Tag Archives: Irish

Piri Thomas on Harlem’s Mean Streets

I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.

Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.

Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.

Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.

Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.

It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)

I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:

I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”

“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.

The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.

I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)

Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.

He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.

I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — 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. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)

I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.

Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.

So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.

Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:

“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”

“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”

“Yeah.” (122)

I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.

Traces of the Irish in Paris

We feel ubiquitous to me sometimes; there were many traces of the Irish in Paris, and our great poverty and casting to the winds. We wandered past the Rue des Irlandais — so named because the Irish College could be found there beginning in the late 16th Century and for three more centuries eduacting Irish people. Extraordinary, more to explore there. The Irish Cultural Centre sits here now.

We wandered past the Quiet Man Pub — complete with men inside on this ridiculously hot day drinking Guinness.

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I didn’t care so much for the film as John Wayne is a dick and Maureen O’Hara was asked to play a kind of woman I hardly admire — still, there is nostalgia here as it was filmed in the next village over from where my family is from and visited by us for that reason.

On a trip across Lough Corrib to Inchagoil Island, we were serenaded by a villager there, who had been an extra in the film:

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Such lovely memories.

More intriguing is the Flann O’Brian Irish Pub, given my immense love for Flan O’Brien. I surely would have gone in there to raise a toast, but it was closed.

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Flann probably would have liked this addition to its window’s however:

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If only they had been on bikes.

We were staying across from the Jardins des Plantes, near the rue Cardinal Lemoine. Joyce lived there, and we made an aborted attempt to see the place, but then realised it was up the hill rather than down…

It was very hot you see.

That’s all I got for now on Irish people in Paris.

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Ratcliffe as was (in the eyes of Walter Besant)

I work now in Ratcliffe, the hamlet that has disappeared really…sitting between Limehouse and Shadwell it was bombed heavily in the war, and then the building of Commercial Street and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the new railway line and its thick arches destroyed most of the rest. I work now in the remains of an old mansion belonging to a sugar merchant, on the site where the church and school once stood before their remnants were torn down. There is not much else left.

It’s very different now, so it’s fascinating to read old descriptions of what was once there. These are from Walter Besant’s East London. I don’t much care for his view of the working  (or even lower) classes, but these are fascinating as glimpses of this part of the East End (and a bit of casual racism really…though perhaps more directed at sailors in general?):

The Church of St. George’s-in-the-East stands…beside the once infamous street called the Ratcliffe Highway….Portugal Jack and Italy Jack and Lascar Jack have always been very handy with their knives, while no one interfered and the police could only walk about in little companies of three and four. Within these houses, these windows, these doors, their fronts stained and discolored like a drunkard’s face, there lay men stark and dead… (72)

More on Ratcliffe:

It consists of mean and dirty streets–there is not a single street which is not mean and dirty; none of the houses are old; none are picturesque in the least; they are rickety, dirty, shabby, without one redeeming feature; there is a church but it is not stately…it is unlovely; there are “stairs” to the river and that are rickety, there are warehouses which contain nothing and are tumbling down; there are public houses which do not pretend to be bright and attractive–low-browed, dirty dens, which reek of bad beer and bad gin. Yet the place, when you linger in it and talk about it to the clergy and the ladies who work for it, it is full of interest. For it is a quarter entirely occupied by the hand-to-mouth laborer; the people live in tenements; it is thought luxury to have two rooms; there are eight thousand of them, three quarters being Irish; in the whole parish there is not a single person of what we call respectability, except two or three clergymen and half a dozen ladies; there are no good shops, there are no doctors or lawyers, there is not even a news vender, for nobody in Ratcliffe reads a newspaper. But the place swarms with humanity; the children play by thousands in the gutters; and on the door-steps the wives and mothers sit all day long and in all weathers, carrying on a perpetual parliament of grievance. (81-82)

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There is still a Ratcliffe-Cross Street but it ends at Cable Street rather than stretching down to the river. It’s almost hard to believe now that enough people lived here to muster a side in the massive fights between Cable Street and Brook St residents — a street that used to be the center and heart of Ratcliffe and is no longer even on the map.

There is also a mention of the old heritage of the Dissenters in Ratcliffe in the physical form of Medland Hall, formerly a Dissenting Chapel and become what Besant called a free lodging house on the riverside at Ratcliffe. To be explored in a future post…

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