Washington is at home this week in a holidaze, a seasonal slowdown that is sure to slow down even more today with the arrival of a late white Christmas.
All week, the streets of the city have had that empty look of late August: thin traffic downtown, pedestrians jaywalking with greater-than-usual abandon.
Almost everyone seems to have stayed home from work during the week from Christmas to New Year's. And in business offices and government bureaucracies, there's an end-of-December malaise among the skeleton crews that encourages arriving late, taking long lunches and leaving early. Few seem to be working hard; many are hardly working.
Even before the first snowflake fell yesterday, it was obvious to the few who had ventured outside their homes and the shopping malls that the wheels of the nation's capital are turning slowly this week, if at all.
"Everyone's out of the office this week on vacation," Monique Guy, a temporary receptionist at the Washington office of the Tennessee Valley Authority, reported Wednesday. The government-owned corporation best known for generating electricity and controlling floods usually has eight people on duty.
Many other government and private offices are flying at half-staff because of the holidays.
A lot of workers traditionally take the week off to celebrate or because business is slow.
Some stay home to care for children who are out of school.
Others are using up vacation time rather than lose it at the end of the year.
And the forecast of bad weather gave many of the rest just the reason they needed to head home early yesterday afternoon.
Although government spokesmen said they couldn't estimate how many of the region's federal workers are off this week, there were indications that the number of holiday vacationers may be increasing each year.
Over the past several years, many government agencies here have developed more sophisticated leave schedules that allow them to cover basic functions with fewer people each Christmas season, said Mary Ann Maloney, a spokeswoman for the Office of Personnel Management.
It would take some time to produce hard statistics on how many people are off work, Maloney said, in part because almost nobody at the agency is working this week. "We're dealing with a very, very skeleton crew," she said.
Around the suburbs, there were more signs that this is anything but a normal workweek. Metro reported a particularly light rush hour yesterday morning. At 9:15, all-day parking spaces still could be found at the normally packed West Falls Church Metrorail station. There was room to park a 747 in the short-term lot.
As the morning wore on aboard Metro, blue jeans seemed to outnumber blue suits as tourists, shoppers and informally dressed workers -- some toting their children to the office -- rode trains into the District.
While the State Department is keeping busy with Saddam Hussein, much of the Federal Triangle area found little reason to make policy, issue rules or hold hearings the past few days.
The Public Health Service's Office of Population Affairs is all but depopulated; maybe a dozen of the 30 regular workers were on hand Wednesday to run family planning programs. "The government is functioning," said an administrator who asked not to be identified.
No public servant interviewed would even hint at the possibility that the government slowdown might prevent key decisions from being made or might slow service to the citizenry. And there were mixed indications about whether the public expects much from its government this week anyway.
At the D.C. Courthouse on Indiana Avenue NW, the city Marriage Bureau had an empty waiting room at mid-morning. Only one couple had been filled with enough Christmas spirit to apply for a marriage license during the first 75 minutes of business yesterday, according to workers there.
But Superior Court Family Division Director H. Edward Ricks said requests to expedite divorces increase significantly at the end of the year as some couples discover that they can save money on taxes if they are undone by Dec. 31.
When an attorney calls and asks for a quick hearing for a client, "I tell them to come on down," Ricks said.
Sidewalks, parks and even the Mall were left largely to the birds much of yesterday. Some signs of normalcy remained: It was still possible to get a parking ticket in the District.
Sidewalk vendor Alemayhe Gashaw, who has worked the corner of Fourth and D streets NW for four years, spent much of his time yesterday giving passers-by directions to government offices instead of selling food and drinks.
It has been the slowest week of the year for him because so many workers are off, he said. But only bad weather will keep him home today and Monday on New Year's Eve, because he needs every sale he can make, Gashaw said.
Some people working this week said they relished the chance to catch up on mail and other work without dealing with frantic phones and fax attacks. "I make the calls, but it's almost like with every one I'm leaving a message," said Steve Stone, a lawyer in Alexandria.
"It's like the Maytag repairman around here."