It was a tightly knit, irritable conga line, every inch of progress marked by a huffy shuffle of feet. As every prospective link in this miserable chain arrived and gawped at the length of the thing, he or she would curse, start to walk away, curse again, and finally join the damn thing. Some people would stand at an ill- defined angle - not quite behind, practically next to, the person in front - as a minor gesture of defiance.
One young man was standing in the part of the queue just outside the building. This guy had sworn just a bit louder, sucked his teeth a whole lot longer and generally expressed his displeasure more than anyone else.
When a new service counter opened he dashed for it, the way people do in supermarkets when a new till opens. The man smiled in a 'I'm quick, you lot are thick' kind of way. The queue glared back at him, as the clerk behind his window told the man to get to the back of the queue. The man's smile faded, and he went off in a strop to join his original spot in the queue, cutting in front of an elderly man, who said, 'Black bastard', not quite under his breath.
Suddenly, the queue- jumper had a metal rubbish bin in his hands, ready for hurling, and he shouted: 'Say it again]'
'Black bastard,' obliged the other guy, much against the queue's better judgement. Someone grabbed the bin out of the guy's hands, which were now free to push the older guy into the wall. A large black woman left her place in the queue, helped the older guy to his feet and started to scream at the queue-jumper. He called her a fat, interfering whore, and she called him worse. A very pretty, well- dressed black woman shouted: 'Guys like you piss me off. You let the whole race down, behaving like that, rising to his bait.
It doesn't have to be like this.' It was an eloquent speech, but she blew it by punctuating it with expletives, most involving the young black guy's mother.
All the black people in the queue were taking sides, yelling and not looking so bored any more. All the white people in the queue were following the action with muted, swivelling heads, as at Wimbledon, except the woman in front of me, who muttered: 'Language.'
I was just trying to figure out whether this was black v white, young generation v old, or just a couple of bad- tempered guys in a queue. It hardly mattered. The buzzer sounded, and it was my turn.