The line-standers are out all night on Capitol Hill, looking homeless. "But we're not homeless," one of them says; just trying to keep warm in ski caps and puffy coats.
Waiting 10, 20, 30 hours outside the House or the Senate, holding a place in line so some well-pressed lobbyist can sit upfront at a congressional hearing and bat eyes at all the right people -- this is democracy, or something like it. More importantly, it's a job.
Professional line standers enter the Hart Senate Office Building, where they will claim their labors' reward: a warm seat to turn over to a lobbyist or other power broker.
(Photos Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
We're talking public hearings, but John Q. would have trouble getting into many of them if he ever showed up. He'd be too far back in line, assuming he didn't have $35 an hour to pay a line-standing company, or the gumption to play line-stander himself.
When the hearing rooms are small and the demand high, the line-stander comes in. He's a warm body, a hologram. He is a young fellow, with sleepy ambitions, or an older fellow, treading water, or some guy who talks obscenely and makes no sense at all. He waits on the sidewalk and when the congressional office buildings open in the morning, with staffers clickety-clacking past, he takes his place outside a hearing room and drops his puffy coat on those hallowed floors.
By late morning, when the hearing starts, he is gone. He is a spot-staker, a space broker, a paid idler. He is the pause button on Washington, keeping power in its proper place throughout the night.
"There's no expertise and there's no commodity," says Jay Moglia, a line-stander. He works dayside as a bike courier, as a lot of them do, and he takes pride in that work, which calls for strength, training, bravado.
Not line-standing. In this job, there's only the ability to stand up. There is no such thing as a natural. No mother ever senses her child's innate talent for line-standing.
The line-stander never sees his product. He fries no nuggets and rakes no yards; no shorn hairs fall on the toe of his shoe while someone breathes into the mirror, Beautiful. The world is the same when his job is done, only the sky is lighter and some suit is making the money that some other suit was making last week.
The line-stander is a two-foot-square space on a sidewalk, a cipher, a proxy, a powerless stand-in for a figure of great power.
But at night, when the cops aren't hassling him, he owns this place.
The Line in Winter
Line-standing in the winter is a matter of preparation: three sweaters, two pairs of socks. Park nearby and sleep in your car. To stay awake, eat more. Drink less. One line-stander tells about a colleague who got arrested for relieving himself in public. Two hours with the cops, or something like that, and all because the guy didn't go to Union Station.
The indignity. Most of us know our time is worth less than someone else's, but line-standing brings that fact emphatically home. A line-standing company may pay a worker $10 an hour, $15 if he's a manager. He's holding a spot for a lobbyist or lawyer or legislative assistant whose sleep is much more valuable, who wants the luxury of showing up half an hour before the hearing. Some of the clients just want into the hearing room; others are very particular about getting good seats. The closer they are to the action, the more important they feel. They're players, or want to be.
The line-standers understand the hierarchy of Capitol Hill.
"You really find out the true colors of people," says Arsenio Bartolome, who goes by Chito, one Tuesday evening. He and a buddy, both bike couriers, are first in line; they've been here since 5 a.m. for a hearing that starts tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. They work for a company called QMS. Behind Chito, there are 10 or so line-standers on the sidewalk of Second and C streets NE. They've come for three different hearings. Sometimes they work elsewhere in the District, standing in line for concerts or at the Supreme Court. They've brought folding chairs but they stand in clusters, teasing one another and smoking and looking rougher than the folks you expect to see around the Hart Building. Truth is, they're friendlier than your typical lobbyist. Pedestrians in wool coats squeeze past silently.