Interview with Piri Thomas -- Part 2
The Inspiration to Write "Down These Mean Streets"
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 (2nd half of answer): My mother was a fine storyteller. She would recount stories about her childhood in Puerto Rico. The stories on the radio were about Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, and Terry and the Pirates, but there was never one story about Pancho, or Maria, or Jose.
When story time came around the family was all there and in those days they had the law that the little children must be seen but not heard so when the olders were talking we were not allowed to talk. We would squat in the corner and listen to the conversations. I was the only one who dared go against convention and I would ask questions to the olders. And my mother would say "Shhhh." And my Aunt Angelita said, "How is he to learn? You want him to learn in the streets?" That was my mother's older sister. And my mother saw the wisdom in that. Children become what they are taught and not taught. And what better way to learn?
Another time I heard "cojones" in the "calles". Cojones in the streets. Cojones is your balls. I didn't know what it meant. So again there was conversation among the olders. I put my hand up, I said Mommi, "What are cojones?" My mother said "How could you?" My aunt came to my saving grace, and she said "Answer him. How else is he to learn?"
I gave no excuse. My rage was I didn't like being poverty-stricken. I didn't like living in hot and cold running cockroaches with king-size rats and horror and hunger running free. I didn't like being put in to a ghetto that was of concrete, a reservation that was nothing more than wall-to-wall suffering. Freeze in the winter, boil in the summer. Racism and bigotry. And yet you had time for laughter. I learned that if you could laugh together the ignorance would go away. So I laughed. I laughed and I laughed. I cried.
But when I went to do my stick-ups and everything I relaxed. In fact, when I had all the people there in these night clubs, and there were others, two or three, I would tell the bar-tender to give everybody a drink of the best in the house. The gangster that was there who owned the place he was really a gangster, very cool, with two beautiful women by his sides, he looked at me, I'm sticking up his place, this gangster who probably killed people by the score, and he said to me "My, you sure are a cavalier." I said "Thanks".
God, the things you can laugh at now. I think life is beautiful, and very meaningful when one can go back into time. And see the see's and do the do's, and hear the hear's. And feel the feelings all over again. And put it on paper. Or whatever media you want. Like say poetry with music. Wordsongs. To communicate with art to use art to fight back. Instead of guns. I decided I was going to avert the enemy. I would sleep with the demons. Turn him around to have feelings of justice. That all colors, like Momma said, were meant to be beautiful decorations like flower gardens of our earth. Momma said that nobody was better than me. And they called me nigger and spic and all that, and nobody was better than me. Everybody was born similar. The only thing was that some were born better off than others. But, she said, only maybe better off.
Her words didn't have to be heard by my ears. I was so close to Mommi I heard her with my soul. All she had to do was look at me, and I understood everything like telepathy before she talked. Love is strong. So you got to love yourself from time to time. Just by hugging yourself. Just so love wouldn't die and become too ice cold. I wanted to feel. I wanted to have tears. I was taught that we were not to cry, men don't cry.
I read somewhere that women live longer than men because they know how to cry. So I went back to my cell and waited till the lights went out, got under the covers and began to think of all the sad things that I could, just so I could cry. Nothing would come until I went back to that which I didn't want to go back to -- watching my mother die. And she said "I don't die". She said "I go to sleep.'
I began to cry and the tears rushed and I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, oh God I felt so good. And inside of me, my feelings came like a voice and said "You cried, you got it out of your system, but don't cry too much. Because you can get used to that."
I prayed to all the gods, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Imam, to my mother, to all the gods and goddesses I pray. What is your plan for me? Shall I go out in a Charge of the Light Brigade?
One day, Big the guard came up to me and said something about me working harder. I said something back to him. He tightened his grip on his night stick. He said "I ought to knock your goddamn head off. and I replied softly, "Go ahead, Big, I'm tired anyhow." He looked at me hard and then said "you're crazy" and walked away.
The other brothers saw that I had stood up to this man. They came to congratulate me. "You got guts" some of them said. And I replied, "All of you get the fuck away from me."
A riot broke out some years later and the same guard came to my cell after the riot. I remember it was cold. It was near Thanksgiving. they had hosed down the brothers out in the yard with ice-cold water, then formed a gauntlet for them to run through, beating on them with their night sticks all the way.
Big came up to my cell. I remember I was in my white long johns. When I saw him, I remember sliding out of the bed, who knows I'll die or I was going to kill somebody. I got up and leaned against the wash bowl, and set myself to rush him as the gates opened. He weighed 260-odd pounds. I was going to do my best to grab him between the legs and lift him up on my shoulder and then we would both go over the tier, because I didn't want to live after I did that to him. They would make my death a painful process. I was ready to go.
Then I heard the voice, of my regular hack who had been my boss in the paint gang yelling to this guard, "Don't you touch any of my men. I mean that," he said. I had named him Ken the good old hack. Once in a while his wife would make extra sandwiches to give to whomever Ken wanted to. We didn't have to do no ratting. That's the way people are. Momma said there are good folks in all colors. Big looked at me with a cold smile and left. I was still leaning against the bowl, still ready to charge. Ken the good old hack looked at me and I smiled. All I could say with my soul was "Gracias amigo." That was a white man I never forgot. He sure saved my ass/
I got a lot of stories to tell. And Momma taught me many things, otherwise I'd go my whole life hating colors. It's not the colors you must hate it's the conditions that lead to where we are to breed this illness, this greed. They have to dehumanize us. I had to fight my hatred which was beginning to take in everyone that was white. And that was not fair.
But at one point I wanted to kill everyone that was white. Especially when Momma died. I blamed the system immediately. For Momma was worked out. Burned out. On sewing machines. Working long hours in those sweat factories and then to make ends meet she worked at night. Carrying bundles home because there was no work for Papa. My father died of embarrassment inside. Because he was a strong man to work.
