Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Disney Store is No More - 3 Summers in the Sweater

this probably isn't my store, but it's incredibly similar

My first two jobs were working for cartoon mice.

The first job, when I was 16, was at Chuck E. Cheese.  You can read up on that life-altering event at an old post at the first blogsite.  

I don't think I ever got around to writing about the three summers I worked for Mickey at The Disney Store in Houston, Texas.  Well, it seems The Disney Store is no more.  But in the summers on 1993- 1995, and Christmas of 1993, I worked part-time at the satellite representation of the happiest place on Earth.  

It's been a very, very long time since this gig, and as I age, memories tend to grow fonder.  Mostly, these days, I think about how that goofy job where I wore a cardigan and long pants in Houston summer of 98 degree days with 95% humidity, and I wonder how I'm not dead.  But I also think of it as the place that taught me the most about how to put on a game face with co-workers and customers alike, and you get better/ best results out of both.  It's not just stuff I use to this day on the job, it's stuff people pay huge money for in real life Disney Customer Service academies.  No foolin'.  

I started at The Disney Store immediately after graduating high school.  In fact, they had me scheduled to work the day of graduation, and I remember thinking I was going to get canned when I had to tell them I *had* to go to my graduation or Grandma would be confused why I wasn't there.  

BTW - skipping a shift at The Chuck for even something you'd said you had to do (surgery, get married) seemed to at least earn a write-up.  So Disney seemed wildly generous by comparison.

But, no.  The hardest thing to get started was that I was 6'4" and a strapping young lad, and they had to special order my uniform, if memory serves.  

I can't find any pics online of the full uniform, but it was mostly the sweater above, which was 90's huge (and super comfortable, I'll add) over a pink sport shirt and gray pants with white tennis shoes.  It was a commitment.  But the mall is surprisingly cold all summer, so once inside the mall, it was actually fine.  And I sweat like a pig, y'all.

Oh, here we go.  Just look at what Mickey is wearing there.  It me.

But unlike The Chuck, where my outfit came out of my paycheck, the only thing I had to buy myself were pink shirts and tennis shoes.  At that, they told us where to get the cheapest, best sneakers since we'd be on our feet.  BUT: they also gave us a Mickey watch.  Just, like, handed us one and that was that.  If we wanted, we could buy one of the expensive-ish ones from the case and wear that, but on the floor, you'd best have some Disney character on your wrist.

From there, we sat and watched... 10 hours of training videos?  I think there was a test?  I mostly remember being shocked that the videos were pretty good and actually explained philosophy of the company, and why we better grin like idiots all the time.  I was 18.  I mostly smiled if a girl was talking to me and only then, so this was a challenge - and would plague me until my final day with the Mouse (that's foreshadowing).

So, while not the most chipper kid, I knew I wanted to go to film school, I loved comics and animation, and had read a couple books about Disney and Walt Disney in high school and wanted very much to make a career out of Disney, if possible.  So, why not start here?  I'd work my way into the animation department after film school.

I felt like maybe I'd found a secret path to what I wanted to do.

The Perks of Being a Mouseketeer

Disney wanted us to be well Disney-versed.  So, they had a closet full of movies we could check out on VHS.  In fact, whenever you mentioned you hadn't seen a title, you could count on a manager shoving it in your mitts and sending you home with the movie.  Or, at least, that's what my first managers did.  Maybe because they knew I was into this stuff and paid attention to it, anyway, and had come with some Disney-knowledge in my skull to begin with - but I think that was just SOP.

The other thing they did was reimburse you for seeing the latest feature Disney releases, and we were ALL supposed to see them week one of release.  People wanted to talk to us about the movies.  They were excited!  We were sort of Disney proxies!  And - do not bullshit the Disney-phile who wants to talk about the movie.  Instead, you say "I'm going Tuesday.  Do you know they actually reimburse us to see the movies?" and, man, they'd just about lose their minds with jealousy (but weirdly, never apply to work there).  I don't know if we were supposed to tell anyone that, but it was true.  

So, yeah, for three summers I got my $5 back for going to see Pocahontas or whatever.  We also were given reading material about upcoming movies so when those Disney-philes came in, we could say "oh, yes.  The Lion King is actually kind of an adaptation of Hamlet.  We're all very excited."  Which wasn't a lie.  The Lion King trailer looked awesome.

