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Workday rush fades to a holiday hush

This was the week when, if you had to go to work, you felt like one of the sole survivors in some postapocalyptic movie, stuck in a glass-walled cubicle, surrounded by a swarm of aliens on vacation.

David Schwadron, lawyer: "The work is still clicking along."
David Schwadron, lawyer: "The work is still clicking along."Read more

This was the week when, if you had to go to work, you felt like one of the sole survivors in some postapocalyptic movie, stuck in a glass-walled cubicle, surrounded by a swarm of aliens on vacation.

A little bit like Will Smith in

I Am Legend,

without the excitement of bloodthirsty mutants, let alone the companionship of a dog.

"It's very quiet," said Dave Paul. "Very, very quiet."

Paul, a 30-year-old accountant with Cigna Corp., was taking a quick cigarette break Thursday afternoon outside Liberty Place, where more pedestrians were carrying shopping bags than briefcases.

With more than half his coworkers taking the week off, Paul said, "it's a lot easier to get my work done. There aren't as many distractions."

Several surveys have found that despite appearances, most Americans at least plan to show up at their jobs between Christmas and New Year's Day. One study, sponsored by Kronos Inc., found that only 32 percent normally take time off in the last, slogging week of the year. (A fortunate 18 percent of employees are given the week off by their bosses.)

But anecdotally, several Center City stalwarts, who would not reveal where they work lest they rat out their colleagues, say a mysterious number of employees have been calling in sick.

"The woman who was supposed to train me has not shown up for the past three days," said one such worker at a nonprofit agency as a group of her coworkers headed out for a long lunch yesterday.

"Obviously, if you need to talk to someone vitally, it's a problem," said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. E-mails trigger out-of-office replies. Voice mails refer you to assistants or cell-phone numbers to be used only in case of dire emergencies. But Yanoff said she had been able to use the time to catch up on a pile of to-do's she had not been able to get to for weeks.

"You actually feel virtuous working this week," she said. "There aren't a lot of meetings. You can get a lot of paperwork done. And I left the office at 5:15 one day. Two hours earlier than usual. It felt terrific!"

As the sun set late this week, the corridors on the 18th floor of an office building at 123 S. Broad St. were so quiet, you could hear a pin drop - if not for the carpet.

"I let my secretary go an hour early," said Allen Simpson, president and owner of Simpson Capital Management Co. He doesn't let her take the week off, however. "The end of the year is very important in this line of work," he explained.

After the assassination of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, he said, he was carefully monitoring stock market reaction. Several unopened Christmas presents had been set on top of boxes containing new computers he plans to open after the new year.

"We like these quiet days when the phone doesn't ring," he said. "This is some of the most productive time we have."

Stopping for an afternoon coffee break, accompanied by a wad of legal documents, David Schwadron, a medical malpractice defense lawyer, said his office was not as full as usual. But it's not as if the computer screens are all beaming with eBay and games of solitaire.

"You don't hear the static that's normally there," he said. "The background buzz. But the work is still clicking along. We never have a day off. Generally, doctors and hospital administrators are still working."

So is the court system. And parolees still need monitoring. James Johnson, 24, who works in the First Judicial District, said he took Wednesday off to go shopping but would be at his desk until the bitter end.

And so he will have to go back to work on Monday along with all the other staff in emergency rooms and banks and real estate agencies and city offices and insurance companies and, hey, newspapers. Joining those who provide essential services or who just squandered all their vacation time when the days were long and sunny.

It goes against nature. Instinct would have us hibernating, if not until spring, at least until the children have to go back to school.

The commute, at least, might be kinder. On sparsely populated platforms, no one will be shoving for optimal position when the doors open on the homebound trains at Suburban Station during rush hour. Traffic will still be backed up on the Schuylkill and the Blue Route, however, because reckless drivers and roving PennDot crews would not want to coddle you.

The return to reality would be too painful.