Down These Mean Streets
By Piri Thomas
– Also know as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem, El Barrio (in English, ‘The Place’) is where a fair portion of the story takes place. Piri consider El Barrio his home and finds that the people who live there are the ones that he is most likely to get along with. Below are a couple links that give us a better understanding and conception of the mood of El Barrio.
– This is a map highlighting what is considered to be El Barrio (or East Harlem)
– This is a youtube video that shows some of East Harlem
– And finally, a link to El Museo del Barrio (which just featured a commemorative presentation on the life of Piri Thomas on February 18th)
– “Momma picked up a hammer and began to beat-up the radiator that’s copped a plea from so many beatings. Poor steam radiator, how could it give out heat when it was freezing itself? The hollow sounds Momma beat out of it brought echoes from other freezing people in the building. Everybody picked up the beat and it seemed a crazy, good idea.” (Page 9)
– This quote follows Momma cursing about the landlord, and how heartless he is for not turning up the heat – we see just how poor Piri’s family is, but also see that they are not alone in their poverty. The echoing radiator-beatings go to show that Piri’s whole building is one big community of people who are also cold, and poor.
– “Just being a kid, nothing different from all the other kids, was good. Even when you slept over at some other kids house, it was almost like being in your own house. They all had kids, rats, and roaches in common. And life was full of happy moments – spitting out of tenement windows at unsuspecting people below, popping off with sling shots, or even better, with Red Ryder BB rifles.” (Page 70)
– Piri explains that these other houses seem comfortable to him – roaches and rats only add to his level of comfort. Most of us cannot imagine such a scene, let alone sleeping there. In Piri’s mindset, poverty is all he’s known, and his experience with poverty makes him much more comfortable in these situations. He also describes for us what the impoverished children have to do for fun, which alludes to his willingness to get in trouble later in life, too.
– “It was all part of becoming hombre, of wanting to have a beard to shave, a driver’s license, a draft card, a ‘stoneness’ which enabled you to go to a bar like a man. Nobody really digs a kid. But a man – cool. Nobody can tell you what to do – and nobody better. You’d smack him down.” (Page 15/16)
– This quote shows a list of things that young Piri considers rites of passage – while the first few are a bit comical, they take a more serious turn toward his views on adulthood. He has this preconceived notion that noone messes with an hombre, and if they do, he reacts violently. Instantly, we understand that in Piri’s conception of adulthood, violence is key.
– “Pops was turning away, losing interest, but who cared? I mean, he had a right to be tired; he needed some rest after working for a wife and kids. I couldn’t expect him to be mushy over me all the time. Sure, it was all right for the other kids; they were small and they needed more kisses and stuff. But I was the oldest, the firstborn, and besides, I was hombre.” (Page 23)
– Being an hombre for Piri means that he must cope with the lack of affection from his father that he wants so bad. He knows, though, that as the oldest child, he needs to be the hombre and allow his father to save all of his affection energy for his brothers and sisters that he feels need it more.
– “Poppa rubbed my foot gently and then slapped me the same gentle way on the side of my leg. ‘Be good, son,’ he said and walked away. I heard the door open and the nurse telling him about how they were gonna move me to the ward ‘cause I was out of danger. ‘Son,’ Poppa called back, ‘you’re un hombre.’
I felt proud as hell.” (Page 38)
– Piri’s father telling him that he’s ‘un hombre’ is the moment that Piri had been waiting for – he forgets that he’s in the hospital and just basks in the glory of his father telling him he’s a man. The affection that Piri finally gets from Poppa is enough to make him feel like nothing had really happened, and satisfies his thirst for affection for the time being.
“Shut up,” Poppa said softly. “I know you ain’t, but it’s faster this way.”… “We’ll get a cab, son.” Poppa said. His voice loved me. (Page 34)
This gives insight into how Piri expects to receive affection from his father. The tone of a voice and his interest in helping Piri let him know that he is cared for. Why isn’t affection shown straight forward between this son and father? Is it because of the father/son dynamic or masculine norms?
“Poppa rubbed my foot gently and then slapped me the same gentle way on the side of my leg. ‘Be good, son,’ he said and walked away. I heard the door open and the nurse telling him about how they were gonna move me to the ward ‘cause I was out of danger. ‘Son,’ Poppa called back, ‘you’re un hombre.’
I felt proud as hell.” (Page 38)
Furthering the point, this quote shows the verbal exchanges that translate into affection. It is easy to feel the sense of happiness Piri experiences in this moment. He wants approval and love from his father. Piri doesn’t expect affection from him. He actually refers to his younger siblings as needing their father’s affection but Piri, being an hombre, doesn’t. What does it mean that an hombre doesn’t receive affection from other men? They are able to
receive affection from women…
“I looked out of the corner of my eyes to dig Momma. She was holding her sides, my fat little Momma, tears rolling out of her eyes. Caramba, it was great to see Momma happy. I’d go through the rest of my life making like funnies if I was sure Momma would be happy.” (Page 19)
Piri showers his mother with affection telling her he loves her and she is able to reciprocate this message openly. Piri wants to see his mother happy and feels this is part of his responsibility in life. Why does he not feel the same towards his father? He also wants to protect his mother emotionally…
Momma was having her troubles, too. One day she told me that Poppa had another woman.
“What are you saying, Moms?”
“I said that your father has another woman.”
“Naw, Mom’s ,it ain’t so. Man! Pops is only for you.”
“No, hijo, I know. Her name is Ruthie.”
I knew it, too, but I’d lie my ass off to make it a lie so that Moms wouldn’t have to make it any harder for herself. (Page 88)
There are many times in the story so far that Piri has lied to his mother to protect her from the truth. When he was a kid and got into the brutal fight that sent him to the hospital he told her that he was just playing with kids, not fighting. He said that same thing to his father but it was for different reason. He also lies to her when he goes back to Harlem, telling her that he has a good job at the docks so she doesn’t find out that he is dealing marijuana. It is evident throughout the story that he feels the need to keep information from her that would upset her.
“If I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment: I felt grande and bad.” (Page 106)
The first dimension of belonging we see is with Piri and his friends. When he moves into new neighborhoods he needs to be initiated to belong. He goes through extreme lengths in order to gain this. The quote here gives us direct insight to how much Piri values belonging with his friends. It is a necessary component of his lifestyle.
“But mentally I measured it against my brothers’, whose noses were sharp, straight, and placed neat-like in the middle of their paddy fair faces. Why did this have to happen to me? Why couldn’t I be born like them?” (page 121)
Piri is very caught up internally wondering what race be belongs to. He feels that he is Puerto Rican like his family tells him growing up, but when others start referring to him as black he questions if he is. He also questions his belonging in his family because he has darker traits like his father while his siblings are light skinned like his mother.
“So what the F__ am I? Something Poppa an’ Momma picked out the garbage dump?” I was jumping stink inside and I answered him like I felt it. “Look, man, better believe it, I’m one of ‘you-all.’ Am I your brother or ain’t I?”
“Yeah, you’re my brother, and James an’ Sis, and we all come out of Momma an’ Poppa- but we ain’t Negroes. We’re Puerto Ricans, an’ we’re white.” (page 144/145)
Jose is confident in his identity racially and maybe that is because of the way he looks and also his age when moving into the suburbs. Piri however is caught up in turmoil trying to straighten his own identity out so he can finally feel like he belongs. It is hard for him to relate to his siblings since he looks different and also spent crucial years of his life growing up in a different environment than them.