Also, we we had a kiosk with The Great American Cookie Company just outside the door, so at break time you could load up on sugar.  I think these was a discount for mall employees.

The Store itself

The place was actually fun just to look at while you worked.  We had quasi-animatronics and statues of Disney scenes all around the ceiling of the store and in the window display at the entrance.  Everything was an array of 90's Disney pastels (see: sweater) and had rounded edges.  The Disney design principles were everywhere.  I'd go a week or two without looking up or appreciating the design, but every once in a while I'd think "you know, that's actually very cool."  

I should mention, the design aesthetic included what we looked like.  As a "cast member", I had to have any haircut that wasn't totally boring approved by my manager *before* I got it.  As always, it was way worse for women, who I think had to wear skirts, stud earrings, and a minimum of make-up.  I suspect some of this weeded people out in the interview process or in training.

One time I got a violently bad haircut that I was aware was against protocol - a North Houston barber decided I needed this doofy split-level cut little kids were getting, and I needed a day or two to get back into a barber who wasn't an idiot - so I literally called ahead and forewarned by boss and earned her sympathy.  But, yeah, for $4.50, they wanted you to look like a Mouseketeer, man.

The carpet, which I got to know well as my favorite closing task became vacuuming, was a pattern of stars and celestial shapes.  Moons and whatnot.  It wasn't... overly Disney, but I assumed someone got it cheap.  It was festive.

The store was minimally ADA friendly - it had to be to accommodate strollers as well as wheelchairs, but the floor was an obstacle course of small kiosks with merchandise on every side, as well as along all the walls.  

Knowing their business, Disney had a giant screen at the back of the store that played clips from Disney cartoons and shows - on a loop.  Every 90 minutes.  So, in your 6 hour shift, you heard "The Circle of Life", like, 8 times.  The one thing people all agreed we could be rude about was turning off the music immediately after the gate came down.  But, to this day, I have "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid branded in the back of my brain.  

Because it *looked* great for about 10 minutes per day, we had Plush Mountain in front of the screen.  And you might remember Plush Mountain - it was about ten feet wide and a seemingly joyful stack of stuffed animals and characters reaching up to a peak of about 4.5 feet.  What small kids never realized was:  Plush Mountain had very hard shelving built into it, and while it looked like launching yourself into said mountain would be like coming down on a feathery pillow, you were more like to crack some teeth while also breaking a rib or pelvic bone.  

I spent Saturday shifts when parents would just unleash their little monsters into the store like it was a playpen playing Holden Caulfield, just catching all these nitwit kids hurling themselves, one after another, at the mountain.  I didn't care that it always looked like a mess, and part of the job was making it look nice before the next grandmas came through and just tossed everything everywhere.  But I did worry - a lot - that I'd see a kid grievously injured if one of us got distracted.  

"But what if their parents don't want us grabbing their kids?"
"Nope," my manager assured me.  "Just show them the shelves."  And she was right.  I never got more than a hard stare before I pulled back a Pumba doll to show them "I just saved your kids from a bodily scar."  
Sometimes they'd ask why we even had the mountain, and I'd say "you got me, lady."  Which was not Disney policy, but you do what you can to get by and keep your sanity.

We also had the Media Wall, which is how I found out Disney made R-rated movies.  

Yeah.  Touchstone was Disney's R and PG-13 branch, and Hollywood Pictures, doing similar but usually frothier.  At the time they also had their hand in the Miramax cookie jar, but we weren't moving Merchant-Ivory movies.  But we did sell stuff like Dennis Leary movies alongside The Rescuers Down Under.   

We also sold tapes and CD's of Disney music, which were sort of Kidz Bop-ish, but they sold like crazy to moms with strollers.

Near that, we had The Watch Case.

The Watch Case was a slim portion of the wall behind glass where we had about 60 different types of Disney watches from inexpensive items for people who just wanted Mickey or Minnie on their wrist (mostly for kids) to hundreds of dollars.  Maybe a thousand.  I don't really recall.  

We sold other obviously luxury items, but this was the area that felt like the most money was packed into one zone, and it was always fun to help people pick out a watch.  

Backstage was another matter.  

Industrial white with plain linoleum floors and shelving from floor to the 15 foot ceilings, full of Disney stuff.  A single computer that the managers used and we used to clock in and out.  A single sad bench where you could sit and eat your lunch.  And a hallway that was in no way firecode complaint full of boxes of merch, waiting to be put on those metal shelves.

