In reading the first half of Down These Mean Streets I recognized a major theme that was apparent in every single chapter: belonging. In the beginning chapters, there is a constant reaffirmation that Piri feels like his father does not treat him (or even love him) the same as his siblings. He wants his father’s attention and affection but feels he is deprived of it. Growing out of the prepubescent stage of his life, he proceeds to take the streets and looks for his reputation and cred within groups and gangs. At times, he has a sense of belonging with his amigos but the struggle of racial identity bleeds through the pages, especially in the last couple of chapters. Though there are two major conflicts within the first half of the book, I want to discuss and analyze Piri’s struggle for acceptance from his father as I believe it lays a crucial framework for future chapters and displays the importance of finding where one belongs.
As soon as the book begins, we are confronted with Piri’s father lashing his son with his belt revealing the cold relationship that Piri and his Poppa have. Though the book often drifts to life on the street, whether visualizing junkies lighting up or understanding Piri’s 12-year-old ‘gang’, the divide between Piri and his father is clearly emphasized. When Poppa comes home one day, Piri thinks to himself why they are always “on the outs” with one another and how his dad sounds “harder and meaner” when addressing him. As Piri thinks to himself, “how come when we all get hit for doing something wrong, I feel it the hardest,” this reaffirms the straightforward yet upsetting relationship that Piri and Poppa have. Despite this, the cold relationship with his father doesn’t demotivate Piri but rather invigorates his courage and toughness in the streets. As he scraps with an Italian boy, Tony, Piri forces himself to keep fighting and to keep throwing punches; showing his father that he “ain’t gonna cop out” and that he is “a fighter, too.”
However, this constant need for compassion from his father is not fruitless as Poppa, seeing Piri displaying his breath-holding skills in the bath one day, says to his son, “I bet you could be a great swimmer.” This small, seemingly insignificant detail boosts Piri’s confidence, surely feeding his desire for acceptance, but yet more words of affirmation are given when Piri has gravel thrown in his eyes. When Piri is taken to the hospital, he and his father have a profound conversation, one that both Piri and the reader were longing for. As Poppa promises his son a pair of roller skates when he gets out of the hospital, Piri shows his father how tough he is; enduring the pain of tar in his eyes. The conversation draws to a close when his father leaves the room, but not before saying, “Son… you’re un hombre.” With that line, Piri feels proud that he has earned the respect and admiration of his father, something that he had been malnourished from for all his life. It’s with this scene at the hospital that his father acknowledges Piri’s strength, the two have a meaningful conservation, and both display a sincere appreciation for one another. Though most of the book touches on the conflict of racial identity and inclusion in a societal context, I believe that Piri’s emotional journey of finding acceptance and compassion from his father constructs an unforgettable plight, showing how the ones we value the most can deprive us of the very thing we need to survive; love and a sense of belonging.