He died an icon, a proverbial legend in his own time. When Mean Streets was published in 1967, Thomas was one of the first modern-day Latinos to publish a book in English. He followed this break-out with two novels, a collection of short stories, and many poems, which he termed “wordsongs” and performed in varied venues all over the world. Yet it’s Mean Streets, which has been continuously in print, that cemented Thomas’ reputation as a literary tour de force and which readers most associate with Piri Thomas.
The book’s enduring fame is strongly warranted. One reviewer calls it “three books in one”: a coming-of-age saga chronicling the tragedies, crimes, and entanglements in Thomas’ life; an examination of the identity crisis many disadvantaged, mixed heritage youths undergo; and a story showing readers the bristling underside of Piri’s six years in the infamous Sing-Sing Prison of New York. Yet the author expertly weaves these separate themes together in his fast-paced, brutally authentic recreation of his difficult life growing up poor, half-Black, half-Puerto Rican, in an era of entrenched racism uglier than it now is.
The book begins in 1941, shortly before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and dragged the United States into World War II. To 12-year-old Piri in New York’s Harlem during the “Great Hunger called Depression,” the big “rumble” means that his father now has a decent job in an airplane factory. Otherwise: “Life in the streets didn’t change much. The bitter cold was followed by the sticky heat….War or peace—what difference did it really make?” Indeed, there is no distinction between Piri’s world before and after the great rumble, because his wars with his family, peers, racism, violence, drugs, crime, and society in general are just beginning and will disrupt his world for decades to come.
Piri is a dark-skinned child in a bi-racial family where, other than his Black father, everyone is light-skinned and can pass for White. He frequently clashes with his father, who treats him with less love and harsher physical discipline than Piri’s four younger siblings receive. Convinced that his father doesn’t truly love him because of his darkness, Piri seeks solace in the streets, where he navigates the unwritten laws of survival in the barrio: Prove yourself to be tough. Survive beatings at the hands of racist kids and rival gang members. Fight back hard. Don’t rat out enemies, and be “cool.” Above all, be loyal to your friends, going with the flow, “playing it smooth.” He emphasizes: “Never punk out.”
So by the time Piri is 16, he belongs to a gang, beats up rivals, uses drugs, slugs a teacher, engages in homosexuality, and robs a store: all in the name of group loyalty. When his parents move the family to Long Island for “better opportunities,” Piri is reviled by racist schoolmates, and he drops out of school to return to Harlem, often living on the streets. It breaks his mother’s heart, but Piri yearns for the security of the old neighborhood. His life of crime in Harlem, filled as it is with hunger, poverty, drug addiction, and isolation from family, is nonetheless tied to camaraderie, to unconditional acceptance, and is a siren’s song Piri cannot resist. He states: “All for the feeling of belonging, for the price of being called ‘one of us.’ Isn’t there a better way to make the scene and be accepted on the street without having to go through hell?”
Piri undertakes a double-layered odyssey to discover who and what he is. On the one hand, it’s a physical journey that takes him, as a teenager, through the Deep South, around the world with the Merchant Marines, and back and forth between Harlem and Long Island. Outside of Harlem, he faces discrimination almost everywhere he goes. It seems that Piri seeks a place that will prove his worldview wrong, that he wants proof that his skin color does not determine his value as a human being. Unfortunately, in these journeys, Piri does not find such a place.
On another layer, his odyssey is highly personal and emotional as he struggles to believe that he is loved fully in his own family. He tries to reconcile his affection for his family with his bitterness toward their “whiteness.” It’s an eternal battle in his heart. His utter devotion to his mother opposes his antipathy toward his father, whom he sees as having rejected his own Black heritage with lies about his lineage. Piri’s hatred of Whites is profound, but this creates immense conflict. He says: “It was like hating Momma for the color she was and Poppa for the color he wasn’t.” He also states: “It ain’t just that I don’t wanna be what I’m supposed to be, it’s just that I’m fightin’ me and the whole goddamn world at the same time.” It’s one of the book’s great ironies that, as Piri struggles to win full acceptance from his family, he rejects them and ostracizes himself.
An armed robbery in which Piri shoots a police officer and is almost shot to death lands him in prison, where, with time, he finally finds himself—through carefully choosing his con friends, studying every major religion, attending classes, and eventually turning to writing. “Every day,” the author writes, “brought a painful awareness of the sweetness of being free and the horror of prison’s years going down the toilet bowl.” He sought “a release from the overpowering hatred against a society that makes canaries out of human beings.” In a heart-wrenching reflection, he adds: “I wanted to tell somebody I wanted to be somebody.” The peace and release he ultimately finds are an apt denouement to his evolution.
Down These Mean Streets is a gritty, unflinching portrayal of one man’s decline and renascence. Piri Thomas’ rat-a-tat-tat dialogue injects a sensual immediacy that grabs the reader and doesn’t loosen up. The economical descriptions of the people, good and bad, who cross Piri’s path and fill his life are true-to-life. But the greatest treasures between the book covers are Thomas’ thoughtful, lyrical passages that underscore his renown as a poet. When Piri most doubts himself, when he most fervently fishes in his mind for answers to his fears, when he most reflects upon his learnings in prison—and his realization that, as he says, “Nothing is run the same, nothing stays the same. You can’t make yesterday come back today”—the author’s poetic words soar through the air and lend a gentle, almost spiritual layer to his book.