My insides shifted when I heard that Piri Thomas, of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, was dead today at age 83. Thomas was the author of Down these Mean Streets. Last week I posted my first blog interview with Jason Baumann Montilla who spoke of his interest in literature citing Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim and Chester Hines, African American Authors, and Miguel Piñero, another celebrated Puerto Rican playwright and author. I have to add another- Claude Brown, author of Manchild of the Promised Land. I was reading all of these authors’ books starting at age eleven.
My family moved out of Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, when I was fourteen years old. We were trying to survive the death of my sister, who was a few years older than me, to kidney disease by moving out of a neighborhood riddled with drugs, theft and all that came with the social ills of the sixties and early seventies. We hadn’t realized that the move was a very astute real estate operation that would herald the beginning stages of the gentrification of Park Slope. Our new neighbors, in Flatbush, were horrified that I toted Down these Mean Streets into their house when I accompanied my Mom on her visits. How could such a lovely young girl read such awful descriptions of a harsh and terrible world? I read these books repeatedly with a relish. I understood and identified with the writings. No, I wasn’t shooting heroin into my veins nor craps in an alley but I recognized the voices and I understood “the overlying arch,” as my doctoral advisor would say, to a degree I’ve never seen in other books. The authors’ words catapulted my interest in reading to an extent I’ve never again experienced. They told “the truth” as far as I was concerned. They lived life and “kept it real.”
I’ve been writing how the Nancy Drew Mysteries and Cherry Ames Book Series were the staples of my development as a reader and a writer. That’s true. Then there was Joyce Carol Oates- her writings sparked for me a recognition of women’s voices and Julia Alvarez, the voice of the Latina! Yes, yes, yes, all true. But then I read, Ernesto Quinones’ Bodega Dreams and I remembered the voice of the streets- the place that I had not actually grown up in but had grown in me. In my work, I sit countless hours listening to men tell the tales of their lives on the streets. I sit in my office in a men’s shelter on the Lower East Side of NYC. They come in, we talk, they leave. I walk by them on the street at five, having shared something with them that I read about at age 11 and 14 and 16 again. My Pop told me “Those are your people” when we passed them by hanging out at street corners. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about- me a kid, wanting to read my book, as I sat in the passenger seat of his car. I didn’t know that one day I’d be listening to the stories and taking them in heart and soul. I didn’t know that one day I’d be a writer and be the keeper of millions of stories that I’d listened to, one at a time. I’ve been entrusted with a precious gift in what I do, in what has been shared with me and the experiences that have been slowly built within me.
Today, hearing that Piri Thomas had died, a spark that was untended to inside my chest flared up. There is something here that must be recognized. It is the spark of “Keeping it Real” and that is something I will do in my writing and in my life. I will do this in honoring Thomas, Brown, Piñero and all of those energies who chose to see and live life without veils of denial and fear of what “the other” would think. I will use these men as powers of example and vow to do the same.