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Interview with Piri Thomas

The Inspiration to Write
"Down These Mean Streets"

Berkeley, California

Piri Thomas, poet, writer and storyteller, is the author of the sixties classic Down These Mean Streets and many other books including Stories from El Barrio, and Seven Long Times. Piri Thomas also has recorded two CD's of wordsongs. This interview, conducted in his home in the San Francisco Bay Area is divided into three sections. The first two sections are an in-depth response to the first question which deals with the Piri Thomas's inspiration to start writing, and specifically the inspiration for Down These Mean Streets. Interview and photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.

In Motion Magazine: What inspired you to start writing, and what inspired you to keep writing?

Piri Thomas: Writing has such a power for expression. When I was in prison, you have so much time. Even when you can't talk with no one else in the whole world you can talk to your paper. Your feelings whether good, bad or indifferent. We call it despojo in Spanish which means to be able to get rid of all this agony, weight inside of you. It brings clarity. That's how I got started, writing in prison.

I've read books by a lot of people and so forth and I said God what a way to communicate. At the same time I do remember that as a child I was very talkative. As a child I had an inferiority complex, very shy but very talkative. When I got to talk to someone I could relate to - whether it was an older person or a younger one, I felt a certain power of sincerity of the person. I thought I could talk to them and wouldn't be laughed at or ridiculed or rejected. I couldn't stand to be rejected. Rejection had come early from just the color of my skin. It was a rejection that I could not understand. What does it have to do with the color of my skin?

As a child, I met a teacher in school, an English teacher when we moved from the barrios to Babylon, Long Island. Around me was all white because it was Babylon, Long Island. Here and there would be one of my color, maybe. She asked the class to write a composition. That was the first time I ever wrote anything with that kind of energy. I described how much I felt affection for her. I liked her curly brunette hair and hazel eyes, and I liked the way she smelled, but I didn't care for her adjectives and pronouns and adverbs and all that stuff because I didn't know what the hell she was talking about. It was out of that feeling that a few days later she handed me the paper and on it was written "Son, your punctuation is lousy, your grammar is non-existent, however if you wish to be a writer someday - you will be. P.S. We both love my wife." Signed her husband. My English teacher, Mrs. Wright, had given it to her husband to look at and he recognized that I had a flow for expression and even though I didn't know anything about adjectives and pronouns and all that stuff I still had the sincerity of my feelings. He recognized that. Which is, by the way, what adults should be doing for all the young ones to look at them and recognize where their energies are, their specialized feelings, and encourage them.

I learned that in writing you could get it out of you. So when I was in prison I started to write. I said to the paper, "Paper I'm going to tell you a story." That's how "Down these Mean Streets." was born

A child needs to find some way to express his talent, to express that he is a he, or she is a she, that we are of earth. When you start getting all these rejections, because of your color, or your tongue, or your geographic location, there starts to build up some kind of anger and rage, that should almost be alien to a child. And yet it comes so tremendously strong and ever-growing and you manage to hide it, what you are feeling, by putting on a "cara palo" expression, which means a face of wood. It has no expression so nobody can see how much you're hurting just from the rejection, let alone the beatings. Why are you here? You shouldn't be born. This is not your world, this is our world.

You learn that you live in three different worlds. Living in your home with Momma and Papa and your brothers and your sisters. That was nice and warm and safe and gentle. Maybe not too rich in materialism but in spiritual flows we were wealthy beyond compare.

Then there was the living in the world of the schools. There were some teachers who really cared that you would get an education and that you could somehow rise to be able to relate to your full potential.

And then there was the strongest and longest world of all that was the world of the streets. Jesus Christ Almighty. It was almost fearsome to get out of your home and to walk those streets. Whether you were on your way to school or work or whatever it was.

To adapt. You must learn to adapt and how to survive. By walking by your self you were open game for everybody that was out on the streets. So what you have to do you join the gang, you made a gang. You started off socially, of course, then before you knew it other gangs were challenging you

Those were the three worlds. But there was that fourth world. That world that was within yourself. That only you could walk within, talk within, see within, hope within, pray within, and see your future. You would hope that your future would be something so bright like Rodriguez who became a lawyer. And my God that was fantastic. As he went through the streets of the barrio people would say, "Oh he's an abogado" .

Down These Mean Streets
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En español
Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel
What did you want to be when you grew up? I didn't want to be no cowboy. I didn't want to be no policeman. What did I want to be? My father was a fine athlete. My father was a very fine baseball player. He wanted me to be a baseball player. But I wanted to be a dreamer, I told him. I really meant I wanted to think and make stories and find things out that maybe you couldn't find out about in school. School didn't relate to that, didn't relate to the dreams of the young ones, their aspirations. They just teach you to count to a hundred so they could make the chains, pull the garment wagons through the districts, the streets, carrying clothes and coats for the rich.

I also studied so much in the movies, watching all these gangster pictures, James Cagney, and George Raft, all those guys - Humphrey Bogart. In the course of time kids become what they learn or don't learn. Kids become what they are taught or not taught. So when it got to the heavy parts, another kid was getting the same training, we all got together, and before you know it we were doing just what Jesse James had done. The Dalton brothers. You know, like the gangsters.

Here was a saving grace, my mother and my father. My mother was very highly spiritual. She believed there was a grace on earth, and every child was born with a light in them as well as a darkness too. She would tell us that we had to always go for the light. I tried hard within my young mind to think of what she was saying. Go to the light. It wasn't until Momma was thirty-four years old, her name Dolores, which meant daughter of pain. We all called her Lola, Lolita, Doña Lola. She was highly spiritual in her flow. When she was thirty-four and I was with her in the hospital, she was passing on. She had told me that death was not dying, that she was not going to die. She was only going to sleep in the arms of her God.