It was so much different merchandise, and I found it overwhelming for about three days, and then I knew where everything was, and could climb around the shelves like a gibbon to fetch things.  

It was just so jarring to go from "The Stage Floor" to "Backstage", which you never wanted customers to see.  "Yes, the illusion is broken.  We're minimum wage mall employees.  This is just Disney-shaped plastic shit.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, etc..."  "Yes, that very special item you just bought?  We have ten more in back."  "Oh, that sad man is named Allan, and he's waiting to go off shift."

But, occasionally, some kid would have to pee or whatever else, and customers would wind up back there.  I always felt kind of bad.  Not, like, "welcome to Westworld!" bad, but knew the place was not the outpost of Disneyworld that they thought it was.

And people really thought of it like that.  

After all, we had the big animatronics.  We were by far the most colorful store in the mall, all in one theme.  We had the Disney gravitas and branding.  We spoke knowingly about the parks - and sold tickets to the parks in the store.  I rang up more than one family's vacation package.

It could have been way worse.  I could have been sweeping up pizza crusts at the Chuck while a parent guzzled beer and peered into the ball-crawl.

The Guests

Yup.  "Be our Guest" was the intro to customer management portion of the training video.  We all had to be singing, dancing cutlery, perfectly timed and putting on a show.  

Look, 95% of the customers were... fine.  They did their shopping and mostly had a good time.  Some were regulars who spent a duck-ton of money in the store, and they had particular cast members they dealt with.  I was not one of those cast members.  I was the cast member who could move large objects and take out the garbage with a minimum of complaint.

We had one summer where a family from Japan was visiting for several weeks.  None of us spoke a word of Japanese and they understood English but didn't really speak it.  But we figured out the third time they came back to the shop in, like, two weeks, that this was clearly a special treat for the kids.  And we all kind of put on a show for them whenever they came in.  I have no idea why.  They were just really appreciative, I guess?  But the manager would walk them around and show the kids stuff and all the cast members would kid of dote on them.  Obviously I remember them and the whole situation fondly.

It being a store full of children, they caused chaos.  We were always the last crew at the mall every evening except for Kay-Bee Toys.  I know this, because my brother worked at Kay-Bee and dealt with the same issue every evening:  cleaning up all the mess of children unmanaged for the 10 or so hours the store had been open.

I didn't care about that - but kids also tend to produce liquids.  

I absolutely remember being told:  kids are going to puke here.  Maybe pee.  Just be ready.  

I wasn't.  

I was an 18 year old kid that first summer, but I'd been at Chuck E Cheese in my prior job, and my two rules for my $4.25 an hour at the Chuck were:  if I have to clean up puke or I have to clean the bathrooms, I quit."  I didn't know what I'd tell my parents if it came to that, but my managers took me at my word, and I didn't touch the bathrooms or puke the whole time.

At the Disney Store, the first time a kid puked and someone looked my way, I believe what I said was "Not for $4.50 an hour" and kept on doing my thing.*  Someone got the pink stuff and cleaned it up, but it weren't me.  After that, it was never a question.  I might go fetch the pink stuff.  I might get the vacuum or whatever, but I wasn't the one doing the job.  I frankly have no idea who volunteered.  Someone with a stomach that wasn't going to add to the puke pile.

It didn't happen ALL the time, but it did happen.  Kids would just get really excited about Pluto or whatever and - blurf.

FUN FACT:  If you wear the sweater, you have a line to Michael Eisner - or so believed irate mothers.  

Look, I don't really remember very well how urban legends and gossip passed before Facebook (thanks, Zuck!) but I do know that Concerned Moms well predate Mommy Blogs.  And Concerned Moms liked to come to the Disney Store and tell you, making your $4.50 per hour, to halt various things the Disney Corporation was doing.  

Disney makes Rated-R movies?!  They need to stop!  Stop it right NOW!  Except that Pretty Woman picture.  That was Rated-R?  I don't think so.

This castle tower on this VHS copy of The Little Mermaid is a penis!  That's what my friend told me.  I want a refund!  You heard it's selling to collectors for $100?  Never mind.

But, yeah, a lot of what we'd now call Concern Trolling.  Disney wasn't politically correct enough, Disney was selling movies to foreigners.  Disney was in league with Satan.  

Some of it was legit.  