I have been either blessed or cursed with a fantastic memory that included all the feelings.
I learned that there was no such word as defeat. I could smile and make myself laugh. There should be no such word as defeat for children of all colors. Children got to believe in themselves. I tell the children if you are what you eat you got to be what you think. Don't mug you mind with thoughts of defeat. Believe in your self. Make your inner journeys and talk to your own self. It isn't silly at all. Ask yourself questions. Quiet time retreat. You'll get the answers and don't be expecting to hear voices, children of earth. Some have you see. But what you feel is the feelings because life is all about feelings, good, bad or indifferent. Ask yourself, and answers will come to you.
I used to astral project from my prison cell. Sent my mind out on wings of thought to go back to my barrios and bring back that which I have sought. I made love in the temple of my mind. Jenny. In the morning I stepped out of my cell. Humming. Joy. This black brother on this particular day, he said to me "what the fuck you got to be so happy about? Don't you know you are in prison." And I replied "Hey bro, I don't know where you were last night, but me I was home, making love with my Jenny." And he said "Man, you are crazy." And I said "Man, you'd better catch some." And I went on my way. One more day.
I am a conglomeration of manifestations, that's what makes me. Those are my big words that I first learned in prison. I learned them from a young white guy who was doing life for murdering his mother-in-law, him and his wife, to get the money. He had been to a big college. He was the one that taught me the first big words. Conglomeration of manifestations. I said "What does that mean?" He said "conglomeration" means many things, and manifestation is what comes out of it. So I went to the yard to my bros saying "Do you guys know that I am a conglomeration of a manifestation of myself." It was nice to know that I could add some other words that I could use besides "hey motherfucker". Those were my most expressive words.
There were other words to use, other thoughts to think. Other worlds to visit in the temple of your mind. That you were part of the universe. Every chemical compound, everything in the universe was in you. You were born of earth and universe. You are as important as a little bird is to God.
I have the soul of a dove, a little bird. Delicate like a humming bird. And I can be an eagle too. And I go into the future. I learned that instead of going to bed at night doing instant re-hashing, replays of all the caca that went down. For it was like going to sleep in the middle of a nightmare, regurgitating, regurgitating the horror. Instead I said I should put my mind one second into the future and visualize things as I wished them to be. That's what I would do. I learned to astral project. Onetime I did it so well that I looked back and saw me on the bed. Me on the bed saw me making up it's mind whether to step through the bars. I got so scared me on the bed that I thought I could snap. I would not be able to return to my body. And they'd bury me right over the wall where there was a hill with little sticks, 2 by 6 , with black numbers to attest to the fact that beneath lay a human being who had been buried without his name. Just another number
I fought back. I prayed and I studied. I was determined that I was not going to serve time. I was going to make time serve me. I was not going to eradicate my mind. I was going to educate it. I got my high school diploma in prison. To me it was like a doctorate in the art of living. Learning. My mother had taught me that no color was meant to be superior was gospel truth. That every color was meant to be just like a beautiful decoration in the flower gardens of our earth. After all, no matter what color we may be we all have hopes just like anybody else.
From time to time, prison would get so heavy on my soul I would feel a chill running up and down my spine. The ice-cold chill of doing time. I was afraid of flipping, going crazy. I've already seen a man on the tier below me do just that. By looking into the big windows across from me I saw everything he was doing. He got a "Dear John" letter. He started to clap, then he began to laugh like he couldn't stop. He wrenched the toilet off it's moorings with his bare hands. The gushing water made a waterfall. He continued to clap his hands, he dropped on to the ground. He began to act like he was in church. The guards came and tear-gassed him. In the morning there was a trail of blood from his cell to the box.
Down These Mean Steets was a catharsis for me. I had realized that I could go back in time and live it and feel it - the rage, the anger, the hurt, everything. The walls had my fist prints, cabinets would be smashed. The rage. Finally it was finished and my agent said "My, this book must have been quite a catharsis for you." I did not know what the damn word meant. I said "Hmmm hmm." And as soon as I could I went to a dictionary. Catharsis meant to get it out, throw it off. I said to myself "yeah, it sure was a catharsis for me.
There were times when I woke up in the morning I thought I was back in my cell. My aunt had put bars on her back windows to keep the burglars out. Once I woke up in a sweat because I thought I was back in the joint. I actually got up out of bed and put on my clothes and stood at the door waiting for the guard to throw the gate. It's hard to get over certain things. Unless you learn how to take them, and tuck them gently into your memory banks. Many people feel memory banks are in their brain. but they are not all in your brain, memory banks are in all your feelings. When you think of a certain thing, and you think of it with the feelings, you re-live it all over again. That's why many people go through agonies. They don't know how to free themselves.
One must learn to deal with harsh realities objectively and reserve the emotions for creativity. Like I said before, if we are what we eat, we surely are what we think. So we should not mug our minds with thoughts of defeat. For those brothers and sisters of all colors, the cruelest prison of all is the prison of the mind. To those behind prison walls, make time serve you, don't serve time. Educate your minds don't eradicate them. You are not numbers. You all got names. No one was born a criminal from their mother's womb. We were all born into a society where children are considered as minorities, less than, and the truth is that all children are born of earth and universe. So how can a child be a less-than, a minority, which is just another name for niggers and spics. And don't forget the other precious children who are called white trash. Momma said no color is meant to be superior or inferior. All colors are meant to be beautiful decorations like the flowers of our beautiful earth. Viva all children.
Love, your bro, Piri.
Published in In Motion Magazine, January 21, 1998
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