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The Line Starts Here

"They walk by and they don't say excuse me or anything," Chito says. "They'll be rude to you. But if we were wearing a suit and everything else, I think they'd treat us a little differently."

"There's no thinking about it," says Errol James, standing next to him. He works for a company called CVK.

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)

"But it's good to be the underdog," Chito says. "You meet all the senators and the congressmen. You don't meet them, but you see them."

"They're right there," James says.

"I remember Eleanor Holmes Norton," the District's delegate in the House of Representatives, Chito says. "I worked on her for years, just saying hello to her. And she used to come by and be all crabby and stuff like that. So I started to change my way of approaching her by saying, 'You're wearing some really nice stuff today,' and she would just brighten up and be all cheerful and stuff."

Chito is a charmer. He's been line-standing since 2001. He knows Capitol Hill cops by name and he's friendly with the guy in a blue uniform whose breast stitching says "Garage Div." He plays sweet to the Senate cafeteria cashier when he passes through with his $3.40 egg special. He has shoulder-length black hair and a black ski cap with the Rolling Stones tongue on it. He is 42. He smokes and paces with the energy of a salmon jumping upstream. He says he was born in the back of a cab. At night, when the Hill is quiet and the line-standers are the only ones out here -- laughing, singing -- Chito gives his colleagues nicknames, and talks about the lore of line-standing.

There's a lot of turnover in the line-standing business, but there are also people who've been doing this, off and on, for 10, 15 years. (Line-standing companies have been around since at least the early '90s.) It's seasonal work, based on when Congress is in session, and it's last-minute and usually at most three days a week, since members like to take long weekends. But over the years the old-timers have gotten to know the halls of government well. They know the tunnels and the shortcuts, which hearing rooms are bigger than others, and which ones will be a squeeze.

Some of this institutional knowledge was honed during the glory days of line-standing. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the line-standers say, there was less supervision on the part of Capitol Police, and competition was fierce. Smart line-standers would bypass their colleagues by entering the office buildings through less-used entrances. There would be dashes through underground tunnels, sometimes ending with headfirst dives, or so the lore goes. One company went so far as to recruit college track runners.

Nowadays, there's no running. Everyone goes in the same entrance. The order of the line is sacrosanct.

"Now, we're civilized people," Chito says.

This is a true community, forged in the dark, stitched of artists and retirees, eccentrics and lapsed dreamers. Mostly men, a few women. In the summer, Chito says, they'll bring out remote-controlled cars. They used to play music, someone says, but now the cops don't allow it. This little slice of sidewalk is theirs, a place to commiserate and catch up, to talk about living -- literally -- in the shadow of power. Sometimes it is the line-standers vs. the cops and sometimes it's the line-standers vs. the suits, but always, even when they quibble, the line-standers are in this together. Who else would understand them and their odd, moonlit existence? Their time is someone else's money. You wouldn't put this job on a résumé, but it's closer to power than many of us get.

There is Chito's friend Elly, whose real name is Larry Jarrett, a mellow courier who plays the straight man to Chito's ebullience. There is Chito's wife, Christine Lilyea-Bartolome, 24, a line-stander-courier-musician, who will later be bringing Chito and Elly spaghetti from home.

There is Errol James, 34, who has been line-standing for eight years but says he has bigger plans. He hands over a business card that says "Errol 'The Fiff' James, C.E.O." He has started an online travel business, but he doesn't have the online part yet.

There is Teresa Filson, who has a military background and a sharp manner, who tells everyone to stop cussing. She's known as the mama, because, as one colleague puts it, "she keeps the children in line."

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