Piri Thomas

Down These Mean Streets

  • 40-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 35 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Down These Mean Streets Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 40-page guide for “Down These Mean Streets” by Piri Thomas includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 35 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Liminal Nature of Race and Taking After Pops.

Plot Summary

Down These Mean Streets is a 1967 memoir written by Piri Thomas detailing his late childhood through young adulthood. Piri is the eldest son of two Puerto Rican immigrants living in the New York City area with his family. He spends his childhood in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem, though his family later moves to the Italian-American section of Harlem, where Piri gets in fights with the Italian-American kids. One of these fights leads to Piri being nearly blinded by gravel another boy threw in his face. Piri refuses to rat on the boy and is able to regain his sight after a couple of days.

His family moves back to Harlem, where Piri joins a Puerto Rican gang called the “TNT’s.” During his time with the TNT’s, Piri engages in shoplifting and later attempted burglary. With other members of his gang, Piri visits some homosexuals, who pay the boys money to have sex acts performed on them. Later, his family moves to Long Island. In “suburbia,” Piri is rejected by a white girl because of his dark skin. Another white girl accepts him and falls in love with him, but society does not accept them as a couple, which angers Piri and causes him to break up with her. Piri then spends some months homeless in Harlem and is turned down for a salesman job because of his skin color.

Around this time, he meets two people who will be very important in his life: Trina and Brew. Trina becomes his long-term girlfriend and the love of his life and Brew becomes his closest friend and confidant, who convinces Piri that he is a black person and not a white Puerto Rican. Piri and Brew decide to join the Merchant Marines in order to see more of the world. Before leaving, Piri brutally beats up his brother, Jose, for Jose’s insistence that Piri is not black. The next day, Piri’s dad, who shares Piri’s complexion, confesses that he has always been ashamed of his own skin color. Piri and Brew sign up for the Merchant Marines and while waiting for a ship they meet Gerald, who is an intellectual and writer of mixed race. Gerald believes one can choose one’s race, which Brew rejects but which Piri finds intriguing. Piri ends up traveling all around the world on ships, learning, in his words, that “any language you talk, if you’re black, you’re black” (191).

Returning from the Merchant Marines, Piri finds his mother ailing in the hospital, and she soon dies. Piri gets hooked on heroin, but his friend Waneko is able to help him break the habit. One day, Piri meets two experienced criminals, Danny and Billy, and, along with his friend, Louie, the four of them commit multiple robberies in the New York City area. During this time, he impregnates a woman named Dulcien, though he refuses to be in a relationship with her. During a botched robbery of a nightclub, Piri ends up shooting a police officer and he is shot himself. Arrested and sentenced to five to fifteen years, Piri is sent to jail. There, he finds he must defend his rep by getting in multiple fights. While in jail, Piri witnesses a “marriage” between two inmates, which he finds repugnant. Three years into prison, he finds out that Trina has married another man. Four years into prison, Piri is denied parole. Soon after his parole denial, there is a riot at the jail, and despite feeling massive guilt for not standing with his fellow inmates, Piri doesn’t join in the riot in order to have a better chance for parole later. Piri finds that defending his rep is not worth jeopardizing his chance at parole and he stays out of trouble. Piri is later released from prison and given three years’ probation for other crimes he has committed. As a free man Piri begins to slip into his old habits, but is able to resist the temptations of drugs and crime through prayer and through seeing one of his old friends in the throes of a destructive heroin addiction.

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