Monday, September 1, 2014

On the difficulties of detecting talent: my time with the creator of Adventure Time in a Whole Foods dishroom

Ruth was a portly schoolmarmish aficionado of bread, and possibly an HR genius. She ran the kitchen at the then-nightmarishly dysfunctional Whole Foods Market in San Antonio, TX in the early 2000s, about fifteen years ago.

If the word "hipster" was in use at the time, I had yet to hear it, but Whole Foods was full of trust-fund communists and passionate defenders of Blip-Hop. Ruth's kitchen was staffed with people who had a lot of surface similarities to the tequila-sodden-buddhist men-with-dresses LOOK AT ME crowd that ran the front end, but an uncanny lot of the 19-year-old lieutenants in Ruth's army had names I'd find again in newspapers, ten years hence. I usually couldn't tell one kind of person from the other. I certainly miscategorized Pendleton Ward.


We had a low-volume kitchen. I considered it grueling hard work, because at lunch I'd have to clean plates for an hour. I spent most of the rest of my time drinking the Mexican blend and trading monologues with other would-be celebrity philosophers in my dishroom. My renown had spread as far as the seafood department, from whence Little Mike would come and regale me with tales of the North Pacific, scrimshaw, crabs, and death. We'd talk a lot about how we were special. Different from the other Whole Foods People.

We called the dishroom my salon, and cool people who talked well got in trouble for spending too much time back there. Sooner or later, I was joined by a new hire named Pen. I had to "train" him on dishes, which was a joke, because he had washed before at restaurants with much higher volume. He was not a cool person who talked well.

Pen was heavy-set, quiet, and insufferably weird. He was in love with the juice bar girl, Angel, who had a 2-year plan to lose weight, build credibility, and join the Cirque du Soleil. She wouldn't give him the time of day. She had plans. We all had plans. Maybe everyone but Pen, that is. When he talked at all, it was about bootlegging bluegrass music. He also drew weird cartoon characters on the whiteboard sometimes.

It was only in the days after Pen put in his two weeks that he casually talked loose about his plan. He was working on a cartoon, and he was going to California to make it happen.

I slapped him on the back and said "Whoah man, that's great! Hey, good luck!" and laughed a little, inside. Stupid fat hipsters and their delusions.

Ten years later, walking into a clockless class for the first time at the University of the City of Manila, I asked my students what time it was and they screamed back in chorus "Adventure Time." I relished the opportunity to tell them I trained the creator on dishes. I think being a professor has given me some retrospective perspective on Pen, and on what a genius looks like.

I teach English as a second language. Occasionally, I get a student whose English is better than mine. Maybe they missed the TOEFL dates and needed to enroll somewhere anyways to keep their I-20. Weird stuff happens.

I know what college students are like. They're like Whole Foods team members. Some are quiet, some are loud. Some talk a lot about the work at hand, and some are trying to look pretty. A lot of what goes on is subsurface cold-warring for status.  

But when I get a genius, a genius like Croisille Adanho (whose name I will watch), they don't even seem to want a niche. They're passing through. They don't talk about their plans. (I wouldn't open a Q&A about my career ambitions to the kids on a McDonald's playground.)

Croisille could write a 20-minute essay you might mistake for Borges, in his second language. One that would leave you weak in the knees. He never said a word in class. He turned his shit in, got 100s, and went home.

Other kids would one-up each other and try to impress or seduce each other, but that wasn't Croisille's game. The kid sitting next to him might have thought Croisille was too deficient in English to track what was happening in class. He wrote better than anyone else I have personally met.

Pen had the greatest, boldest, most winning plans in the kitchen, and I think he didn't talk about them because he saw no merit in trading words for prestige among people who weren't his equals. He knew he was onto something that stood a chance at being important, and we were just other passengers waiting in the train station.

And be it with my students or other San Antonio Whole Foods alumni (I tell you, Ruth was a genius at hiring good people), this seems to be the case.

The meek will inherit the earth, because they're not playing for dishroom stakes.