Piri Thomas—R.I.P.

My mentor, friend, and man of the positive flow, el mero mero, Piri Thomas, died this past Monday, October 17, in El Cerrito, CA. I can’t conceive myself as a writer today without having read “Down These Mean Streets” by Piri Thomas in the 1960s. His books as well as books by Malcolm X, Julius Lester, Eldridge Cleaver, Claude Brown, James Baldwin, Rodolfo Anaya, Richard Sanchez, Michael Gold, and such opened up the world of literature when I was a troubled teenager—gang member, heroin addict, in and out of jails. These books were mostly from the African American or Jewish urban experience, but also from the few Chicanos and Puerto Ricans of that time. Piri Thomas was one of my favorites. Born in Harlem, New York City, of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents, he was the first major Latino writer and a pioneer in spoken word performance. I finally met Piri around the time my second poetry book, “The Concrete River,” was published by Curbstone Press in 1991. We read together at the old Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley. There was mutual respect, and at one point I had tears in my eyes. Here was the father of my poetry, my pain in verse, my stories, and eventually the model for my memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” I read with him a few more times in the Bay Area, and once with other great poets in Madison, Wisconsin. Let me share my poem called “Mean Streets” that appeared in “The Concrete River,” dedicated to Piri. Your mean streets visited my mean streets one hollow summer day in the ‘60s and together we played ball, cracking sounds on the asphalt echoing from Los to Harlem And every time I shot dope into a vein, you felt the euphoria in your prose and I saw me in you and I heard you yell and it was my voice tearing open the night sky. Oh, so many times I crumpled the pages of your life to my face, and cried: Savior, Savior, hold my hand! And your seven long times was a long night for me, but I knew you, compadre, you, steady companion down the alleyways, barrio brother, father, partner… teacher. I heard your screams and entered through the gateway of your nightmare into the gateway of my dreams. I send love and condolences to his wife and fellow writer, Suzie Dod Thomas, as well as his children and grandchildren. I understand the family requests no flower or gifts. Written sentiments can be sent to Cheverote@aol.com. Tax deductible donations, payable to Social Justice earmarked for the Piri Thomas Fund, may be made in his name and sent to: Piri Thomas Memorial Fund, c/o Social Justice/Global Options, PO Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140. I will miss you dearly, Piri. Your legacy is the thousands of poets who now dance with flow, social justice, stories, and never giving up on one’s voice. Your legacy includes my meager works, my children in pulp and cloth. My stumbling words toward redemption, restoration, and inner peace. Que descanses en paz, compay. c/s

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