The Christmas Shift
Spending the Holidays on the Clock
A century ago, maybe everything shut down on Dec. 24 and 25, but nowadays there are plenty of folks who spend part or all of the Christmas holidays doing what they do most other days of the year--earning their pay, keeping their business open, providing a service, being there for those who depend on them, being a part of the seasonal celebration, or maybe just keeping their job. If you're not one of those people, perhaps you've thought about them on your way to grandma's house. We certainly have.
The City Paper staff will be home for the holidays, as we always are, but we were curious about those who won't be. Here's what we found out.
Senior Hot Line Counselor, Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., Federal Hill
"I've worked most every holiday since I've been here, [and] I've worked the past two Christmases. The call volume is not as high as it is on a regular weekday. On a regular day you can receive anywhere from 75 to 125 calls a day. I would say we receive no more than 50 to 75 calls on Christmas.
"There hasn't been anything out of the usual--they just call in to talk to somebody, to get some support and encouragement. [The holidays] can be extremely difficult for people with depression. The greatest increase is usually around Halloween--that tends to bring in the most callers from the the depressed, bi-polar, and schizophrenic. On Christmas, mostly it's depression--people who don't have any family, don't have any friends, don't have any loved ones.
"Some individuals may be contemplating suicide because they are lonely. For those individuals, we talk to them and provide supportive counseling and to help them find some hope and some light in their situation. For those who have developed a plan to hurt themselves, or have a history of hurting themselves, we will have a mobile crisis team come out to provide them with some support at home or the location where they might be. We can always invite them back to the crisis unit for a couple of days just to stabilize and get some linkage to treatment and services.
"I chose to extend myself out more [during holidays] because I know that my family at home is secure and safe, but there are other people out there that need help and need support. If I am able to provide this for just a few hours a day--to take just a few hours out of my life to help someone else--it's well worth it."
Manager, Banjara Indian Restaurant, Federal Hill
"We're open on Christmas to serve the multicultural community of Baltimore, and for people who look for something unique and special. Usually it's a small crowd, but it's OK. It's not bad.
"We get all walks of life. This is the nearest Indian restaurant from BWI Airport, so we get traveling customers, multicultural customers, not only from Baltimore City but from New York, California, Florida, Texas. From east to west to north to south, people come. Sometimes they call in and say, 'We only have so much time, so can you prepare our meal before we come?' So we put it out on the table for them--we do that often for our airport customers. Hotel guests also come to us on special days like that. The concierges are very kind to send people to us that way. And then we get aristocratic families from Baltimore, people who want to have a special dinner with their parents. They come here because nobody else is open.
"I have often seen people bringing Christmas cakes to the restaurant, and sometimes they give them to us as a simple present. Some senior citizens regularly bring cakes for that day. And we decorate our restaurant very well, with the Christmas hangings and all that. We already have the lights up--now we have to do the hangings and those balls and things like that. Since Halloween, we've already had the lights up inside.
"I observe Christmas myself. But [working on Christmas] is a service, a service to the people. I know that it's a celebration--that you have to take leave and enjoy it with the family. But it's like a call I am doing. In India people are mostly Hindu, so what happens is they observe their festivals on a different day. But they keep all the spirit here for the Christian holiday."
Housing supervisor, Beans and Bread, Fells Point
"I've been working here as an employee for eight years and a volunteer for two years, and I've been working Christmas every year.
"My daily job is housing supervisor, but on Christmas, it's one of Santa's helpers. What we do is we set up our dining area in a restaurant-style atmosphere, and we have a lot of donations that come in, food and toys. We have two facilities, and we open both. One is filled with gifts--clothes, toys, socks, personal hygiene kits. Once a person finishes a meal in the first facility, [he or she] can come to this other room and can pick out hats, toys, gloves, underwear, and so on. I'm there to facilitate the handing out.
"At Christmas, our numbers of people needing something go up. We serve anyone. We have travelers from other states just passing through because of a death in the family or they are looking for work, [to] the drug addict who wants help and just needs someone to talk to, to the working poor, because we're directly across the street from Perkins Homes where there's a lot of poor people who might need anything. Even just the use of our telephone services.
"This year we're going to do something a little different for the Christmas season: We're going to have a Christmas party on Dec. 15 for those in need. So not only will those needy parents be able to come here Christmas day, but they'll also be able to take a gift home [from the Christmas party] so their kids have a toy on Christmas day that their parent can give them. They don't know it's coming from us, so the kids are really getting a toy from their parents. . . . If they still need our assistance on Christmas day, they can still come over then, too.
