The ghost town of Christmas past

The holiday lingers at near-empty Baltimore offices, while a few hardy souls use the lull to catch up on work

December 28, 2005|By STEPHANIE DESMON AND JOHN FRITZE | STEPHANIE DESMON AND JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTERS

It started with the commute - there were few cars to share the roads into Baltimore, even when the clock still pointed to rush hour.

Then there were the parking lots - that coveted space much closer to the door was suddenly available.

Once inside the office, many of the desks seemed empty, offices dark; voice mail picked up calls with cheery messages announcing to anyone who might be silly enough to phone that, sorry, I'm out until the new year.

The calendar might say it's after Dec. 25, but to many - from schoolchildren to office workers to CEOs - the Christmas vacation has just begun. This week between Christmas and New Year's Day is becoming one long holiday.

"It used to seem as though, not too long ago, businesses slowed down after Thanksgiving and didn't pick up until after New Year's," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement company in Chicago. "That seems almost quaint now. It has been whittled down to one week. This is about the only slow week there is."

Most businesses remain open, even on skeleton staffs. Some encourage workers to take the time off when they know little will be accomplished. Still, some people just prefer the downtime on the job, knowing it allows them to get to projects that have long been begging for attention.

"What I find in working this week is, because it's quiet and the phone's not ringing as much, I can get a lot more work done," said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. "It allows you to catch a little bit of a breather and really get ready to start the new year."

Government was open - but that didn't mean everyone came to work. Vacation days are in heavy use this week. In federal court, there was a smattering of hearings, but there were no jury trials scheduled.

"You can imagine if you were a juror, you wouldn't want to serve between Christmas and New Year's," said Felicia Cannon, the clerk of courts.

Though there were fewer judges and fewer cases to be heard in Baltimore Circuit Court, jurors were required to show up. There was even a trial for attempted murder under way.

"The criminals don't take off, so we can't really take off either," said Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal division. "If we slow down, the criminals will get ahead."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is taking much of the week off with his family, a spokesman said. Mayor Martin O'Malley had nothing official scheduled until a Hanukkah party tomorrow night - and no one would say whether he was really punching the clock until then.

"He has no public schedule, which means he's liable to drop in at any moment," said spokeswoman Raquel M. Guillory, whose media relations office was fully staffed.

City Hall was fairly quiet as workers pulled scaffolding off the building - the final step in a months-long repair project - and two women from the Department of Recreation and Parks watered poinsettias in the lobby.

On the third floor, Thomas P. Hickey occupied the one lit office at the end of a hallway full of closed doors. Hickey, with the city's office of intergovernmental relations, had a few meetings to attend but was otherwise using the day to clean his "mess of an office" and get ready for next month's legislative session.

"Someone's got to be here," said Hickey, one of two working in an office usually staffed with seven.

There were fewer infants and toddlers in day care centers around town, as parents who weren't at their paying jobs shifted back into child care mode. One of the unlucky moms who had to work watched her little boy on a Web cam and noted that he seemed to be looking in vain for others to play with in his half-empty center.

The search for someone who might have an answer for why so many workplaces are sparsely staffed this week led to the nonprofit research organization Families and Work Institute in New York. Usually, the office has eight employees and a few more who telecommute. Yesterday, Marline Lambert was the only one there, answering the phones.

"It's just me today," she said. "That's the only thing I can't do from home."

At McCormick & Co., one of the Baltimore area's largest employers, a security officer manned the switchboard yesterday. Was there anyone there who could speak about the company's staffing?

"No," said the officer, Cynthia White.

Was there anyone there at all?

"Not really," she said.

If people weren't driving into the city to work, they certainly weren't doing so to work out. The floor was nearly empty yesterday afternoon at Merritt's Downtown Athletic Club, except for about a dozen regulars.

After a weekend of eating and drinking, Kellelfe Dyson, 30, came in to lift free weights. Dyson works out six days a week and said he was happy to have a short break from the regular crowds.

"In probably four or five days it'll be a nightmare," he said. "It's the New Year resolution thing. People want to get in shape for the new year. But it only lasts for a month."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com john.fritze@baltsun.com

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