheer. Instead, the customers continued staring at their phones and my colleagues rolled their eyes at me.

“What is wrong with you?” my fellow barista Christine asked me. “That was dangerous. You really care that much about coffee?”

“It’s not about the coffee! It’s about sending a message to the universe! We are in control of our own destinies!”

“Did you know our benefits include therapy?”


“I swear!”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Are you saying I’m a liar?”

“I can’t believe anyone working at Starbucks could care that much about stolen coffee.”

“You’re missing the whole point of the story.”

“Okay, what is the point? What happened after you took the coffee back? Did he stop stealing?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug. The truth is, I would often see the man in navy blue look in the Starbucks window, see me, roll his eyes and walk away, presumably to go to another Starbucks or come back later when I wasn’t working.

I sip my coffee that’s now lukewarm and type a response to the David impersonator:

Hey David,
You’ll never believe this! I went to Shoppers to get the gift cards like you asked. On the way home, I ran into your niece! I decided to cut out the middleman and give the gift cards to her directly. She was so happy! You are such a great uncle. Enjoy the rest of your vacation!

I’m not going to directly accuse this person of committing a crime. I’m going to playfully disarm them with my wit and charm. When they read my response and see how clever I am, they’ll respond with a sheepish, “you got me,” and we’ll strike up a life-long friendship.

Matt is not impressed.

“You’re going to piss this person off and they’ll try even harder to scam you.”

I hit send anyways. After a minute, I refresh my email to see if I got a response. Nothing.

Six months into COVID-19, this is the most excitement I’ve experienced in a while. After months of monotony, there’s something new to occupy my mind.

When I worked at Starbucks, I felt powerless, like I wasn’t in control of my own life. Re-stealing coffee beans was my way of wresting some control back, even though I was acting like a lunatic. In the midst of a global pandemic, I feel how I felt back then. We’re all at the mercy of case counts, curves, and other people’s willingness to wear masks. There is no control. There is only waiting. Binging Netflix. Then waiting some more.

“They haven’t responded yet,” I lament to Matt, thirty minutes later.

“They’re not going to respond. They know you’re messing with them and they’re just going to move on to someone else.”

Unlike the mystery of the stolen coffee beans, it seems unlikely that this mystery will ever be solved. My hopes of a new friendship and a hit podcast start to fade. I can keep cosplaying as Nancy Drew, or I can succumb this time, and let the powerlessness wash over me as I watch all the Harry Potter movies while scrolling Instagram on my phone.

I refresh my email one more time.