"Myself, I was homeless once. I was a homeless person for years, and I needed someone to help me. I was a drug addict, and during my addiction I had various bouts of homelessness for, I would say, six or seven years. During the latter part of my addiction I was completely homeless. Because I come from a pretty good family, and, at that point they didn't know a whole lot about drug addiction, they were like, 'Keep him away from the house.' So I was dependent on charities and facilities, places like this that treated me with dignity and respect even though I didn't show any for myself. It's a point in my life I wouldn't want to revisit. But with the work I do now, I stay involved in helping others 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even Christmas.
"Working Christmas is giving back. I love it. I can't do without it. My personal needs, I can set aside. I know that I can go home Christmas day or Christmas Eve to my family, but for those who don't have a home to go to, I have no problem being here on Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. The needs of those who are homeless or in need outweigh my needs.
"I can't remember the year, but I would say it was at least three or four years ago on Christmas day that a young lady who was living in a building near Bond Street came in and told us she just found out the building would be closing down, she'd have to move out, and her services from the Department of Social Services would be cut all at the same time. She didn't have much and she was dependent on monies from DSS to come through. It didn't come through for Christmas, and she didn't have any money for her kids.
"She came up here crying. We asked her what we could do, what was wrong, and she told us the story. The staff here gathered everything we could get--food, clothing, everything--and brought it to her building.
"When we brought it down, we found out that the building wasn't really closing. She just didn't have the rent money, but she was just too proud to tell us that. So as a staff, we came up with the money and gave her the rent money. So she came back and volunteered for us. That was touching. It makes you feel good to see that you don't work in vain. There are people out there who truly need help due to the circumstances they're in, and they don't want to be there."
Firefighter, Engine 53, Swann Avenue Station, Edmondson Village
"[After] 13 weeks at the academy, we graduated [and] had to start work within a day and a half--well, it was supposed to be two days, but they made it a day and a half. We graduated on the 22nd of December, and my first day of work was at night on Christmas Eve night into Christmas morning.
"I got to learn the job real quick--from a first run of a child who was having difficulty breathing to a fire the next morning. It was just a small little fire, like a kitchen fire. Most of the time one company can put it out. What most firefighters call their 'first fire' is the one where everybody is working--something that's real serious and everybody is there. In this case, most of the companies were told the first companies could handle it.
"But I think what sticks out most in my mind is coming in and helping the infant who couldn't breathe. They tend to send rookies in to do that kind of work first 'cause they're fresh out of [Emergency Medical Training]. The child was having difficulty breathing . . . so alls we could give the child was oxygen and take his vital signs and wait for the medic unit. It always seems to be when a child's involved, firefighters and paramedics take things a little more serious.
"Yeah, I'm working Christmas again this year. I don't look forward to it, but I guess if anybody's got to work Christmas, it's better it's me than some of the other ones. I'm not married, no kids. It doesn't matter to me. But I had a nephew that left a little note for me on Christmas not to work again on Christmas day."
Bounty hunter, locksmith
"It was around 1982, probably around November. I was given a bail skip to go after from the [bail bond] agency in Dundalk. Back then it was called Statewide Bailbonds. It was owned by Old Man Taylor, as we called him. Leroy Taylor.
"He asked me to pick this guy up who jumped bail on traffic violations and DWI. . . . It was a small bail, $500. As I recall, the first time I went to the door, I went in the evening, I crept up on the front porch, and I looked through the window. I saw the guy fitting the description laying on the couch in the woman's lap. There was a teenager sitting in a chair.
"So I went and called the police. I had them meet me there, we knocked on the door, went in, and he wasn't there. [The woman] said there was no man there, never was, blah blah blah. Little did I know there was a compartment at the bottom of the steps--a closet you didn't know was there 'cause it didn't have handles. It [had a sliding door] and matched the paneling on the wall. Apparently, he went in there and hid.
"He worked out of state during the week, so on the weekends we'd go back there at 4 in the morning and it would take them awhile to answer the door. We'd go in there and search, and he wouldn't be in there. Got to the point where the police and my boss were pretty much convinced that this guy did not live there. I knew the guy was there.
"I was determined to catch that son of a bitch. So I staked the place early Monday mornings. They would park their station wagon in the back alley, and I would sit there in different vehicles waiting for him to leave. The girlfriend or wife or whatever would always come out the alley, and each time she'd spot me. So naturally he wouldn't come out.
"The police weren't gonna hit the place no more. It was getting to be a nuisance for them. I decided that Christmas Eve, Christmas day, everybody comes home.
