FREDERICK -- A Bush Cabinet member may have spotted economic "robins on the lawn" from his office in Washington, but those harbingers of spring haven't made their way the 50-some miles to Frederick Towne Mall.
Instead, there are signs of a longer winter:
Shoppers, but not many with bags. Sales, but not many with crowds.
Young mothers who have come here just to get out of the house. Retired folk in sneakers and sweats who have come to get exercise.
Vendors manning booths at an antiques show, where business is so slow that they deal themselves a hand of solitaire, work a crossword puzzle, or dive into a romance novel.
The message of recovery seems to have run out of gas on its way up the highway.
Shoppers still move with extreme caution here, browsing, walking the mall's "measure mile," sharing a smoke with a friend, filling out job applications -- but not often reaching for their wallets.
Some still are feeling pinched by the recession, others so fearful they could lose their jobs that they refuse to spend money on anything but essentials. Like tires. Like underwear. Like contact lens solution. Like the watch battery Brenda Glennon, of Frederick, has just purchased. That done, she's heading home.
On the eve of a round of presidential primaries, consumers feel frustrated, even angry, that financial uncertainty has so invaded their lives, quashing plans for a new Easter dress for their daughters this year or a new pair of shoes for themselves.
They laugh at some of the tax breaks and spending incentives George Bush proposed in his budget. "What is it -- you get a few dollars back?" says a store manager, referring to the president's proposed restructuring of tax-withholding charts.
They shake their heads at last week's pronouncement by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan that there are signs of economic growth and that the rebounding should become obvious within weeks.
Weeks? These Marylanders don't think so. They are more in line with the majority of the 5,000 households questioned for a nationwide survey released last week showing that consumer confidence is at its lowest point since 1974.
Robert Althoff of Sykesville, a police officer whose wife has been laid off from jobs twice in the last year, believes the economy is, in fact, getting worse.
The Althoffs are strolling through the mall only to kill time while their car is being worked on across the street. No purchases.
Although Frederick County has not been hit as hard as other areas that have had plant closings or massive layoffs, jobs still are hard to come by. A stack of employment applications sits on the counter at Gemstone Jewelry, where a "Help Wanted" sign brings by some of what little traffic there is this morning.
David Fox, a high school senior, has been job-hunting since Thanksgiving. He fills out application after application -- no, he's never been denied bond; no, he's never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor -- but doubts he'll land a job by graduation this spring.
Managers always tell him they'll call him back. They never do.
In fact, these mall merchants and managers haven't enough confidence in an impending recovery to restore employees' hours that have been cut back, all up and down the mall, because of the slow trickle of business. They don't really expect a bounce until Christmas, they say.
Even that seems overly optimistic to some consumers. Sam Escamilla, of Brunswick, thinks an economic recovery will take at least five years -- maybe longer. "We've lost a lot," he says.
But he believes he may have glimpsed the "robins on the lawn" that Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady spoke of last week, when the Cabinet official told a group of business economists that the picture was just beginning to brighten.
Out of work for some time, Mr. Escamilla had a hard time finding an employer who would simply talk to him, take an application, or offer him a cup of coffee -- much less a job interview. But in the last two weeks, he has found employers much more receptive. And last week, he even found a job.
So he and his wife have come out to the mall; indeed, they are among the few J. C. Penney patrons with a package in more than one hand. It appears they are making up for lost time now, buying those things they've had their eyes on for months, plunging back into the free market with a fistful of cash and spirit full of optimism.
But that is not the case, they tell you.
"It's called need," Kathy Escamilla says. "Our children need underwear."