Down These Mean Streets Summary
Down These Mean Streets is a memoir by Piri Thomas that tells the story of his life and attachment to Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s.
- Piri is twelve years old at the book’s beginning. His family is Puerto Rican, but he has the darkest skin among them and struggles to understand passing and colorism throughout his life.
- Piri experiences gang fights, robberies, and drug addiction. Eventually, he is part of a robbery gone wrong and shoots a police officer, which leads to his arrest and imprisonment.
- By the memoir’s end, Piri is twenty-eight and out of prison on probation.
Last Updated on May 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016
Set in the 1940s and 1950s, Down These Mean Streets is a 1967 memoir that follows the life of Piri Thomas in Spanish Harlem. When the book opens, Piri is twelve years old, yearning to become a man. By the end of the narrative, Piri is twenty-eight and has served six years in prison. The story takes the reader through the depths of Piri’s personal hell and back, and offers a lesson about identity in the face of racism and street justice.
Piri Thomas comes from a Puerto Rican family and lives in Spanish Harlem; however, he has the darkest skin of his family members and feels he is treated differently by his father because of it. As he grows and changes schools, he realizes that he is treated no better than a black man, which causes an internal conflict of racism, hatred, and confusion.
In his teen years, Piri and his father don’t seem to get along. Piri is always pulling some kind of stunt to get his father’s attention, but his father, working two jobs to keep the family supported, has no time or energy to engage in a meaningful way. Piri understands how tired his father is, but that understanding does not mean that Piri doesn’t need his father’s love and emotional support.
Piri’s father tries to move the family away from the streets of Harlem, but Piri seems to find trouble everywhere he goes. He feels he must “have heart” and prove himself by creating a tough reputation so that no one will bother him.
After some trouble in an Italian neighborhood and a job loss, Piri’s father moves the family back to Spanish Harlem, to a place on 104th Street. Piri falls in with a group of boys called the TNTs and begins to feel at home. The group steals and gets in gang fights, but they stay out of any major trouble with the police.
After Piri’s younger brother dies, his father moves the family to Long Island, but Piri quickly realizes he doesn’t belong in its whitewashed reality after an incident at school. He feels more comfortable in Harlem and decides to return there and call it home.
At first, Piri stays with various friends and relatives. Eventually, though, he is sleeping on the streets and selling drugs to make fast money. Things begin to change when Piri meets a Puerto Rican girl named Trina, but Piri starts to snort heroin, which causes him to lose sight of reality and himself.
Piri has some ups and downs in the drug world, but he gets back on his feet when he meets a black man named Brew. Originally from Alabama, Brew tries to help Piri work out his prejudices and his racial identity, as Brew is the only one to acknowledge and talk about Piri’s skin color. Brew feels that it doesn’t matter how Piri identifies; he will always be seen as black because of his dark skin.
Piri has it in his head that he is not black, but it’s clear he is not light-skinned like his family and the other Puerto Ricans he knows. He needs to see for himself who and what he is. Piri and Brew enlist in the National Maritime Union and head to the South, where Piri experiences the reality of racism and segregation firsthand. Eventually, he starts working on other ships and travels the world. He realizes he’s black everywhere he goes.
Piri heads home without Brew and starts up his life again in Harlem, but life takes a turn for the worse when Piri’s mother dies...
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of an illness. Her death and Piri’s anger with his father, who has been having an affair with a white woman, severs Piri’s tie to Long Island, and he is left to make it by himself on the streets of Harlem.
Piri starts selling heroin and eventually gets hooked. With the help of his old friend Waneko and Waneko’s mom, Piri gets clean and turns his life around, but trouble stays near Piri as he starts robbing stores and bars with his friend Louie and two guys from Newark. They stop after a “stickup” job goes wrong and Piri kills a car dealer.
Piri ships out to sea again. When he returns to find Trina away in Puerto Rico, Piri sleeps with a woman named Dulcien, who becomes pregnant, and he promises to help her with money. Meanwhile, Trina returns, and he still wants to make a life with her. Louie comes back into his life and offers Piri another quick job. However, Piri has more to lose this time around.
After another robbery gone wrong, Piri shoots a police officer and is sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison. During this time, he fights to maintain his sanity and “keep his cool” while also staying safe in prison. Even so, he tells himself he needs to stay uncomfortable: he doesn’t want to become someone who is unsuited for life on the outside.
Prison life is hard on Piri’s spirit, but while there, he receives a high school diploma, learns about Islam, and receives a certification in brickmasonry. After one failed parole attempt in his fourth year, Piri is released in his sixth year on good behavior.
When Piri leaves prison, he faces two warrants for old charges of robbery and is arrested. He is sentenced to three years of probation rather than further prison time. He stays with his aunt in Harlem, gets a job, and goes to church, but he knows something is missing. He goes to visit Trina and his old neighborhood, but everything has changed. Trina is married with a kid, most of his friends are in prison, and the friends who are still around are junkies.
After running into an old friend who is strung out on heroin, Piri realizes that he cannot return to a life of struggle. It’s time to move forward and leave the “mean streets” for good.