"It was on a one-way street off Dundalk Avenue, and I had my van with me--[the woman] didn't know that [vehicle]. I sat right there on Dundalk at the end of their street . . . hoping he'd be coming home for Christmas. This station wagon came past me, but it didn't turn down the street--it went straight down by Turner Station to the liquor store. He got out. He was on the passenger side, the [teenage] girl was in the middle, and the girlfriend was driving. He got out and went into the liquor store, came out with a case of beer, and got back into the station wagon and went back up Dundalk Avenue.
"I followed them, and they pulled down the street. It was a narrow street. So I waited till they got next to a car, and then I boxed the driver's side door. But he was able to get out the passenger side and start running. Naturally, I drew my .38 and told him to stop. He froze in his footsteps. He tried to tell me he wasn't him. I had a photograph of another bail jumper on me, and I flashed it real quick and said, 'I got a photo of you right here.' That's when he admitted he was him.
"So I cuffed him and took him up to the bail-bond office on German Hill Road. After talking to this guy in the van on the way up and talking to his wife about what was going to happen and this and that--you know, I started feeling sympathetic towards him. I tried to talk the boss into letting him go home for Christmas and turning himself back in after Christmas day. Of course, Old Man Taylor wouldn't go for it. He told me he gave the guy a pat on the back and said, 'This is my Christmas present to you. You're going to jail tonight.' So I took him to the city jail--back then they didn't have central booking--and that was it. He sat in jail over the holiday.
"I was late for our Christmas Eve dinner. We had company, and I made it home in the middle of the dinner. It was cold and everything.
"I really make a point of not going out on Christmas. If [a bail jumper's] on the sidewalk in a shopping center and I happen to be there Christmas day, well, I'm not going to turn away and walk. [This guy] was the exception to the rule. I will go out on Thanksgiving--that's a day of giving, you know what I mean? But Christmas, I make a little exception.
"As far as car- and house-door unlocking, that's particularly busy over the holiday season. That can be a real cold, painful job to be out there at midnight, 2 in the morning, Christmas Eve, Christmas night, too. We just run 365 days a year."
Dr. Amy Sisley
Trauma surgeon, University of Maryland Medical Center, Downtown
"If you're a physician, you really have to work all 24 hours of [Christmas]--you're there for the duration. But the nurses go in and out on 12-hour shifts, so they bring stuff. The nurses who come in at 7 p.m. will bring a whole dinner, the leftovers from their Christmas dinner or something. They'll put together a potluck and everybody'll take five minutes to hang out at the nurses' station and have some food together. So there's a certain camaraderie to it. And they usually decorate the nurses' stations with Christmas decorations--more than my own house--so if I want to see Christmas, I can see it better at the hospital.
"The bad ones are mostly people getting hurt, people who are on their way to a party or people who are on their way to see their family for Christmas dinner or whatever and get into a car crash. That's always really, really sad--that they were in the middle of celebrating a joyous occasion and something terrible happens. The car crashes are countless, so it's hard to remember any specifics.
"The other thing that people forget is that there's a lot of suicides over the holidays. I recall one Christmas Eve having to tell two different sets of parents that their teenage child had committed suicide and having that be my Christmas. That was really, really rough. They were both on Christmas Eve, and it was sort of back-to-back. One was a 19-year-old guy and one was a 17-year-old guy, and both of them shot themselves in the head.
"This is a trauma center, so as soon as there is notification from the paramedics [that] there is a gunshot wound, we're waiting for them in the trauma bay when they roll in the door. A lot of times you can do something for someone with a gunshot wound, but when they've shot themselves in the head. . . . In the one case the bullet went from the right side of the head to the left side of the head, and there was brain matter leaking out onto the gurney and no signs of life, and there isn't anything you can do. So basically we just had to call their parents, and when their parents came in we had to tell them on Christmas Eve that their child was dead.
"They were right around 10 or 11 o'clock, so it was just turning to Christmas. I remember looking up at the clock when their parents got there, thinking, Oh my god, it's Christmas day, because it was after midnight. What a thing to have to hear, and what's gonna happen to them every Christmas day for the rest of their lives--they're gonna remember this moment.
"And you're just completely helpless. That was a bad, bad Christmas."
General manager, Club Atlantis, Penn-Fallsway
"It's always kind of fun here because we do a big thing every Christmas. We start with Thanksgiving and put a thing on called Stars Above the Bar [for charity]. We cut out stars and people write merry christmas, happy new year or whatever, write their name on 'em, and then we hang them with a hook on a piece of fishing line above the bar. And I'm not happy until the whole bar is filled with 'em.
