Just about every morning, between 9:30 and 10:20, when the little brick storefront shop in Alexandria opens, the world gathers to wait in line.
There is Jane, the interior designer from a tony part of Northwest Washington. Bob, the hairdresser. And Joseph, the retired civil service worker, who takes the subway and bus from Capitol Hill to secure his place in the queue. There is the quiet, bearded man from Ethiopia who walks several miles, carrying his own sheet. They wonder where his wife is. She hasn't come to the line for a while.
Kofi, the taxi driver from Ghana, arrives later, as does Derrick from Southeast and Georgianna and her sister Mary from Fort Washington.
They ask one another about their "healing effects." They talk about their aches and pains. And as they patiently wait on Mount Vernon Avenue in the Del Ray neighborhood, they try to recruit those passing by to stand with them. "You'll love it," they say. Or, "This'll change your life."
Mostly, they point to a blue sign in the window that says, "FREE."
They're waiting to lie for 40 warm, peaceful minutes on one of nine special Ceragem beds, whose automated rollers slowly massage the spine, at a little place called Back to Chi.
So now it's not just people who can afford $70-an-hour massages or those whose insurance covers visits to the chiropractor who get to feel better. It's anybody who can wait in line.
There are preschool teachers and nurses, doctors and computer programmers, taxi drivers and house cleaners. All waiting their turn for a little relief. The line is a rainbow of ages, backgrounds and just about any racial and ethnic group one could imagine.
The crowd that waits for the 10:20 opening nearly every morning is like a family.
"We talk about our lives, where we've traveled, what we've done," said Bob Cantillion, a retired cosmetologist who arrives at 9:30 each morning from Capitol Hill to claim his spot in line. "One gentleman was talking about how it's so much less expensive to live in Guatemala. You never know what's going to come up."
"We worry when someone we're used to seeing isn't here. The regulars always ask, 'Where are they?' " said Jane Brookins, an interior designer from the District who is in line most days. "When people buy the beds, they always say, 'I'll miss seeing everybody in line.' "
Regulars who eventually decide to buy their own beds from the store have allowed Back to Chi owners Daisy Birch and her husband, Arash Sadati, to stay in business since April 2003.
The lady with rheumatoid arthritis who used to drive in every morning from Dumfries bought a bed recently, some of the people in line murmur. They miss her.
"The line is the talk of the coffeehouse across the street," Birch said. "We have moviemakers standing in line behind maids, millionaires, taxi drivers, private investigators, Pentagon people in civilian clothes, all waiting around talking about their spines."
Kofi Boaheng, a taxi driver originally from Ghana, tries to come twice a week to keep his blood pressure low. "Every time you come, you see people from Ethiopia, Pakistan. There are Spanish people. Just everybody."
Sometimes, Brookins said, the regulars just put their stuff in the line, then wander across the street to the coffeehouse or sit on the Adirondack chairs outside the store a few doors down. But everybody knows who belongs where. And the regulars always give the newcomers first shot at the coveted beds.
"This is the world as it should be," Brookins said. "You look in their eyes and realize we're all the same."