Tribal

Tribal music is throbbing tonight from River Records
As I leave the warmth of The Hunan Kitchen
And make my way along snow-struck Niagara Street.
A heavy drum beat that might have prompted
Even the tribal elders to join the dance.
It follows me, fading, as I follow the smoke
Of my own breath the few blocks to my car.
Nobody out braving the cold tonight,
Unless I count the man bedded down
In the dark doorway of Safeway Appliances.
For a moment, the inch-thick blanket of snow
Flung over him and his cart seems to translate him
Into a marble monument to an unknown refugee
Whose tribal village had to be abandoned.
Maybe its wells dried up.
Maybe it was torched by soldiers or gangs.
Here he sleeps by the roadside. There,
He’d be cozy under his own roof
With his wife and children, or lodged as a guest
With a family inspired by the tribal doctrine
That regards the roofless as god-protected.
If this night turns out as cold as predicted,
A van on the prowl may cart him down
To the homeless shelter. As I pass him,
My wish that he wake up rested
Leaves nothing changed. When I reach my car,
It’s the work of a moment to brush the snow off
And ease out into the trickle of late-night traffic
With “Only a Paper Moon” on the golden-oldie station
For company. Back in the Thirties, when this song was new,
A man like the sleeper might have ridden the rails
With a tribe of nomads looking for work.
Now he’s simply someone soon to wake up
To the chilly fact he lacks an address
And isn’t likely to find one.
If better fortune finds him, it will take the form
Of someone enrolled in a tribe I don’t belong to,
Bound by a code I have no trouble
Admiring from a distance as suiting
The gifts of its eager adherents exactly.
For people like that, such kindness comes naturally,
I tell myself. For me to attempt it
I’d have to pretend to be someone else.

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