That absolutely was a dick on that castle.  

this took no effort to find.  Thanks, Google.

There's also various boners and boobs in a wide variety of Disney films, but I'll leave you to dig all that up.  

There wasn't much I could do to dissuade people that Walt was anti-semitic, because I ran the math (guy born at turn of century, mid-West, kind of grumpy...) and maybe he was?  

And, man, I can't really remember everything, but it was like clock-work.  Disney would release a movie, and the paper would run an article the next week about why it was racist or some such.  Which led, I'd argue, directly to Pocahontas, Disney's attempt to be super PC.  Ironically, it's maybe the movie from that era which feels like it's the most retrograde and messed up in concept.  (I mean, go ahead and Google the real story of Pocahontas and find yourself stunned this is what Disney decided would make a fine fairy tale movie).  Plus, the movie took a lot of dings as they wanted it clear Pocahontas wasn't 11 as she was in real life, so Disney had it's first stacked princess - and Moms hated that.

I'll be honest - I was 80% good with this, but I do remember snapping at a mom or five and just saying "lady, I just work here."  Which was not Disney protocol, but in hour five of stopping kids from smashing their own teeth in, running around looking for just the right 101 Dalmations toy or standing at the register for three hours, I was ready to get real with a Concerned Parent.

Explaining "I make minimum wage.  I can tell my manager, but this is the retail division, not the movie division.  So.  There's a lot of hurdles and I have no impact on what Disney makes for movies.  Your best bet is to write the studio itself."

People would know this was true, but, man.  Where was "the customer is always right?"  Well, I was 18-20, and it was somewhere behind "you're just yelling at someone because you don't think they can yell back."  And I didn't yell, but as the internet has taught us, some people are just bullying jerks looking for a mark.

Speaking of.

Of course, it's suburban North Houston, Texas in the 1990's and if you don't have a mullet and a rifle rack in your truck, everything about you is suspect.  So, yeah, some dudes would give me a hard time about the sweater or (gasp) a pink shirt (I don't look good in pink, and this may have been fair).  But I can't say it bothered me.  Mostly because, what sort of loser decides to puff themselves up by giving shit to a guy at the mall?  Plus, I was 18-20 and my ego was breathtaking.

Well, one dude was shopping and he and I had a little interaction and it was pleasant enough, I guess.  And then some meathead came by and I don't even remember what he said, but a pretty typical Saturday afternoon North Houston slur or something.  And, oh my god.  

The dude shopping slid up to me and was like "did what that guy say bother you?"
"That guy?  No."
"I couldn't take that."
"Nah.  It's fine.  Happens all the time.  These guys are morons." (not Disney-ish, I admit, but we were having bro chatter now).
"I'd kick that guy's ass.  I'd probably lose, but I'd fight that guy."
"Well, yeah.  No.  It doesn't bother me.  He's got some insecurities I guess."
"That's amazing.  It doesn't bother you?"
"Not enough to really care, I guess."
"Wow."  Pause.  "You want me to kick his ass for you?"
"Oh.  No.  Please, no."
"I know it's your job, so you can't.  But I can."
"Ah, no.  I'm fine.  Thank you, though?"
"You change your mind before I leave, just tell me."
And he absolutely would have.
THAT guy was my White Knighting dude-bro working through his issues with anyone impugning his masculinity that I still think of fondly, but also think "man, you were wrestling with something there."

By the way: People stole.  

I can't say how much or how often, but they did.  We had sensors on everything, and they'd go off, but you can't very well pat someone down.  We'd ask to look in their bags.  Sometimes we'd find something I was pretty sure they'd stolen from another store with similar sensors, or - goofier - we'd find something that the clerk forgot to take the tag off and it was a legit purchase.  

Our policy was more or less to let people go.  That wasn't the policy at Camelot Records - we were supposed to try to chase people down, etc... (I would not and did not.  Was not dying over a cassette tape.)   But at Disney, Disney employees fighting people in the mall was frowned upon.  

But there was no profile.  Old.  Young.  Any ethnicity.  Women more than men, but I think that was because grown men don't steal Disney stuff.  Except...  (That's foreshadowing).

What We Sold and What We Didn't

Princess dresses.

Sweet mother of mary, we sold so many glittery princess dresses.  

They'd just become a thing, and the Princess craze had just started (and continues to this day.  I welcome you to weigh in with your personal love or hatred of this phenomenon in your own brain and far away from me).  

