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For the workers, it was a lonely holiday week at the office

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; C01

"You know what I'm doing? For me, it's really bold."

Seaton Smith is a rebel. He threw caution to the wind this week; he tasted freedom and now he cannot be stopped. He's a maverick, a wild man.

How wild is he? What bold, scandalous choices has he made this week?

"I've been coming in at 8:30 instead of 7:30," Smith brags. "I am not wearing a tie. And I am wearing sneakers. The sneakers thing is amazing. Geez, I want to do this all the time."

Ha. He wishes. He wishes. One can only get away with this type of renegade behavior on special occasions, like when everyone else is on vacation, like when it seems as if you are the only schmo in Washington working between Christmas and New Year's.

It is the Twilight Zone of the empty office.

The Dupont Circle nonprofit where Smith works as an audiovisual manager was in full ghost-town mode all week. "I've seen, like, five people today," Smith says, out of the hundreds normally in the building.

He wanders out of his office. He carefully admires every painting in the hall. He spots a friend tapping away at his computer, the lone worker in a cluster of empty cubicles. "Wearing sneakers today," Smith tells the colleague proudly, pointing down at his shoes.

"That is rebellious."

Smith wanders back into his office. It's 1:45. It's only one-bleeping-forty-five.

Dangit.

Why are we here, in our empty office? Why did we not more judiciously allot our vacation time? Did we really need to take off the Tuesday after Labor Day? Did we really think that working this week would gain our boss's respect? (Our boss isn't even here.) Did you know that you can watch all of "Degrassi: The Next Generation" on Netflix Watch Instantly? If we shoot this rubber band at exactly the right angle, do you think it will ricochet off the wall and into the garbage can?

"A friend of mine said that in ancient Rome they had a thing called Saturnalia, which was an entire week of nothing getting done," says Jason LaGarde, wistfully. "I think we need to reinstate that."

Instead he's toiling away at his government IT job, partaking in prolonged water-cooler chats.

He has heard rumors of offices that close the last week of the year, just sensibly shut down entirely and save on electricity. Everyone has heard those rumors. No one can find those offices.

"Obama might decide to give us a half day for New Year's Eve," LaGarde says. Speculating over this half-day is a major project this week. "It's like an office pool. Do you think we'll get the half-day? We might, we might not."

We might have to go to Caribou for a coffee break and bitterly notice how many families are there in jeans and sweat shirts, taunting us with their vacation apparel. We might break from Spider Solitaire long enough to update our Twitter feeds and make sure everyone knows how torturous it is to be working this week. We cherish the tiniest of triumphs -- the REO Speedwagon played without headphones, the Dr Pepper stolen from the office fridge -- because we deserve at least these few small things, for Pete's sake, we deserve them.

"I'm doing crosswords and Sudoku," says Tony Odett, who works for a trade association and would dearly love to be productive except that no one outside of his organization is around to return calls. "There was one day I went to the store in the middle of the afternoon." That was a big day.

"I just had a one-and-a-half-hour lunch," says Matthew Rojansky, executive director of a national security policy center. "I only got one e-mail. From my wife." His whole staff took vacation. He alone stayed behind to helm the ship. He's accomplishing things, but he got lonely. He made his sister come and hang out, just to have the company. She left to eat and got locked out. No doorman. Empty, empty offices.

"Most of our lights are motion-activated and turn off after perhaps 45 minutes to save power," writes government worker Eliza Blair via e-mail. This meant that earlier this week, before her colleagues returned from Christmas, she was all alone in the empty office, waving "my arms vigorously at intervals to let the sensors know I'm here. . . . It's good for the circulation and it gets me out of my chair."

Nice positive spin, Eliza.

Wave, wave, against the dying of the light.

As for the rest of us, it is time to clean our keyboard with a cotton swab. It is time to make sure everyone on our e-mail list has seen the video of the cute kid with the ukulele.

It is time to unwrap the 2010 calendar, then pencil in our vacation time, righteously indignant as we block off the last week of December.

It is our right.

We worked it this year.

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