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Capitol a ghost town as reality of government shutdown sets in

A Capitol police officer walks through the Capitol Rotunda, empty of visitors after being closed to tours, during the government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 01 October 2013. Michael Reynolds / EPA

In shutting down the government, members of Congress have turned their own U.S. Capitol complex into a ghost town running on a skeleton crew.

There aren't any tourists milling through the Capitol rotunda. Fewer police officers are working, so many entrances are closed. Up to two-thirds of each office's staff is at home, forced to shut off their BlackBerries. And many of the usual comforts of a lawmaker's day job have vanished.

"Box lunches. No tablecloths," said one Democratic senator after emerging from the usual Tuesday lunch for all members of the Democratic caucus. He wasn't complaining -- just responding to a reporter who asked if the gathering featured the usual buffet spread that's offered each week.

The downgraded services come because most of the food workers who normally work in the Capitol complex have been furloughed because of the shutdown. So have many of the elevator operators who make sure tourists get off on the right floor and who keep the public out of reserved, senators-only elevators. Also missing are many of the doorkeepers -- people who man the entrances to the Senate floor and direct tourists into the galleries above to watch their government at work.

They are people that many members of Congress know by name, because they see them every day as they go about their daily business.

These workers will all go without pay until the lawmakers they work to serve decide to restore funding for the government.

"I am not sure if I will make my rent," said one restaurant worker who asked not to be identified.

The congressional complex -- the Capitol itself plus a group of six office buildings that collectively occupy several city blocks -- has its own police force and includes a warren of underground tunnels that run beneath major Washington thoroughfares.

It's a self-sustaining, village-type ecosystem that supports the work of the legislative branch of government. Congressional aides perform all manner of tasks from answering constituent phone calls to writing legislation; they eat food served in cafeterias and use bathrooms cleaned by service staff and work in buildings maintained by the architect of the Capitol.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of tourists parade through the ceremonial public spaces, while lobbyists, interest groups and concerned citizens appear in the halls to meet with members or attend public congressional hearings.

But tours are stopped, many hearings are canceled and a lot of other business has ground to a halt.

Most congressional aides have been furloughed. One Senate office that normally has 44 staffers only has 13 now coming to work each day. Furloughed employees have received a question-and-answer sheet that says they'll stop getting paychecks after Oct. 5. If the government is helping them repay their student loans, that money will stop. They've been ordered to turn their government-issued BlackBerry devices off.

Those who are reporting to work have been warned that the bathrooms might not all be cleaned. Food stocked in many office building cafeterias quickly sold out on Tuesday; five of the six public eateries were shuttered before close of business. The senators-only dining room is shuttered, too.

Other services are also curtailed.

The barbershop in the basement of Russell Senate Office Building is closed -- and their shoe shine stand along with it. The official Senate gift shop is closed, a logoed bathrobe left seemingly discarded on the checkout counter. There's only one staffer manning the Senate shipping and receiving department, and carts stacked with paint cans are temporarily abandoned in a basement hallway in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Subway tram systems that carry lawmakers underground from the Capitol to their office buildings are still running, but the trams usual drivers are mostly gone. Elevator technicians are now pulling double duty to drive them.

And those techs might also be forced off the job if the government doesn't reopen by next week. While some departments in the Capitol have enough money to keep going for the next few days, the longer the shutdown lasts, the harder it will be to keep paying even the few who remain.

Several said they hope that at some point, lawmakers will realize that their constituents don't want the government to stay closed.

So how are people back home reacting to the shutdown?

“We don’t really know,” said one congressional aide, “because there’s nobody to answer the phones.”