We sold the aforementioned stuffed animals.  Character t-shirts.  Character denim shirts.  Character mugs, cups and glasses.  Keychains.  Rubber and plastic characters.  We pre-sold VHS tapes along with a "lithograph".  This is where I first heard the word "exclusive lithograph".  
"Is it a cell from the movie?"
"Is it a recreation of one?"
"No.  It's more of, like, a fancy small poster on what is 'archival' paper."
"What's that?"
"Light cardboard."
"What's it of?"
"A scene from the movie, I guess?"
"SOLD.  How much?"
"Way, waaaaay more than you'll feel good about having spent in a month when you see this same VHS tape on sale at Target and the 'lithograph' is in a closet somewhere."

But, yeah, we sold tickets to the park.  

My favorite items were high end statuettes and collectibles.  Some were functional teapots or whatever, but I remember the snow globes.   They were very, very expensive, and very delicate.  And they were frequently returned for chips or other defects, or not sold for same.  

When that happened, we'd stack them up in the back.  And once in a while, the manager would send me out to the trash with the defective items and a hammer.  And, my god.  You have no idea the feeling of being paid to smash something someone has rendered worthless for a minor defect.  


Just Disney employees and hammers, going to town and working out their feelings about Mrs. Potts.

Did we steal the defects?  I didn't.  I think one of my colleagues did, but who cares?  They were going under a hammer.  I was having more fun making sure they were powder and tiny glass shards than I'd ever have looking at a defective Cinderella snow globe.

What did I think we were missing?  

Stuff for kids over the age of 7 who didn't want cutesy stuff or dresses.  

I felt genuinely bad for those kids - and it greatly informed my understanding of Disney's purchase of Marvel.  Disney had locked up pre-schoolers and early grade kids, and they had so many things for princesses and Tinkerbells.  But many kids would walk in and look around and think:  none of this is for me.  Imagine that.  At the Disney Store.  I'd genuinely see kids feeling left out.

And it wasn't for them.  No sports gear.  No games.  Compared to action figures of the 90's - Power Rangers or whatever - Disney didn't even bother putting out a Darkwing Duck toy.  Gargoyles showed up, but that's when I found out it was mostly guys my age watching Gargoyles.  No one bought those.  The Peter Pan action set was practically an insult to boys when you'd point them at it, and do not suggest they want to role-play Aladdin.

When Pocahontas came out, I do remember we were all called in for a "meet the new product" meeting on a Sunday.  I was assigned some toys to present on, so I was pretty candid about how there's nothing for kids who don't want a princess dress, but, look:  a Pocahontas official set of Native American weaponry!  What kid doesn't want to pretend stalk deer or whatever?

People kind of got what I was after.  I imagine in future years that Pirates of the Caribbean and other things like that helped.  But Disney was terrified of being considered "violent" (see: Concerned Parents).

Anyway, pretty sure Disney's purchase of Marvel and Star Wars closed that revenue problem.

Christmas with The Mouse

You know what place is a damn nightmare at Christmas?  The mall.  You know what's the worst place to be that isn't the food court or public restrooms or the Piercing Pagoda?  

The Disney Store.  

I was perpetually short of scratch in college, and so in November I called up Ye Olde Mouse Shoppe and asked if I could be "holiday help".  This was a terrible mistake.

I essentially finished exams and wandered into lengthy shifts of being yelled at by stressed out people.  

It's one thing to be at The Disney Store in summer when some people are shopping for gifts.  It's another to be in a pre-internet era when all you can buy is at the mall, and people need to buy everything a week or two before Christmas and they don't know what they need, but you, Mr. Cast Member, should be able to figure it out.

And, I did.  Sometimes.  

The store itself was bedecked in Christmas cheer, and we played Christmas music.  But mostly I remember standing at the register for hours with a line that never seemed to shrink until we closed.  Like, hours and hours of scanning stuff and running credit cards.  

Really, it wasn't *that* bad.  Except that I would get off shift, go home and everyone was already in bed, and then I'd dream about cashiering all night.  Then wake up and go cashier again.  

And no one was jolly.  People were mad.  Also - it was the only time I remember people thinking they could haggle.  I worked retail for about 5 years, all told, and that was the only window where people would come to the register and ask "if I buy five, what's the discount?"  Sir, there IS no discount.  We're bleeding you because that's how it is at Christmas.