"The charity now is A Moveable Feast, which is in the old Haussner's Restaurant building. They feed AIDS patients in the city, and sad to say, there are a lot more AIDS patients that are women today, with children. It's like Meals on Wheels, but it's specifically for people with AIDS and started in the gay community, and has continued and grown. So it's a big operation to feed almost 500 people that are scattered all over.
"The Sunday before Christmas we do pictures with Santa Claus, and I'm the photographer. One of our customers is Santa Claus, with the beard and glasses and the boots and a belly he no longer has to pad. People come up and sit on Santa's lap and whatever, and we do a shot and put 'em in a little frame--the whole nine yards--for 5 bucks or a brand new toy. Sometimes we even have a Mrs. Claus who may show up, and usually some of [the pictures] are kind of raunchy. Nothing exposed, of course. The customers want their pictures taken with the dancers, but no nude pictures whatsoever. They must be clothed when their pictures are taken with Santa. People have collections of them from every year.
"There is one group of good customers we've had here for years and years, and they make this their Christmas party. They come here and they all exchange gifts here, and then they all have their pictures taken with Santa. It's a ball getting it together and doing it. And it's very rewarding. It really is.
"Usually Christmas Eve, that's all over--all our work, everything, is done. We always have the reading of our Christmas poem, which includes everybody.
"And then Christmas night, we're just [relieved sigh]. So we bring in food, and it's just like old home week. You know, people drop in to see us. It's really nice. And we decorate like crazy. I'm a Christmas nut. I love Christmas anyway. We say we're not finished in here until it looks like a drag queen exploded. It takes me a good week to decorate the place.
"It's a gay bar, so a lot of men deal with their families and whatever with their sisters or brothers who are married and nieces and nephews or moms and dads, and then at night on Christmas they come here for their other family. It's not a big night, I wouldn't say, but it's really a nice night because a lot of our regulars all drop by at some point or another--some of them stay all night long. It is like a big family. "
Dancer, Club Atlantis, Penn-Fallsway
"It's very different working in a gay strip club. I thought [Christmas] would be more or less real slow, real dead, [but] actually it turned out to be very busy. And then after a while you put two and two together--not too many gay guys have family, they don't have kids, they don't have wives. After they handle their family business with, like, maybe the mom, the sisters, and the brothers, they just want to get away, and we had a really crowded busy night. It was really great. Had a lot of fun. Most of our regulars come in here on Christmas, and it just seems like we all had Christmas together, a big Atlantis Christmas.
"The customers and a lot of the dancers just take it as another day. Because if you don't have any family, you don't even think about Christmas. It's somebody else's Christmas--let them have fun. I'm an entertainer, so I try to entertain people, make them happy, make them feel comfortable. And I do the best I can. So I'm actually hoping that I gave the guys who come in here one hell of a Christmas.
"I met a gentleman when I first started working here, and come Christmastime he really gave me one hell of a Christmas present, in more ways than one. He seemed to fall in love with me. He would come in here and just give me money--I mean, $50, $100, $200, $300 every time he came in here. He lived in Philadelphia and would drive all the way here just to see me. Come here like two, three times a week.
"Christmas week he came down here and, for starters, he gave me like $600 worth of Giant gift certificates. Then a few days after that he came in here and told me that he wasn't going to be able to see me on Christmas and showed up with a Christmas card with $250 bucks in it, cash. That was really cool. And then he really surprises me because he shows up on Christmas morning. I was living in a hotel, and he shows up at my hotel with two small Christmas trees and some Christmas lights and, to wrap it all up, a brand new microwave and a Nativity scene that looked very expensive. And he said he wasn't going to see me for a while.
"Next thing you know, he's showing up in the bar later on that night, and he's still giving out more money. I don't even remember seeing him in the bar on Christmas, but I remember going through my socks after a set to take all my money out and I found a $100 bill in my sock. I didn't even know. I though it was a 10--I didn't see the extra zero. And one of the dancers here came around and asked me, 'Stan, what the hell are you doing to get these things?' There was a pile of ones laying there, and I just looked over and said, 'Oh man, I been getting those things all night.' I thought it was a $10 bill. He picked it up, he stretched it out, and said 'You been getting these all night?' It was Mr. Benjamin Franklin himself. It shocked the shit out of me.
"That guy was pretty cool, but he tended to let his feelings get in the way. He fell in love with me, and because of me being married I pretty much broke his heart. He hasn't been back since then. He won't see me, which really sucks 'cause I could use the money. He fell in love with me. I fell in love with the money.
Owner, Lucky 7 Food & Deli, Govans
"I am the owner so I have to give the employees off. I have to work.
