By Aidan Ryan
I don’t know how I discovered the restaurant I lovingly call “that halal place,” but I think it was on a cold February night, while walking an unlit part of Main Street with my comrade, Patrick Clancy, both of us beat down, strung out, and looking for our next fix. It was a loveless night; the wind found its way through our buttonholes, and even the street lamps burned cold.
And then a faceless figure in a camelskin coat appeared out of a white portal, and the smell of pungent Arab-meat filled the empty night. So we stepped inside.
We found ourselves in some weird fluorescent crossroads, where a spice shop met a deli and a discount cosmetics store, and were joined by some benches in the middle seemingly transplanted out of an urban park, or maybe the Galleria food court. There were deconstructed cardboard boxes over the tile floor; I don’t know why.
Anyway, we were hungry, so we ordered hoagies.
“What kind,” the man asked.
“Steak,” we said in unison.
The man spoke broken English. He stared at us out of wet black pebbles, set in a tan, taut face, and he didn’t blink.
“Large,” he said, “small.”
“Large,” we said, “Everything on ‘em.”
“Peppers,” he said.
“Everything. Peppers. All of it.”
And so we waited.
For a while we didn’t look at the fellow making our hoagies. There was just too much in the store to catch our eyes – it was a discordant jumble of soft drinks, bulk bags of rice and jars of spices, banana pepper rings, shampoo, conditioner and boxed perfume. There was even a sort of clear plastic display pyramid of sunglasses and little feathers that girls could hang from their hair, maybe. On every wall you could see writing in some Indic script, and a Bollywood gameshow played on a TV that you’d have to crane or twist your neck to look at, no matter where you sat.
And then, about the same time, our eyes drifted to the silent chef. The TV noise dulled to a muted hum, and the Third World consumerist riot all around me fell out of focus, and blurred into a watercolor rainbow. The man’s face, though, was clear, and hard; and on it was etched, in straight dark lines, a picture of Ultimate Sadness.
And then the hoagies were wrapped and bagged and placed on the counter; we rose to pay him, and out of nowhere a little boy appeared, and started chirping in some foreign tongue. The deep-seated sorrow of the man’s face had unsettled us, though, and we felt uncomfortable staying; so, still hungry and cold and unaware of what waited for us, wrapped in foil and paper, in the plastic bag hung gripped tight in my fingers, we retreated to the Amherst subway station, to return to Canisius and hunker down in the WIRE clubroom for the night.
By the time we sat down we were growing faint, as both of us regularly starve ourselves so as to conserve our piddling RA meal plan stipends through the entire semester. It took all our strength to unwrap the hoagies. Miraculously they had survived a walk in sub-zero temperatures, and a short ride down the drafty Main Street subway line: they steamed when we peeled back the foil.
And then, even before my nose could apprehend the strange Eastern spice-smell that rose up all around us, stronger even than the first that had lured us to that lonely bodega in the first place, I found a riotous orgy of taste and new sense-experiences scarcely understood had begun in my mouth – and it showed no signs of stopping.
Mushrooms, onions, hot peppers, unctuous oils and spices both familiar and transcendent mixed with the mystery meat, this miracle wrapped in bread, and Clancy and I were initiated at once into a sort of Dionysian mystery of taste. We could not describe the experience adequately, though we tried. The damning thing was that while the flavors were new, fresh and nameless as the wet, prelapsarian Earth, they brought comfort, understanding and an inner calm that paradoxically sought to express itself in pointlessly repetitive observations.
“This . . . this is damn good,” I said.
“Goddamn it,” Clancy said, “This . . . is goddamn good.”
“I don’t . . .” I said.
“I don’t either,” Clancy said.
Since that night, Clancy and I have returned many times to the “Street Cafe and Halal Foods,” conveniently equidistant from a Rite-Aid, two liquor stores, and the Amherst Street station – a single subway stop from our home at Canisius. We’ve pondered the mystery of the sad-faced man, and of his meat, and though his visage never changes, we like to think that maybe, just maybe, our bi-weekly visits bring him some quantum of solace.
We have developed one timid theory, over the weeks. We think that the secret to his incredible taste is, in fact, his vast and inarticulate sadness. That in fact we taste his tears – naturally spiced with sea-salt, blown in on the Bengal wind.
But this answer, though convincing, does not abate the question: something remains unresolved, and the Man of Ultimate Sorrow continues to cook, noble and straight shouldered, at his post on Main Street. We will never truly understand you, your mustard or your melancholia, O Chef of Infinite Indian Sadness, O tickler of my tastebuds, deflowerer of all that is Western and right-angled. And while I cannot hope to see, I take comfort in knowing, and in hoping that my fellow travelers and halal connoisseurs might heed these words and hop with me onto that next outbound train.