The second half of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets is much less preoccupied with questions of identity than the first. It seems as though Thomas has accepted that his primary identity is the one bestowed on him by society, rather than family: he is black, even if he can occasionally “pass” as something else, as when (in Texas) he goes to a brothel with a Mexican friend and, by acting as though he only speaks Spanish, assures the establishment that he is foreign rather than African American. As he leaves, though, he switches to English and watches as the prostitute’s “smile fall[s] off and a look of horror fill[s] the empty space it left–‘I just want you to know,’” he tells her, “’that you got fucked by a nigger, by a black man!’” (189). If he is going to be penalized for his blackness, in other words, by this point he sees that it can also be wielded as a weapon.
Towards the end of the book, in an odd and somewhat underdeveloped passage, Thomas even seems to be taken by Black Nationalism: under the influence of a follower of Elijah Muhammed, he becomes a Muslim and takes on the name “Hussein Afmit Ben Hassen” (296). Neither the religion nor the name stick (for reasons that Thomas does not explain), but it is notable that he has little corresponding interest, even momentarily, in his Puerto Rican heritage or latinidad. Indeed, though he signs on to work on a ship that travels to the West Indies, it is not clear that he visits the island, or even that the thought to do so ever crosses his mind. “Puerto Rican” becomes simply a qualifier, albeit a necessary one, to “black”: when a plainclothes detective grabs him and calls him a “black bastard,” Thomas replies “If you don’t mind, I’m a Puerto Rican black bastard” (235). His blackness is no longer contested.
But the book’s fundamental concern continues to be the self. In some ways, this is unsurprising given the generic conventions of the memoir, whose point is largely to narrate the unfolding or discovery of what makes an individual what he or she is. But Piri is more concerned with “me” than most. Thomas tells us that “one thing still stood out clear; one things still made sense and counted–me. Nothing else but me” (95). And asked for “who do you love?” he seems hardly to hesitate before answering “Me” (259). He has many associates but relatively few friends; relationships become significant only when they are at an end, as with his friend Brew (who disappears), his mother (who dies), or his girlfriend Trina (who marries another man).
Ultimately Piri is not particularly interested in other people. Nor is he all that concerned with a broader notion of community or “people.” Sent to prison for robbery with violence, there is a point, when the inmates rise up against the guards, at which Thomas has to decide on his allegiances and belonging, and ends up split, arguing with his self: “These damn cons are my people . . . What do you mean, your people? Your people are outside the cells, home, in the streets” (281). In the end, though, it is more that he has no people.
Rejected for the most part by mainstream society, with the exception of the anomalous episode of Muslim conversion he is unable or unwilling to find any alternative sense of community. The book’s final scene is emblematic. Returning to Harlem and to the building he once lived in, he meets an old friend, Carlito, who at first does not recognize him. It turns out that Carlito is, like Piri had once been, a junkie. Hearing his mumbled but unconvincing promises that he will get clean, Thomas realizes that all this is simply part of his past, of his numerous yesterdays: “my whole world was yesterday. I ain’t got nothing but today and a whole lot of tomorrows” (330). Ignoring what Carlito is saying, Piri leaves him behind and “walked out into the street, past hurrying people and an unseen jukebox beating out a sad-assed bolero” (331). Any salvation here is going to be individual rather than collective. There is little if any sense of any common political project.
Even when Thomas bumps into a boy who reminds him uncannily of himself, or of his former self–“This kid shot a cop and got shot; I shot a cop and got shot. What’s happened to me is going to happen to him” (315)–he is hardly keen to communicate his own experience and learning, fobbing him off rather with a “Buenas noches” and the unconvincing and unlikely reassurance that “You’ll probably get a break, don’t worry about it” (315). Taken as a whole, however, the book gives the lie to this superficial prognosis. Piri himself catches very few breaks. And if he survives to tell the tale, it is hardly thanks to anyone else but to the fact that he has shown, over and over, that whatever the colour of his skin he has “heart.” And it is heart, a mixture of bravery and persistence, capacity to affect or be affected, that is untethered from any notion of identity or belonging, that is finally what counts. This is what leads to acceptance on the street, where “if you you ain’t got heart, you ain’t got nada” (47). You make your own luck, and you do so as an individual (because heart is what defines the individual), not as part of a group.
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