Down These Mean Streets Summary

Piri Thomas

Down These Mean Streets

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Down These Mean Streets Summary

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Down These Mean Streets is a 1967 memoir by Piri Thomas based on Thomas’s experiences growing up in a section of Harlem, New York, mostly populated by people of Puerto Rican descent. The novel is only fiction insofar that Thomas tried to make his experiences clearer and more detailed. Otherwise, the novel is a depiction of his experiences of racism and discrimination. It also discusses the process of identity development and how experiences can shape a person’s life. The novel is presented in realistic slang and language.

The setting for the novel is broken up into three places. Harlem followed by Long Island, down South, and prison. The novel begins with Piri living in Harlem with his family. His mother is a light-skinned Puerto Rican and his father is darker-skinned. Piri himself is darker-skinned and is often regarded as African American, instead of Puerto Rican. This bothers Piri, especially because his own father treats him differently than his lighter-skinned siblings.

Racial discrimination is a big part of living in Harlem, as one race hates another for illogical reasons. Piri must adhere to certain behaviors to fit in in Harlem. These behaviors involve gang activity, drug use, and promiscuity. Piri often talks about how having “Corazon,” gets respect in Spanish Harlem, and he does his best to behave in a way that dictates that. One behavior is thinking that studying and school is for “chumps,” and is irrelevant in the world he lives in.

The novel takes place during the Great Depression, where Piri’s father is struggling to support the family. He gets the opportunity to make more money by taking a job in Long Island. Before moving, Piri gets into a fight over his skin color with some boys in his neighborhood, which lands him in the hospital. Ironically, the fight garners respect for Piri, and he makes new friends.

Unfortunately, Piri now must move to Long Island with his family. He dislikes Long Island and struggles to fit in. People in Long Island also think he is African American instead of Puerto Rican and judge him for it. He tries to hit on girls who deny him because of his color. He overhears a girl named Marcia disparage him for his skin color and the audacity he has to ask her out. Piri then shuts out any person who tries to be his friend in Long Island, even genuine people. He experiences racial discrimination on a higher level in Long Island and he is anxious to return to Harlem.

He returns to Harlem on his own, often living on the street. He attempts to get a sales job with his friend Louie, but is turned down—as are all the other dark skinned people. Piri begins to take drugs regularly, including cocaine. He also begins a relationship with Trina believing he loves her.

Soon, Piri decides with his friend Brew that he will conduct a real test of racial discrimination. With Brew, he heads to the Deep South, wondering if he will be treated differently there if they regard him as African American. He does his best to circumvent this treatment, by pretending to not speak English. He is still treated as something he is not in the South, even experiencing discrimination from police officers. Piri grapples with the idea of maybe just accepting he is African American, if the rest of the country deems him as such. He is chastised by Brew and his girlfriend for this thought. Brew disappears and Piri decides to return to Harlem.

Upon his return, his aunt tells him his mother is in the hospital. She soon dies, which devastates Piri. Piri had had suspicions that his father has a mistress, but never said anything about it. He finds a picture of the mistress at their house in Long Island and rips the photo up. He and his father get into a heated argument about the photo, and from then on Piri is estranged from his family.

Piri’s life goes downhill. He gets a girl pregnant, but still wants to marry Trina. They discuss raising the baby together. But then Piri is arrested for taking part in a robbery, where he is shot. He spends six years in jail and gets out to find that Trina has married someone else. Piri turns to heroin, although he tries to only do it once a week. That does not last, as he ultimately ends up doing heroin seven times a day. To fuel his drug habit, Piri participates in a series of robberies. The robberies stop for a while, after Piri brutally beats an old man for four hundred and fifty dollars—until they decide to do one big robbery, instead of many small ones. They target a night club, but it does not go as planned. In the process, Piri shoots a police officer and is shot himself. He is told in the hospital the police officer passed away; Piri recovers.

Piri receives a long prison sentence for his crimes. Prison is awful, as he is often threatened with violence and rape. He turns to religion to cope, but does not really stick with one religion. He talks to Muslims to learn more about Islam, but does not stay with it.  Ultimately, when Piri leaves prison, he moves in with his aunt. He begins to go to church regularly and prays often.