As usual I was early for morning coffee with a good friend, driven by a deep-seated fear of being late. This originated from school days where a humiliating locked door and subsequent public clouting waited those who were late for morning prayers. I took a stroll near the café where we had agreed to meet. A pleasant oasis of human-sized three-storey brick apartment buildings from the early 1900’s sheltered inside a network of narrow, leafy roads and small parks. It was autumn and underfoot piles of wet leaves were waiting to upend unsuspecting commuters rushing to the nearby tube station.
Another minute’s walk and my stroll came to a sudden halt, confronted by a brutal four-lane urban motorway. The two lanes which lead into the heart of the city were blocked by a tailback of cars and buses. The other two lanes were almost empty. The wide pavement seemed reserved for cyclists in tight clothes swerving around those who dared infringe on their space, trying to catch one of the overloaded red buses.
A castle-like wall of tall concrete and glass office blocks dominated the other side of the motorway, towering over the lower apartment blocks. The residents lived in eternal twilight. A long line of people snaking along the opposite pavement attracted my attention. It was a queue, an orderly queue, which seemed to emerge from the entrance to one of the office blocks. The queue must have been a couple of hundred yards long. Two uniformed security guards stood at the head of the queue, penguin-like with stiff legs and arms folded over their pouting chests.
What where they all queuing for at this time in the morning? And what was so attractive in the office building that guards were needed to stop the crowd invading the place? I could of course approach the guards and ask, but didn’t want to risk being banished to the end of the queue – or worse. Perhaps I could approach somebody in the queue, but that could be interpreted as an attempt at queue-jumping, an action not to be recommended. Anyway, I didn’t feel like risking my life by crossing the road in the rush-hour traffic.
Pulled out my cell phone and checked that I wouldn’t be late. Ten minutes to satisfy my curiosity. I glanced up at the office block, trying to find a clue to what made it so attractive. A few logo signs broke up the anonymous façade, shining like gold in the morning sun: The Tax Office, The National Insurance Board, The Migration Authority and an obscure building company answering to the name Vesta.
The Tax Office seemed an unlikely candidate for an early-morning queue, most business done on line and the wrong time of year for tax returns. A run on the National Insurance Board did not seem imminent. Most people kept away from their probing questions about ill health or disabilities which make employment out of the question. The Migration Board, on the other hand, was popular with those hoping to win the residence lottery or desperately trying to avoid being deported to misery in Afghanistan.
First the queue was just an anonymous line of people. Now I zoomed in on the individual members, starting with the lucky ones at the head of snake and then slowly following the snake all the way to the tails-end of latecomers. Some, from their dress or colour, looked like clients of the Migration Board, but they were a clear minority. Most were standing alone, youngish, twenty something to fortyish, and with a sprinkling of clinging, young couples. Most had briefcases, bags or urban rucksacks, attributes of the working generation. They seemed to be quite happy to stand and wait. My final analysis, or guess, was that they were queueing for tickets to put their names down for a new apartment from one of the housing sharks.
After drinking coffee and chatting for an hour or so, I went back to check on the progress of the queue. Sadly the queue had dispersed, the security guards had withdrawn and traffic was in full flow along the motorway. It was no longer possible to ask what they were queuing for and I had sadly missed my chance to join the queue.
Thinking about this on my train I recalled a story about queues in the Soviet Union, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, or possibly Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The advice given to a newcomer to Moscow was, if you see a queue, join it! So he did. It was a long queue, running around a large, high building with red-brick façade. It surprised him that most of those already queuing were women, often accompanied by young children and carrying large, undefinable bundles. The queue hardly moved. He stamped his feet to keep the circulation going. Occasionally women came trudging along the queue, holding a loaf of bread or bunch of carrots in front of them. He was curious but knew that in Moscow you don’t ask questions. After an almost stationary hour, he was beginning to doubt about the advice given to him. Perhaps they had been pulling his leg.
Then he saw a youngish woman coming along the side of the queue, struggling with a large bundle wrapped in an old sheet and with two small boys clinging to the hem of her coat, which flapped in the breeze. She looked tired and desperate. Half expecting her to stumble, he instinctively took half a step to the side, whereupon she squeezed in front of him, dragging the boys after her, and shoved a loaf of bread to him. He opened his mouth to say something, not sure what, but thought the better of it, took the bread and moved away. They needed his place in the queue better than he did. Shoving the loaf inside his jacket, he headed for the corner of the building, following the queue to its source. It started at the high metal gates which formed the entrance to Lubjanka Prison. It was visiting day. Join the queue!