Down These Mean Streets Characters
The main characters in Down These Mean Streets are Piri Thomas, Poppa, and Momma.
- Piri Thomas, the memoir’s narrator and author, is a Puerto Rican man from Spanish Harlem. Throughout the book, he struggles with identity, poverty, colorism, manhood, and his relationship with his father.
- Poppa is Piri’s father. Like Piri, he is darker-skinned than the rest of their family. Poppa works multiple jobs to support his family.
- Momma is Piri’s mother. She dies during the course of the memoir, and Piri seems lost without her guidance and support.
Last Updated on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325
Piri is the main character and author of the memoir Down These Mean Streets. He begins his narrative at twelve years old, looking to become a man, but ultimately reaches that goal through a six-year stint in prison. More than anything, Piri wants a good relationship with his father, but his family is poor, forcing his father to work multiple jobs to support them.
Piri consistently wants his father’s approval and feels he is treated differently from his other siblings. Through Piri’s internal conflict about his skin color, he is able to confront his father about his treatment. During one conversation before Piri leaves for the South, Piri learns that he and his father share not only their looks but also their sense of confusion when it comes to how to act based on race and cultural upbringing. But this conversation is not enough for Piri. He and his father never quite seem to reconcile their differences.
Piri has a heart of gold. He wants to prove himself to his family and his community, but making decisions based on his emotions repeatedly gets him in a world of trouble. Piri feels that being a man means maintaining a reputation, but this belief leads him to gang life on his block. He may seem tough on the outside, but inside, Piri is a scared little kid looking for his father’s approval and the security of a stable life.
However, Piri’s actions lead him far away from those goals. After a robbery gone wrong, Piri shoots a police officer and ends up in prison for six years. Prison life finally makes Piri realize that hustling in gangs on the street will only get him back in jail or killed. Piri learns that he has to be loyal to himself, but it takes prison time to find out exactly who he is.
Poppa, whose name is John Thomas, is Piri’s father. He is a hardworking man who works multiple jobs, day and night, to save money and support his family. Piri is constantly looking to Poppa for approval, but he never seems to find it—mainly because Poppa is constantly exhausted from working, which pays off when he is able to move the family to Long Island and into a safe neighborhood. However, this move causes a larger divide between father and son.
As Piri gets older, he realizes that he doesn’t look like the rest of his white-passing family; he looks like his dark-skinned father and comes to resent this fact as he navigates the largely white school on Long Island. Piri’s father admits that he’s had the same internal and external conflicts regarding race; he is just trying to do right by his family and keep them safe, revealing his concern for those he loves. For Piri, though, the move to Long Island signifies that his father is trying to “act white” and negate their Puerto Rican blood.
While Poppa ends up beating on Piri several times, it’s clear that he’s trying to create a life of stability for Piri and the family that he never had. While it’s perceived as trying to be “white” by Piri, in the end, Piri realizes the streets are not the right choice.
Momma, also called Moms, is Piri’s mother. Her name is Lola Thomas. She is from Puerto Rico, but she is light-skinned, which causes all of Piri’s siblings to be light-skinned as well. While Momma cares deeply for Piri, always giving her blessing and allowing Piri to live the life he chooses, she suffers in silence as her son makes choices that get him into trouble.
Momma is a kind and loving mother, always putting food on the table and offering stories from her past. It seems she is the only person in the family who truly connects with Piri, but after Momma gets sick and dies, his champion is gone, which leads Piri right back to the mean streets. When Momma dies, the bridge between Harlem and Long Island is burned. Symbolically, it seems that Piri’s chance at a “good” life dies with Momma, at least until he is able to become his own cheerleader.
Trina is Carlito’s cousin who comes to New York from Puerto Rico. When Piri sees her, he immediately falls in love. Piri feels that she is the one—so much so that he doesn’t have sex with her, dreaming of the perfect wedding night. But Piri ends up having the same issues with Trina about race, as she is white-passing.
While they fight and Piri sleeps around, Trina is loyal to Piri, waiting for the day they will be together. However, when Piri ends up in jail, Trina moves on. She becomes pregnant and marries a man named Georgie, which breaks Piri’s heart. In a letter from the Tombs, Piri tells her to move on and can’t blame her for her choices. Even though he loses Trina, she is a part of his growth, and she helps him realize that his actions have consequences.
Brewster “Brew” Johnson
Brew is one of Piri’s friends. He is a black man from Mobile, Alabama, who tries to help Piri work through his prejudices and identity issues surrounding race. He even goes so far as to enlist in the National Maritime Union and return to the chaotic South to help Piri understand the unwritten laws of race. However, Brew disappears and leaves Piri to finish the journey on his own, leaving Piri to decide for himself if he really is a black man in the eyes of the world.
Brew makes Piri realize that, even though Piri is Puerto Rican, he looks black. In this world, Brew says, it doesn’t matter where Piri is from: it’s how he’s perceived. While this notion upsets Piri, Brew tries to help him recognize his internalized prejudices. Ultimately, though, Piri has to find this closure on his own.
When Piri moves to 104th Street, he knows he has to find a group to spend time with. He meets Wankeo on his first day of school and fights him for street credit. Waneko accepts him into his group, called the TNTs. He calls Piri his “war counselor,” and the two become close.
Waneko plays a huge part in Piri’s life when it comes to heroin. When Piri hits rock bottom, Waneko takes him to his mom’s house, and together, they wean him off the drug. Even though Piri ends up back on the streets, Waneko’s kindness changes his perception of heroin forever.
Piri meets Louie when he moves to 104th Street and becomes a part of the TNTs. They aren’t very close, but when Piri returns to Harlem from Long Island, they reconnect and start planning robberies together. It seems that even when things get bad and they stop causing trouble, they always find each other again. This bond causes Piri to end up in prison, a fate Louie avoids because he was sick on their last heist. Louie acts as an informant for the police, which reduces his sentence and helps send Piri to prison.
Danny and Billy
Danny and Billy are two white men from New Jersey. Piri meets them through Louie, and they start “stick up” jobs where they hold people at gunpoint for money. At first, Piri doesn’t trust them because they are white, but after the robbery at the nightclub, Danny and Billy don’t snitch, and they too end up in prison. They show a level of street loyalty that Louie doesn’t.
Dulcien is the mother of Piri’s child, Pedro Luis. When Trina is in Puerto Rico visiting her sick mom, Piri sleeps with Dulcien, and she becomes pregnant. While Piri doesn’t love Dulcien, he does offer her money and some emotional support.