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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Halal Evening

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG

Let me catch this moment. I am making a pilgrimage to the late-night halal food stand at the corner of 53rd and Sixth. It is Nov. 30, and the temperature at 8 p.m. is 66 degrees. I used to walk right past the halal food stands on Sixth Avenue, wondering at the long lines waiting along the curb. I always slowed a little in the curried air, imagining a cartoonlike tendril of scent beckoning with a crooked finger. Now I join the lines, and I know that at certain times of day the world boils down to some very simple questions: lamb or chicken, pita or rice, white sauce or red sauce.

December will begin in a few hours, and it is 66 degrees. The temperature feels permissive. At least that is how some of the Midtown crowd reads it, as though this were a pleasant late summer’s night or a release from the clutches of a season that hasn’t clutched us yet. The streets are filled with people in sartorial confusion, in the undress of summer, the overdress of winter and everything in between. Times Square is jammed with tourists seized for the instant in the flash of their digital cameras. There is no reason to go inside. The whole city seems to have poured into the streets. Only a few faces show the nagging dread this warmth carries with it. “If this is November ...” some of them are thinking.

It is still early, so the line is short at the halal food stand. The culinary dialect here is not the same as the one at the halal stand I call home, and I get the wrong order. It makes no difference. If it were 28 degrees, as it should be, the scent from the grill would seem tightly bounded by the night, everyone huddling a little closer as if they could get warm in the smell of curried chicken. But not tonight. There is an urgency close in, where change is being made and food handed over in saffron plastic bags, but that is all the urgency there is.
For some reason the word civilization is floating in my mind. Not the honorific use of the word but a use that might be analogous to “ecosystem.” What put the word there isn’t the crowds — so diffuse in their purposes — or the everyday ironic familiarity of eating halal food in the beating heart of the Christmas rush. What puts the word there is the warmth. It makes the strangeness, the self-containment of this city life, more palpable than it has ever seemed before. It raises a corner of the carpet on which we are all standing.

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