"I've [been] working six years, almost. I used to be the manager of a 7-11. And you know, 7-11 is open 24 hours, holidays, everything.
"I just bought this store. And they want it open--the customer, who likes this store, likes this business--for the holidays. We like to help people. . . . We like to be open."
Father John Williamson
Associate pastor, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Homeland
"It's a very stressful time. There's a lot of activities going on in the church. For those of us in the Catholic tradition, and most Christians, the celebration of Advent is a busy time, and then that goes right into Christmas. Usually at Christmas we see a large increase in our attendance. So Christmas masses are usually very . . . I wouldn't use the word stressful, but there's a lot more people than usual. The crowds are bigger, so the preparation work really takes a long time. The decorating, the music, making sure the church is clean--little things like that. Lining up the Eucharistic ministers, the lectors, the ushers, making sure the Christmas bulletin is run, all those type of things. And dealing with a much larger crowd, it just takes a lot more time and is a lot more involved than a usual weekend.
"Counting Christmas Eve, we have seven masses. Our last mass on Christmas Eve starts at midnight, and then we start again at 8 a.m. on Christmas day. You just kind of go with it, as they say. You know it's coming and you just sort of prepare for it the best you can.
"The midnight is my favorite mass because, you know, the solemnity. It's usually where we have the choir present, and it's usually one of the most crowded masses. I find it to be the most moving. Exactly at midnight when the bells start ringing and the procession starts and you know it's officially Christmastime. It's a very moving time, at least for me personally, because as Catholics that's the highlight of the season, the midnight and the celebration that it involves.
"The children's mass is usually the most crowded. There are a lot of people there. Usually the cathedral is filled past capacity. We seat 1,500 people, so that's usually the most difficult, just because of the age group you're dealing with and also the sheer numbers. It can become bedlam very quickly."
Toll collector, Fort McHenry Tunnel
"I've been a toll collector for seven and a half years, and I've worked Christmas about six of those years. If you're scheduled to work a holiday, you have to work. We get holiday pay, which helps out a little bit. It was hard when I first started, because I had never worked Christmas before. At that time I worked the 2-to-10 p.m. shift. We celebrated Christmas at my house in the morning, opening gifts and stuff. After the gifts were open, Christmas was pretty much over and I went to work.
"Thanksgiving eve is the busiest day of the year here. Thanksgiving day and Christmas day are not that busy. People are always nicer around the holidays. We get little treats sometimes. They may give you candy or something. And a person might give $10 and pay for next nine cars behind them. That happens more around the holidays, though it happens throughout the year. I had a truck driver give me a gift one Christmas. It was gift-wrapped--a pair of mittens. That made me feel really good."
Bartender, Cat's Eye Pub, Fells Point
"I probably worked two Christmases and a Christmas Eve here at the pub. And I'm working this Christmas Eve.
"Both days are really good. On Christmas Eve, people usually stop in on their way to somewhere else. They're gettin' their party on, and they come in before they go wherever they're heading. And Christmas day is always a good day because people like to get away from the family gathering and relax and kick back and loosen up.
"We had a great Christmas last year. We had a band that played . . . and it was a pretty packed house. I don't remember any really exciting stories or anything, but it was fun. And the customers did buy me a lot of shots."
"Oh yeah, last year some really cute guy grabbed me under the mistletoe. Please tell him I'll be back working again this year if he wants to come in."
"At the end of the bar, you might notice we have a little tree art--an upside-down Christmas tree. Years ago, the owner, Tony Cushing, brought it in to one of the better-known bartenders. The bartender said, 'What do you want me to do with this?' And he said, 'I dunno, hang it from the ceiling, for all I care.' So he did.
"Yes, I work Christmas. It just like every day. I have to pay for car. [The company] don't care if it holiday or what--$100 a day. If it holiday or something else, they don't care.
"Christmas Eve, I stay home. Christmas day, I work. Morning time is slow, but afternoon it gets busier. People go to friends, people go to movies, people go to parties, people go to church. It's moving.
"[But] New Year's Eve. Oh my god. They work us so hard. I start work at like 5 o'clock, yeah? I work all night, and 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock in the morning, everybody's drunk. They start handing out money. They don't care how much money. Just ask them, they give the money. From Fells Point to Renaissance [Harborplace] Hotel, you know how much people pay? $50. Sometimes, it just two people, and they give insane amounts. They drunk and they just give money. One New Year's Eve, I did over $2,000. Just the once, but that was a good night."
--Interviews by Blake de Pastino, Anna Ditkoff, Tim Hill, Brennen Jensen, and Erin Sullivan.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201