I also learned about the actual economy of The Disney Store as all that stuff that we couldn't haggle over?  It went on sale December 26th.  And a sale on a sale by the 28th.  By early January, it was down to 60% off.  I do not exaggerate.

Anyway, if I thought maybe our stuff was a bit overpriced, I wondered no more.

Really, though, I kind of missed Christmas that year minus the actual day of.  All the stuff that's the run up to Christmas is what you think of.  By the 26th, everyone is sort of over it and prepping for New Years.  So, I decided to just be poor and not work Christmas anymore.

Who Did I work With?

I'd been hired by Manager J and Manager M.  Manager M adored me, because Manager M thought Disney was kind of cheesy but paid well and she got my skepticism.  She'd let me hang out on the clock while she did the books so the biggest guy in the store could walk her to her car and she wouldn't get Houston-murdered.  Manager M once - out of nowhere - told me "you're in college?  You're smarter than 70% of the population.  Isn't that scary?"

Reader - I'm not and it was.  But that was Manager M.  A bit of a misanthrope in a Mickey sweater.  I was a fan.

Lead Manager J was super smart and very good looking.  She was eventually hired away by a boutique store in the Galleria as she'd made a connection as she was dating a sports anchor or something in town.  I also remember strange men would call the store and ask for her last name (we only had our first names on our badges, and now I knew why).  She was very good at her job and did a better job of balancing the insanity of Disney-ness with remembering we were actual people.

The rest were kind of a herd of misfits who would think working at the Disney Store all the time was awesome.  It was my first time working with adults - like people over the age of 25.  People who were parents.  

There were a bunch of us college-aged people, and - remarkably - absolutely no hanky panky between the employees aside from a couple that were engaged and insisted on not working in zones near each other on shift so everything was professional.  I found them amazing and bizarre.

There was a nice Mormon kid who confessed to me that he was in love with Candace Cameron from Full House, and I assured him that as long as he didn't stalk her, that was fine.

But, yeah, everyone around me my age was weirdly PG.  They didn't really drink or anything, so when I came in totally hung over one awful morning, when I had to have smelled horrible - no one seemed to notice.  I just stood there, sweating, for the five hours of my shift.

The adults, though, were... adults.  We'd catch glimpses of what it was like to be married for 20 years.  People talking crap about their husbands.  I had one very, incredibly awkward conversation while stocking coffee cups where a co-worker gave me intimate details about what she and her husband had done the night before - I guess she had to tell someone, because she was pretty glad about it.

People had kids who were almost my age and we heard about their problems.  Some of them, it was pretty clear they were en route to divorce.

We didn't really socialize outside of work.  I was under age most of the time I worked there, and the one time I remember going out with everyone on a Saturday, we wound up at an all-ages club and no one would dance or get drinks, just stand on the edge of the floor like wallflowers, so I cut out after like an hour.  Because I'm a bad person, mostly.

I remember who I remember very fondly, HR nightmares and all.  

Eventually Manager J left for that other store, and we got Manager NuJ.  She was hanging in there, but not up to the original Manger J, and because Manager M didn't get the gig, she split and went to The Nature Store to sell rain sticks and pan flute CDs. 

We also had a little nightly ritual of looking in everyone's personal bags to make sure they hadn't stolen anything.  It was kind of gross, but I get it.  

After all...

The Watch Case Case

Everyone was freaking out.

I'd been behind a register all night on a crazy Saturday where the store was so full we couldn't see each other across the store, but things slowed down after dinner-hour, and I saw people zipping around.  

As someone slipped behind the register with me to get something or other, I asked: "What's going on?"
"Someone broke into the watch case."
"Broke the glass?"
"No.  It looks like they got a key and got in."
We had two keys to the watch case.  The two head managers on duty had them.  No non-managers carried them.  You would let the manager know who was buying a watch, point at the customer, do whatever in the case, sell the watch, then immediately hand the key back.

I looked over and, yeah, the case was empty.  Thousands and thousands of dollars, gone.

Here's the thing:  I'll get to how I wasn't the best Disney employee, but then as now, you could count on me to be pretty honest whether it was the right time or not.  I remember being freaked out and kind of mad it happened.  And I also couldn't quite understand how it happened.  But, I'm pretty sure whatever reaction I had to the missing watches helped me over the following days, because...

