Learning to fold: everything I know about laundry I learned from working shitty retail jobs

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step7Having 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.

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What oddly useful skills have you retained from your shittiest jobs?

Comments on Learning to fold: everything I know about laundry I learned from working shitty retail jobs

  1. I spent one summer working a retail clothing job and that fold is still ingrained in my noggin. I only use it for gifts though – I’m much to lazy to use it in my daily life.
    That job was particularly un-enjoyable as the manager got to choose the music for the store (from within the realm of kids these days top 40 dance/pop stuff) and she *LOVED* Beyonce/Destiny’s Child like nothing else. There were 3 disks of Beyonce or Destiny’s Child in the store player at all times. If I never hear “Survivor” again, I will be a happy person.
    I also worked all through high school in a fast food burger joint combined with a sister chain rotisserie chicken – small town living, chain restaurants often come as 2 for 1! If you need someone to salt & scoop fries into a small cardboard container really quickly because the actual fry-kid on duty is an incompetent stoner who will never be fired because his mom is a manager, I’m your lady!

  2. I wouldn’t exactly call this useful, but as a little kid dance teacher, I learned to mirror movements extremely well since we would do the entire dance backwards so we could face the kids. Also, hundreds of little kid dance songs (seasonal and otherwise)…

  3. I was a pool lifeguard for years. The kind who blows a whistle and tells kids, “No running!” every five minutes. Pool safety is useful and important, but now it’s really stressful for me to be at a public or multi-use pool with lots of kids running around. My apartment complex doesn’t have a lifeguard, and it is so hard for me to watch kids doing dangerous things and be unable to stop them. I have to train myself *not* to look at the pool now.

    I can also tell if the chlorine in a pool isn’t quite right by sight/smell. I am way too paranoid about water quality and won’t enter a pool if it looks too foggy. (kinda just common sense, or anyone who swims regularly would probably be able to tell too)

  4. I worked at an aquarium, and I can’t walk past someone repeating misinformation about sea creatures without having to forcibly quell the impulse to interject myself into their conversation. Cheerily. In a way that strives to make them feel not just not-bad for having made a mistake, but SMART for knowing what they do know.

    Which is actually kind of fun. It was the rest of the job that blew screaming chunks at the moon. Like, “trapped in an elevator with drunken sexual-assaulty tourists and having to smile and joke it off for barely enough money for rent” screaming chunks at the moon.

  5. My terrible ex, who had some ocd-esque tendencies. INSISTED his shirts be folded this way. My current partner often remarks at how nicely I fold shirts. I don’t have the heart to tell him where I learned it and that I think of that jerk every time I do laundry.

  6. Guilty! Worked at the university book store during college and spent my whole day folding t-shirts. I can’t stand to watch my husband fold a shirt, and usually re-fold any he did. They just fit in the drawer better and don’t get wrinkly when they are well folded!

    The worst part of working this job was catching myself folding clothes at other stores when out shopping….

  7. OMG I worked at the Disney Store as well and YES THE FOLDING SQUARE and all those teenagers playing the Disney store game and also being told to iron my shirt in the middle of a shift…
    Good Times 🙂

      • It’s a “game” where a person will try to get in the store, touch the back wall and get back out before anyone can greet them.
        It was very popular in my area(upstate NY) but I’m not sure if it existed anywhere else.

  8. I have the Teacher Voice – clearly enunciated, slightly sing-song-y, firm-yet-loving, you’re-not-there-yet-but-I-believe-in-you! – which gets pulled out at the weirdest moments. Like, say, making pizza with my friends.

    I also have to physically restrain myself from supervising small children running around – they’re not my problem! not my responsibility! and yet the urge to remind them to walk is so strong I can barely stand it.

  9. Ahhh, I still fold tops that way. Also jeans I have problems with as the have to be folded the Fat Face way. I too am one of the many people who has fixed the POS in a store as a customer. I have also tidied a store while shopping- oops. From my days of being at ‘front’ I have to say hello to the shop worker so they feel a little better about life. I also have to have wardrobes sorted in a certain way- the way our stockroom was organised. I’ve beeen known to re-organise friends wardrobes while getting ready for a night out.

    Having worked in a call center to my telephone skills are hilarious- I can’t sound sad or angry ever how hard I try too.

    From being a waitress I can carry 6 plates at once- I live in a house with 1 other person so rarely use that skill.

    Another completely useless skill I process is being able to tell how good a broom is from 10 feet away. Ohh the joys of working on a horse yard.

  10. …hmm. This is exactly how my boyfriend folds his laundry. He likes all of his many, many tshirts folded exactly like this and stacked neatly in the closet. He has no idea where he learned how to do it, as he has never worked retail before. I thought he was a fucking laundry nazi when I first met him, but now I fold everything like that because they store easier in the closet and don’t get creases. (My clothes, however, I still fold in half and throw them on a chair 😉

  11. One talent I have completely mastered is being able to say the alphabet backwards without ever thinking about it. I worked for GameStop for just over 8 years and from part time to manager (even the manager of two stores simultaneously), I spent a stupid amount of my time alphabetizing the games. In trying to fit everything, half the time it was easier to start from the Z and go up to A. I can now recite it in my sleep.

  12. I worked at the gift shop of a museum, hoping to get my foot in to a better position (didn’t happen). I will forever be in charge of gift-wrapping in our household.

  13. Worked in retail for nearly four years. I now know how to fold shirts to perfection, and also how to remain totally expressionless and professional when dealing with a total a**wipe of a customer (“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s our policy.”).

    I too have a dreadful residual habit of folding everything in every store I go into…whoops. I’m also told that I have a wonderful phone manner (the trick is to think of your favorite thing before you pick up the phone–it makes you sound happy).

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