When the going gets rough - two days before Christmas -- the shoppers get tough as they descend on The Mall in Columbia in droves. With that one-more-gift-to-buy look in their eye, shoppers take no time to stop and smell the poinsettias, let alone wonder how the holiday banners were hung.
But decking the mall -- 45-feet above -- from the platform of a Genie Z-4522GP is no easy feat. And decking the mall -- 45-feet above -- relying only on a safety belt and the ability to stand on a 2-inch wide piece of steel is even harder. That's what is required, though, to hang the dozens of holiday banners and poinsettia baskets from the mall's steel beams. Each project is all in a night's work for the engineering crew directed by Vassie Hollamon, operations manager at the mall.
"After you get your lift legs, you get used to looking down from 45-feet up," said the 27-year-old Baltimore County resident.
In order to avoid decorating prematurely and in various stages before shopper's eyes, mall crews were busy the week before Thanksgiving, long after business hours when most shoppers were snug in their beds. Operating a 17-foot long, 6 -ton lift, lighting engineer Joe Bush maneuvered the articulating platform from which he and Hollamon labored to hang 52 poinsettia banners on a Sunday evening from before midnight to about 5 a.m.
Throughout the Christmas shopping season, Hollamon said, his crew of 43 maintenance people, nine engineers and 23 security officers have been working as many as 16 hours within a 24-hour period.
For some, the job requires adapting.
Bush, a 26-year-old lighting engineer who has been working at the mall for over a year, used to be "terrified of heights." He got over that phobia gradually after he took this job, which requires him to maintain all of the lighting inside and outside of the mall, including all of the lights high up "in the steel." However, Bush still refuses to crawl "into" the steel, where 2-inch beams provide the only support during jobs such as hanging poinsettia baskets.
And, says Hollamon, "I would never order anyone to go up there."
That's why Hollamon was delighted that the mall granted his request for a lift, at a cost of $45,000. It arrived a month ago just in time for the holiday decorating. The mall, says Hollamon, was the first to get such a major piece of equipment.
Some assignments still require climbing in and around the steel beams where the lift can't reach -- a job that's often left to another member of the crew, Al Winters.
Winters' responsibilities for this year's decorations at the mall included hanging 40 poinsettia baskets, all in one evening, above the tree courts where the lift doesn't fit. The smaller baskets were clipped to the end of cables and suspended; the larger ones required the use of a pulley.
The most difficult part, Winters said, was lifting heavy objects like the large, 2- to 3-foot-high poinsettia baskets as he maneuvered around the steel. "I had to retain my balance; I didn't want to test out my safety belt," he said.
"It's kind of a like a jungle gym," said Winters. "When I was little, I used to hurt myself while climbing around. Gradually, I learned from my mistakes what not to do."
And shoppers never seem to notice the umbilical-like vertical wires that provide electricity to each of about 36 trees inside the mall that are decorated with holiday lights, and to the dozen or so vending carts, which also are lit for the season. Winters dropped each power line from electrical outlets located in the beams.
The tree lights were strung at night one month prior to Thanksgiving. A contractor was hired to wrap 35 to 40 strings of lights on the three dozen interior trees, and 50 strings on the dozens of exterior trees. Each branch was carefully decorated to define the shape of the tree -- a more tedious job than simply spiraling the strings around the outside of the branches.
During the holiday shopping season, Hollamon and his crew work a hectic schedule.
Next week, on Jan. 1, it's the same pace all over again as workers remove the banners and poinsettias that they struggled so hard to display.
"We have two or three days between Jan. 1 and the annual antique show.
At that time, Christmas will have to disappear," Hollamon said.