When I came in two days later, early shift, people were already there, being questioned.  A manager and some guy were shaking everyone down.  That's how I remember it.  We didn't check ourselves in, and we weren't supposed to go in the back.

The story as I was told was:  Manager J had her keys, and she put them down on the desk in the back when she went onto the floor because Saturday was so crazy, and we needed more hands.  In theory, someone went into the back, identified the keys for what they were, went to the watch case and used them, emptied the case, and then put the keys back.  

Almost three decades later....  no.  That story makes no sense.  I think someone knew how to jimmy that lock.  It wasn't electronic or anything.  It was just a little lock.  Maybe a hairpin could have done it.  I have no idea, but the chances someone would have taken seemed preposterous even then, and I believe I said so.

But they liked this "someone stole the keys for a bit" story, so someone decided it was An Inside Job.

Thus, everyone was questioned.  Everyone but me.  

Apparently whatever reaction I had about it told them "this dude didn't steal anything."  But every other one of our 20 employees got the hot seat.  

I wasn't particularly flattered that they thought I couldn't pull it off, but I also didn't want to insist I was smart enough to know how to steal the watches (also, I wasn't) and wind up in jail for no reason.

It was, genuinely, a bad couple of days around the store.  People were sort of suspicious of particular people for reasons that didn't necessarily make sense.  I was bummed to have to explain to customers that we'd been robbed and that's why we had no watches.  

Who robs Mickey?  (everyone.  everyone steals from Mickey).

A lot of suspicion fell on one guy, and I never knew why.  He was a straight shooter as far as I could tell.  But something about "he really knows the store" or something.  He wound up transferring to a different store.  

I dunno.  I think someone just popped that lock and dumped everything into a stroller and rolled out of there on a busy Saturday, but Disney was pissed about the loss and was looking for answers and people are lousy detectives, mostly.  We should have had cameras in the hall from the floor to the back room, but that wasn't a thing back then, I guess.

I never was on the suspect list for a second.

Which is ironic because...

I Won "Most Difficult Employee"

Between my tendency to speak whatever I thought of a fact/ the "truth", paired with my outsized ego and certainty of my rapier wit - I was sure I was killing it at Ye Olde Disney Store.  I knew the stock, I understood how to talk to customers to discern their needs ("and how old is this grandchild you're shopping for?"), I worked the registers like magic.

I had ideas!  I shared them.

On my very last day, with about fifteen minutes to spare in my final shift, I found myself on the floor kind of alone with Manager NuJ.

"Well, this is it.  I'm outta here probably forever in fifteen minutes.  You can be totally honest.  How'd I do?"
She paused.  And I could see the wheels turning.  "I've managed two other stores before this one.  Honestly, you're the most difficult employee I ever had."
Look, I was an AP and Honors kid.  I felt sick if I wasn't following rules in places I cared about.  I was used to constructive criticism, but this was... new.
"Okay..." I said.  "Like... how?"
"Every time you're given direction, you have a comment.  It's not that you won't necessarily do what I ask, but you either make a crack or tell me why you shouldn't do it."
This... this was tracking.  
"Also, you never smile.  When I ask you to smile on the floor, you say 'why?'"
"Uh-huh.  Okay."  This seemed very true.
"I had someone tell me you were the most miserable looking person they'd ever seen working at the mall."
"You stand on the floor looking miserable."
"I see."
"And you were leaving, anyway.  So.  Didn't seem worth addressing."
"You know, you could have told me this was a problem, like, in May."
"You would have just had a crack about it, or told me why this was wrong."
This... this was also tracking.
"I.. see.  So, you're not going to miss me."
"No."  She kind of shrugged and that was that.  Last convo with Julie NuJ before I handed in my sweater.

But... This seemed impossible.  My mother often told me I was a great guy.  Would my mother lie to me?

Somehow, I had broken this poor woman.  My insistence that everything was set-up for a punchline in my own personal sitcom, that I could sit and argue with a snake about why it should use its legs... wasn't charming?  IMPOSSIBLE.  

Of all the dozens of people she'd managed, I managed to be the worst employee she ever had.  And I hadn't even stolen any watches.

In truth, I often wasn't super happy.  

I was pretty sure a lot of the stuff corporate had us doing was shit they had absolutely never done themselves nor spent a single day on the sales floor as a cast member or they never would have made it a rule.  

