Tag Archives: youth

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.