Having just finished my first year of college, the summer of 1994 found me looking to take a step up in my career. I’d spent a few months toddler-wrastling for a daycare, but really wanted to ascend to the world of retail … the cash register and lack of juice breaks made it seemed more glamorous, and I could make $6.25 an hour instead of $5.75.
I found a job at The Disney Store in downtown Seattle’s then-newish Westlake Mall. I thought the job would be so much fun…I was still a big Little Mermaid fan, and I figured that my experience with children at the daycare would translate perfectly into children’s retail.
My disillusionment began quickly. I had to sit through “orientation” which included two sessions watching lengthy bullshit corporate videos about synergy and the Customer Service Cycle. I was introduced to the tenets of the retail industry, the fantastically swishy sounding theory of FAB — Features And Benefits. The t-shirt is COTTON [feature] which makes it SOFT and ABSORBENT! [benefit] This stuffed Sebastian lobster doll is SAFE FOR BABIES [benefit] because it’s made from NON-TOXIC NON-ABSORBENT ACETATE! [feature]
If the orientation made me wary, I was soon overwhelmed by the level of control the company exacted over me. I learned never to ask a customer a question to which they could answer “No.” The question was not, “Can I help you?” but rather, “What can I help you find today?” I suppose the theory was that “Nothing” has two syllables, and that puts you at a better syllable-to-statement ratio with the customer. I’m confident many years of research have been conducted on this issue, and that it’s always better if you can get a duo-syllabic rejection.
I learned how to semantically assimilate with the Disney Corporation. I was a “Cast Member,” not an employee. It was the “Stage,” not the store floor. It was “Backstage,” not the storage room. As they are in many places now, customers were “Guests.” I learned how to wear my socks appropriately (folded down neatly over the ankles, bobby-sock style) and which color of nylons to wear under my uniform of grey shorts and faux letterman’s sweater.
Once, my chipper manager sent me Backstage to Windex my sneakers. “Gal,” she chirped “they’re looking a little dingey. You need to go clean those up Backstage!”
We all know the corporate retail Greeter — that person who is forced to put the “Ass” in “Sales Associate”; the unlucky sod stationed at the front of the store verbally assaulting every last person who walks through the mall entryway. But the Greeter can’t look like they’re just Greeting. No. Even Mickey Mouse acknowledges that such behavior might seem irritating or creepy. A Greeter’s true skill is looking remarkably busy, embodying that air of surprised genuine glee when someone walks through the door — Why, I didn’t see you there! Hello! Welcome to The Disney Store! What can I help you find today?
The busywork that I did most often when working my Greeter shift was folding. When working farther back on the Stage, I’d learned to use the folding square, a piece of plastic that ensured shirts were all neatly folded into rectangles of exactly the same size so that the stack would all show a screen-printed Tigger in the exact uniform place. The folding square was fine, but when you’re Greeting, you need to be more hands-on. There can’t be too many props between you and the customer. So I learned to fold shirts against my chest.
Over and over again, I’d fold the same shirt, glancing up with eyebrows raised in mock joy to smile, “Welcome to the Disney Store! What can I help you with today? Oh, don’t worry about interrupting me, I’d love to help you find that collectible Briar Rabbit porcelain figure!” I’d set the shirt down, and return to it a few minutes later to refold it and Greet the next Guest.
It became second nature — hold the shirt against my chest. Fold it laterally on one side, tucking the sleeve. Fold it laterally on the other side, tucking the sleeve. Then hold one hand and let gravity help you crease it in thirds — Why hello! Welcome to the Disney Store! What’s your favorite Lion King song? Wow, I like Hakuna Matata too!
Quickly, I learned to hate my job at The Disney Store. Too controlled! Too forced! The half-hour commute from the U-District to Westlake was stupid! My last hurrah (and dangerous act of rebellion) was stealing a Tinkerbell figurine that had been recalled due to a dangerously-pointy plastic wing. I entertained fantasies of poking a two-year-old’s eye with it and suing the company to make millions. Then I quit without giving notice.
But some things stayed with me. In 1995 I wrote an essay applying Erving Goffman‘s theory of Total Institution to the Disney Store. There were some holes in my thesis, but I argued it well and got a 3.7 on the paper.
Recently, as Andreas and I folded laundry, he made me realize that the fucking Disney Fold has been permanently ingrained into my repertoire of laundry techniques. It makes sense — I worked there when I was just getting established as an adult living on my own, and the shirt folding technique was a good one. Dre struggled as he tried to learn it, and I laughed and laughed when I realized that here I am, 20 years later, still acting the role of Cast Member.
And now I’m here to share the magic with you! Below, please find the seven magical steps of The Disney Fold demonstrated by your favorite retired Greeter. This may be top-secret stuff people — I could get sued! Then again, I could learn that this is how everyone folds their shirts, and my story could be ruined.
What oddly useful skills have you retained from your shittiest jobs?