the displacement creeps up slowly at first
like a pretty vine that eventually cracks the facade
this isn’t the place that nurtured me as it tried killing me
and rewarded us when we found ways to do more than survive
it’s no longer that place
it’s no longer the place we grew up in
our pride can only be placed in the past
the present is no gift and the future doesn’t want us everywhere i go it’s the same this alienation this feeling of un-belonging
nothing to claim as your own because what you claim
is out of style out of fashion out of vogue out of time
no place to claim as your own because it’s all changed itself
to be something for someone else
disowned disavowed displaced
this city once belonged to those strong enough
to claim squatters rights to the ruins
because there was beauty to be found in the rubble
because it was part-time art and full-time living
because we filled the abandoned with play and creation
because we could thrive among the decay
until the decay and all that lived in it
and all that it gave to imagination was given an eviction notice
what was once yours because it was no ones and everyones
now belongs to someone else
what you thought would always be yours
because it was no ones and everyones
has been sold to the highest bidder
and the open source dreams we built from living within the debris
have been bulldozed for pre-fabricated dreams
that come with closing contracts and first last and security
you only owned the blood you spilled here until you spilled it
you only owned the saliva you spit here until it hit pavement
you only owned the piss you took here until it wet the cornerstone
we only had the idea and the ideal we never had the deed
and without the deed you only own the memories
and memories don’t pay bank notes
even vagabonds need to be from somewhere
what will i say when they ask
my answers will be mythology
my stories will be artifacts in a museum
the way of being that i grew up with
shaped by a place that no longer exists
all of it will be ethnography anthropology archeology
we survived the extinction of this place
only to record what once was
we survived the extinguishing of the fire
only to feel the cold
we survived the execution of these streets
only to breathe life into ghosts as they pass through us
the broken glass glistening like fake diamonds swept
the rough texture of years smoothed
and the vibrant aerosol colors of memorials drained
these few remaining familiar faces dying
surrounded by strangeness without ever having moved
surrounded by the unfamiliar without ever having left
to be replaced with the tenants of the ahistorical
maybe it’s only an intoxicating nostalgia
or a yearning for an anarchism that left us to our own devices
but you can’t blame us for
wishing that it would all rust in piss once again
Piri Thomas was born on September 28th of 1928 in El Barrio, NYC (aka East Harlem) to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother. El Barrio was a rough piece of ghetto then and it still is and Piri grew up in those mean streets. He was in a gang and into drugs and was a stick-up kid and it landed him in prison where he began to write. His most famous and enduring novel was his first, Down These Mean Streets, a cathartic piece of writing based on his experiences coming of age in El Barrio, NYC. It was written shortly after Piri got out of prison. Down These Mean Streets became the first installment in what could be seen as a trilogy of novels that were all based on his life. Saviour Saviour was about his spiritual struggles and how he saw religion being used to pimp the ghetto. Seven Long Times was about how he did his time in prison. On October 17th, Piri Thomas died of pneumonia at the age of 83.
The best art has a way of leaving scars on you. You don’t walk away from it as you came to it. You become altered by it. Your reality is changed by it. A metamorphosis takes place as you experience it. i first read Down These Mean Streets in High School. It blew my mind, it left a scar, it altered my consicousness and i was not the same after i read it. Only a few years later i started to try writing myself and i’m still trying to write. Still trying to get what Piri Thomas called “the flow” down. The world is a lesser place without his physical presence. Piri put down a solid foundation that was built on by the Nuyorican Poets. The Nuyorican Poets were the harbingers of Hip-hop along with Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets. Piri’s influence is still reverberating in classrooms and street corners and subway cars and rooftops. i think it will always reverberate…
Below is an excerpt of an interview that Humberto Cintron did with Piri, from Piri Thomas official website. The interview is a perfect introduction to Piri Thomas… it’s also almost a prophecy to what has been going on with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has been taking the US by storm. i have been writing a lot here on the issues of Occupy Wall Street and what that means to non-white people. i have been saying that the white left that began the Occupation movement in the US needs to look to non-whites for the solutions to many of the problems we all face since we non-whites have been dealing with those issues for longer than anyone cares to remember. Read on and you’ll see that you can almost add prophet to Piri Thomas accomplishments… Read on and you’ll see what i mean…
THOMAS: We have been brainwashed by materialism and the obsession of being “el quitate tu pa’ ponerme yo” (get out of the way so I can take your place). We don’t kill each other with hate as much as we do with envy. What we need is a unity of “we” and then we can present a united front against injustice.