God I couldn't understand you, I talked to myself. How can you take my mother away so young? Where is the beauty and the mercy in that? I remember the next day after she had gone to sleep I went back to the hospital to pick up her personal belongings, and they gave me this brown paper bag. I looked inside and there was an old dress, and her old shoes, and her old Bible, everything old. The only thing Mammi had that was brand new was her God. "She would always say "Oh gracias a Dios," even for a glass of water with sugar in it, where there had been no food, in the years of the depression in the '30s that never went away from the homes of the poor.

I remember that light of my mother. I felt deeply, because many of us were so much into survival for the material things to eat, to clothes and so forth, that we forget our spiritual values, and we left them in the hands of others. To me spiritual values are not something from a house and big buildings with golden altars and proclaimed by humans that never lived the life of the people that they are professing to be serving. They are like emperors and kings and queens. I found that to be so unjust. I thought to myself that love was a sharing and a caring. That love was not using or being used. It came into my poetry because I was born a poet. Don't make that so big Piri, because you know full in your heart that every child is born a poet, and every poet is a child. That's what I began to realize. That we were not just physical, we were not just mental, but we were also spiritual, that spirituality was immortal. Momma told me that death was not dying. She said "death is not dying son, death is a state of lo malo (the bad)." Death is the state of the greed and exploitation and all the horrors and all the hungers and all the pain, and all the promises that never come to be.

So there as I grew up as a little child, and I'd suck on my thumb whenever I got scared, and I was always scared - you got to admit that. Not many a child can tell you that they are not scared. But I would take my deep breaths and strengthen my heart and I would lead a Charge of the Light Brigade against those racist ones who were trying to always humiliate and hurt us, in that sense of a way. And this did not happen in the South, unless you call it the South Bronx, East Harlem, or wherever it was.

Momma said for me to go for wisdoms, and I couldn't understand how you eat wisdom. Then when I went to prison -- how many years later, Momma passed away in 1945 -- I went to prison in nineteen hundred and forty-nine. It was there while I was in prison that I decided to go over my whole life completely. Just so that I could push away the thought of time and those high walls, I was suffocating. And all the cold ice rays that were around me. Every man in there including the guards, carried their burdens, and too often took it out on each other.

So they put a wall around me to keep Piri in. And I put one around me to keep them out. I learned to grow eyes in the back of my head and every pore on my body was an ear where I could listen, and every hair an antenna to pick up signs of danger or good vibes.

Piri Thomas. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeI like when I talk about something to go back into time and see myself there. Because that's where you get all the sincerity for the flow. I'm not making it up, you're just re-living it. And that's why it's important to be careful what you go back to re-live, because if you go back without the wisdom you're opening up a can of worms that you're not emotionally ready to take and to heal.

So this is what I did, I went back and began to think of everything that the wise people had said around me. And my mother of course was one of the wisest. She was what I call a child woman. I am a child man. I still feel child-like, not childishness, which leads to rage without reason, in short, tantrums. But child-like which is the ability to be in awe, and to have hopes and joy. No matter how everybody else sees the horror, you can see one ray of light. You can see how beautiful the joy. No matter how everyone is saying you ain't never going to make it nigger, look down spic.

The biggest war that I had to learn was not to hate all the whites. Because one time I said to Mommi "Vaya Mommi, I hate all the whites, I hate all the blancos." And my mother looked at me and she say "Don't say that. Not every white is doing this. You have to learn how to sense who is malo. You can learn to read people. Your high sensibilities will tell you if they are OK or not. You must ask yourself. You've got all the powers, so why deny your powers with doubt. It is hard.' My mother would say "everything is hard my son, until you learn it. Then it is easy. But you've got to apply yourself." But I had no patience, I wanted it just as fast as Jesse James did it. It didn't work that way for me.

I was involved in a gun battle with the police. The police detective put a bullet hole under my heart. The reason it went under my heart and not through it was that I had been wearing a medal of St. Christopher, that had been given to me by an old Italian woman in of all places Sicily when at the age of sixteen I was in the merchant marine, a Greek ship under a Panamanian flag. They sign you up and I went and I brought food to her, for the children. I took it from the ship. And she gave me this medal. That woman, tall, sixty years old, me a young kid, gave me this medal of St. Christopher so it would protect me in my wanderings and my travels, and she told me this prayer that I never forgot, and I'll be sixty-nine at the end of the month, and that was when I was sixteen. She said to me "Oh Maria, concipita, Hail Mary full of grace the Lord be with you." I said to her I'm not Catholic. She said "Oh bruno, before God we are all the same." She said it with such beauty. I was so proud of my color.

When the bullet hit, it struck the medal and was deflected, one inch underneath my heart. It tore a hole out my back. The bullet spun me completely around and a second bullet went through my coat. Then I saw him and "Pow!" I shot him. I was at war.

My father had said that if you are ever in war, do not panic. Do your flow, what you have to do. After it's all over and you have survived then you can shake and be scared and throw up and vomit. But when you are there you are a warrior. I was told by another one that since every child is born a poet, and every poet is a child, to always send my poet out first. That was my wisdoms. But when I sent my warrior out it was for blood. I send my poet out first because it's for wisdom.

Published in In Motion Magazine, January 21, 1998