Thursday, April 03, 2008

In the First Person

My Night with Piri Thomas
By Ismael Nunez

I had the pleasure of speaking to author Piri Thomas earlier this year before he had a stroke. I wish him a quick recovery. Here are some of my notes from my conversation with Piri.

I remember the night I spent with Piri Thomas.
It was on a February night in Brooklyn, New York.
Piri Thomas, the legendary author of “Down these Mean Streets,” was the featured speaker at an event entitled “Capicu Poetry Cultural Showcase” at the Notice Lounge,198 Union Avenue in Williamsburg. That night there was a rich lineup of live cultural performances as part of an Open Mic. It was a nice place to be on a cold night.
PRSUN sat down with Thomas for only five minutes. I remember listening to him talk and thinking how strong this man is. Rappers, poets, hip-hop artists, listen and learn!

PRSUN: You wrote the book 41 years ago. Still a best seller, read in schools and colleges. Is this magic or …?
Thomas: It’s no magic. The reason it’s done well in the past/present is because it tells the truth about everything. (It deals with) life in the streets, the prison system, what people of color go through while being incarcerated, and family struggles in a big city.

PRSUN: Was it prison that got you into writing?
Thomas: In reality, it was my mom. My mother is from Fajardo, Puerto Rico. She would always tell me stories of the island, the food, the beaches. My six siblings and I would sit for hours as she told us these lovely stories. When I was sent to prison, I remembered all those stories...My mother’s spirit saved my life along with the writing.

PRSUN: Do you share your stories of your life as a street gang leader, drug addict, ex convict with others?
Thomas: Oh Yes! Just like my books, I speak the truth. After what I went through, I don’t want no child/adult to go through what I went through. Prison life, being in a juvenile hall, gangs, that’s not cool. It’s not fun.

PRSUN: How do you stay so young?
Thomas (laughing): A lot of things. I love people, I love what I’m doing, talking to kids. Being a motivational speaker saves lives…seeing a child come to me saying, “Thank you, you saved my life,’ means a lot to me. I’m never bored!

After he spoke that night, artists and audience members shook his hand, gave him kisses and hugs and took photos with him.

We love you Piri.

Ismael Nunez is a freelance writer based in East Harlem who contributes to Puerto Rico Sun.

For more on Piri Thomas’ appearance at the Capicu showcase, go to Sofrito for Your Soul at

Photo of Piri Thomas courtesy of wikipedia.
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