I thought working in zones made no sense - we literally weren't allowed to leave our zone.  Like, that was a rule.  So if a customer came in, I couldn't walk them to the other side of the store and help them.   I was supposed to point them to the person in that zone.  In rare cases we could walk over there, but then we had to leave immediately and return to our zone..  Except, 3 out of 5 times, the person in that zone was busy.  I literally got in trouble for helping customers instead of staying in my zone.

We were asked to just "greet" for hours, which meant staying in Zone 1, unable to move, and just say Hi to people coming in.  It was exhausting.  People would stop and say "what?" and you'd say "Hi" again, and they'd just look at you like an idiot.  Over and over.  Or, worse, ask you to show them where something was - and you could not leave the Zone.  This literally made people angry.  "No, I just greet people" is not customer service.

Also angering people was the insistence that we greet everyone entering our zone.  "You're the fifth person to ask me if I need anything.  Stop."  I mean - yeah, it was annoying.  I saw other stores deploy the same tactic and people kind of hate it, it seems.  At my next job, and old man literally shouted at me at the top of his lungs when I popped out of the back and asked him how he was doing.  

I guess they think that you think they're stealing.  The alternative is that you're all busy-body morons.  This wasn't a thing stores did before the mid-90's, so grown adults were just confused by the behavior.  But if we didn't do it, and a secret shopper noted it, woe be unto your store.

So, basically, Disney had some up with a bunch of stuff that irritated customers, made our jobs harder than they needed to be, set it as a criteria for a rando secret shopper to check you off against, and that was how they gauged success.  

Maybe I looked a little put out.  Miserable?  A strong word.

I loved vacuuming.  Vacuuming was a sure sign of progress.  You could literally see what you'd accomplished.  It had that weird vacuum smell and sound.  A fine way to end the day.  Kind of like my own zen garden to tend.

I hated folding shirts.  But I really hated folding shirts when there were customers in the store because a secret shopper might come in and knock off points that the shirts weren't straight, but meanwhile we're driving someone crazy because they want to ask us a question, but we look very focused about the shirts.  

That happened ALL. THE. TIME.  Someone would come in your zone you couldn't leave and say they had a question about a shirt, and you'd say "Go ask Sally over there," and they wouldn't, because Sally was occupied with shirts.

Also, I was pretty frank with customers who told me how lucky I was to work there that if I heard "Kiss the Girl" again, I might beat in my own skull with a Sebastian doll.  

The obliviousness of even one step up in the management chain was proven out to me when our regional manager decided, on a Saturday, to have me start moving the kiosks around while people were trying to shop, and I kept saying "strollers won't get through now" over and over.  Just a total disconnect from what I was doing to what they said was optimal.  And I felt it in my bones.

Still, they never made me clean up puke.  So, salute.

Manager NuJ had known me the prior summer, and hired me back.  I mean, I'm not putting me sucking being on her, but it's decades later and I'm just baffled - was I really that difficult?  Not "bad".  Not, like, evil.  Just a total pain in the ass to deal with my stupid, smug face?  

Actually... that...  That tracks.  That's a firm maybe that that was true.

Almost everything I just described that I didn't like?  I checked in at a Disney Store a few years ago and asked about some of it - and they don't do any of that any more.  The greeters are gone.  People aren't trapped in zones as if there's a forcefield.  They quit shelving the shirts that way that requires folding.


That doesn't really forgive me for being a dick.  

Maybe Manager NuJ should have taken me aside.  Maybe the policies could have been less goofy and allowed for some conversation and leniency in how they were used.  Maybe I'm a little ADD and don't do well with being told to just stand in one place for hours at a time (I was fired from being a guard at Buckingham Palace immediately).  

But it never hurts to tell a snot-nosed kid some truths.  And the truth was - I was pretty difficult.  In the worst way possible.  I was Eddie Haskelling my way through the job/ life, going ahead and doing the thing, and smiling sometimes, but making it harder than it had to be.  It's something I think about a lot, and it's something I'm aware of as an employee - I'm constantly finding things that could be more efficient/ make more sense (to me), and I get grumpy if I can't work to change those things.  I've even told new supervisors "look, you can and should tell me if I'm being difficult."  

They always ask why I'm saying that, and I always tell them about Manager NuJ and how that.. was both super helpful and not at all helpful.

*look, I wanted to be full of team spirit, but $4.50 an hour only buys you so much

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