Down These Mean Streets

by Piri Thomas

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Prologue and Chapters 1–8 Summary

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Piri stands on the roof of his building in Spanish Harlem and describes how the night covers the truth of the city. In the shadows, Piri finds the joys and the sadness the Barrio holds. He feels anger and hate grow within him, and realizes that these emotions are the only thing that will save him.

Chapter 1: Cutting Out

Piri is twelve years old, walking the streets alone at two o’clock in the morning after a physical altercation with his father. He feels he is punished for the things his four younger siblings do and decides to run away from home. He heads to the building across the street to sleep on the roof.

After hearing two junkies shoot up, Piri heads home and knocks on his door. His father, known as Poppa, answers—which is a surprise to Piri, since Poppa should be working. Piri heads to his room and hears his father say he will punish him tomorrow for staying out late. Piri is angry that no one realized he ran away.

Chapter 2: Puerto Rican Paradise

The next day, Piri’s father doesn’t speak to him and begins a long stretch of silence after losing his night job. It’s 1941, and that the Great Depression still hangs over Harlem.

The following winter, the family huddles together, drinking hot cocoa as Momma talks about Puerto Rico. She says she was poor there, but there was nice weather, good food, and loving people, because everyone in Puerto Rico is poor.

The next day, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The only good news it brings is a job for Poppa at an airplane factory. The job makes things a little better, but nothing really changes in Harlem or for Piri. He muses, “War or peace—what difference did it really make?”

Chapter 3: Playing It Smooth

It’s summertime, and Piri is thirteen. He wants to be seen as a man, “an hombre,” but he doesn’t feel it in his heart. He connects these feelings to his father and questions why the two of them don’t get along. Piri wonders if it’s because he’s the oldest or because he has the darkest skin.

One night, as Piri bathes, Poppa walks into the bathroom and unplugs the drain. Piri tries to get his attention by holding his breath underwater, but by the time Piri resurfaces, Poppa is gone. Piri cries, thinking that his father doesn’t care, but as Piri heads to his room, Poppa tells him he did a great job holding his breath.

Chapter 4: Alien Turf

Piri’s family moves to 114th Street after his baby brother Ricardo dies. He describes it as an Italian block where no one looks like him. When Piri comes home from his first day at school, a group of Italian boys call him racial slurs and jump him. Piri promises himself that he will stop being afraid and won’t run next time.

One afternoon, the same group jumps him again, but this time, Piri doesn’t run. He hits one of the bigger kids, Tony, square in the nose. Tony retaliates by throwing asphalt in Piri’s eyes. Everyone stops as Piri stands there, blinded. A boy called Rocky comes to Piri’s aid, yelling at Tony for fighting dirty. Rocky and the boys guide Piri home and ask him not to snitch.

Poppa rushes Piri to the hospital. His father tells him he will have to stay there for a few days to recover. Piri fears staying alone, but his father promises he will return the following day. As Poppa leaves, he calls Piri an hombre.

(This entire section contains 1326 words.)

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Chapter 5: Home Relief

Two days later, Piri is home. The Italian kids stop bothering him, but his father still wants to move. After another job loss, the family is in trouble.

Piri goes to the Home Relief office with Momma to help explain why Poppa lost his job. Upon entering the building, it’s clear Piri isn’t the only child who must act as an interpreter. Piri and Momma sit for a long time, listening to the stories of the families pleading their cases. When their number is called, they speak to the investigator, who writes down their needs.

Chapter 6: If You Ain’t Got Heart, You Ain’t Got Nada

Piri’s father moves the family back to Spanish Harlem, to a place on 104th Street. Piri is excited, but he will have to win his turf all over again, even if it’s against his “own people.”

At his new school, a boy named Waneko approaches him. Piri knows he will have to fight him in order to be accepted. After the fight, Piri wins the others’ respect, but he knows he’ll have to work to maintain it.

Piri’s group, known as the TNTs, ends up fighting another crew called the Jolly Rogers. The fight goes as planned—until the JRs incorporate a surprise attack from other members of their crew. Waneko pulls a knife, and Piri pulls out a garbage can lid, which he uses as brass knuckles. The two slash and punch the JRs until they can get away.

The next day, a TNT member named Alfredo suggests seeking out a group of “faggots” he knows. No one in the group wants to go, but if they don’t, they’ll be considered “punks.” Piri is filled with fear as they walk to the apartment. They all start drinking, and the apartment’s inhabitants tell “war stories” of sexcapades and rape. As they talk, Piri smokes pot to the point of passing out. When he wakes up, a trans woman named Concha is touching him. Piri feels paralyzed but notices everyone else in the room is also participating in some kind of sex act. When Concha finishes, Piri is confused. He grabs a joint and leaves to get some air.

Chapter 7: Little Red Schoolhouse

Piri gets in an altercation at school. He has to use the restroom, but his teacher won’t let him leave. Piri tries to leave anyway, but the teacher grabs his shirt. He turns around and hits her as he begins to wet himself. The teacher cries out that he hit her, and Piri runs, but the principal follows him home.

Once inside his building, Piri yells for help. A Puerto Rican woman named Miss Washington opens her door and steps in front of Piri, blocking him. The principal assures the woman that he won’t harm Piri, but she doesn’t believe him. Miss Washington threatens the principal, who is stammering over his words, until he leaves.

Chapter 8: In Business

Piri wakes up early and goes to the corner to shine shoes, but he knows he won’t make big money from shoe shining. He decides to open a lemonade stand with his crew, but he wants to set it up the “Harlem” way. The TNTs go to the local A&P and steal as much as they can before getting caught. When they get home, they combine their haul and open four stands.

Out of supplies, Piri suggests they go to another A&P and steal more items. They hop over the subway turnstile and head uptown. As they look around one of the bodegas, they see the cashier hide a bag of money from the bolita (lottery). Piri decides to come back later and steal it.

That night, they break into the store and steal as much as they can, but in the middle of their haul, the cops come. The boys bail. They try to walk slowly in the shadows, but a cop spots them. They head down an alley, but their only way out is to run toward the police or climb a large fence. Piri chooses the fence. He hears a gunshot but makes it over, and the rest of his crew is caught. Piri yells at them to keep their mouths shut and runs home.


Chapters 9–13 Summary