Who said the Barrios can’t have their wise humans? Who said the Barrios can’t have their philosophers? Who said the Barrios can’t have their art, their painters, their writing, their poets? Who says that we cannot be all that? Does it only count on a level that because you have money then you’re respected? Because you have pieces of paper, degrees, and so forth? When creativity and wisdom is such a natural freedom? Horse Shit! They had me into all that, and as a street kid I learned, “Fuck you all.” I said, “I’m gonna take it from you just like they do in the gangster pictures and them Robber Barons and all those people who stole their way and made it big and later became humanitarians, philanthropists who seek to buy their consciences with blood money.” I live with principles. I’m a man who came out of the streets, of drugs and eye droppers and all the rest of the shit, I went to prison, and I paid my dues. And I got a right to rise above all that. I am not going to live in the errors. And what people don’t forgive me for the past, I forgive myself. I paid the dues and damned if I’m going to live my life with guilt.
CINTRON: How do you see the future?
THOMAS: I see the future–two sides of the coin. We either live in a truly democratic society or suffer the hell of a world order ruled by a cruel fascist system. In short, we will inherit the final solution. Those who are not considered members of a so-called superior race will vanish up in smoke from the face of the earth. We of all colors must unite, it’s as simple as that. We must learn to respect each other. The power of the earth is in the hands of 600 or 700 families. All the minerals of the earth, all the wealth of the earth, everything of the earth. They are the self-appointed gods. They have the power of life and death over us economically as well as in might. I heard of Nazi Hitler when I was a kid, of a new world order and recently I heard Bush with his mouth opening up and talking about “a new world order.” I said, “Whooah, hey, an order for whom?” I can’t stress enough the importance of unity among all the colors. The handwriting is not on the wall, it’s on ourculitos, on our behinds, on our tushes.
Listen, I have been accused of being many things, among them of being a Communist. Vaya, people don’t have to be Communists to know they’re getting screwed. I’ve been to the ideologies. I been to the commercialized religions. I been to the polices and man, they seem to be in the same pew. So I have stayed with the children. They have truth. Thirty-seven years I’ve been with the children. And before that I was with the children because I was one of the children. Which I still am in my way. And as a poet once wrote, “One hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
My grandparents are from a small mountain town in the center of Puerto Rico so high up into the mountains that they used to say the only way to get closer to God in heaven was to die. The Spanish colonizers called it Aibonito, (‘Oh how beautiful’) but some say the original name of the town came from a Taino cacique named Jatibonicu. A long way from Puerto Rico they came to the united states, my grandfather to work in a silver factory and my grandmother to clean houses for the rich. With money they saved they bought a brownstone on Penn Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn. My uncle lived upstairs and my cousins and i would play on the stairs between the first and second floor or in the modest backyard or in the front. Then they sold that building and bought one on Manhattan Avenue between Montrose & Meserole.
i remember when my grandparents rented the first floor store at 139 Manhattan Avenue to a free lunch program and me and my cousins would steal pineapple juice in wide-mouthed plastic cups with foil covers that you peeled off to drink and ate white bread sandwiches that had a single slice of meat and a single slice of cheese right out of the cellophane wrappers they were in. Years later the store was converted to a ground floor apartment so my grandparents didn’t need to climb the stairs to the second floor.
Two of my aunts and uncles bought buildings on that same block and i spent my summers in Williamsburg with my cousins but i slept in my grandmothers house. i remember those hot summer nights with a fan that moved hot air around the room “porque no tienen aire” with the window open and the gentlest of breezes barely blowing open the see-thru curtains, as i lay on a 50-50 blend of cool polyester cotton sheets that covered over my grandmother’s plastic slipcovered couch to keep my sweat and my skin from sticking. Laying on an old flat lumpy pillow with a pillowcase that didn’t match the sheets and everything smelled of fabric softener from Grand Street. i remember the amber street light cascading into the window and casting odd shadows from the ornate fake antique lamps and the elephant statue figurines on the coffee table and the shelf my grandmother kept the tv on surrounded by graduation pictures and wedding portraits of her children and grandchildren in large frames.
i remember listening to the sounds of Williamsburg outside that first floor window. The hushed soft tones of gentle late night conversations murmured by junkies excited because they had just copped. Willie’s trombone and Hector’s vocals blaring from a car with the windows rolled down. The silence and the rustle of the blowing curtains. Then the rising wail of a distant fire engine and subsequent fading. Then the ambulance siren that suddenly went silent pulling into the Emergency Room at Woodhull Hospital. Then it was just the silence and knowing the fan was on its way to turn back to you from the sound of the blades against the air. Then a police car came speeding down Manhattan Avenue with no siren and it ran the light at Montrose with lights flashing cutting through shadows in my grandmother’s living room with the sound of the revving engine pushing the quiet aside as they tried to sneak up on a crime in progress, by taking the light at Meserole without slowing down.
Listening to the stillness of the quiet as the circulator on the freezer in the kitchen kicked in and then my attention shifted to a broken wine bottle that comes in a twist cap as two stumbling winos carry each other down the block grumbling in a language only they understand. Followed by another silence that has me adjusting the pillow and the sheet with the plastic on the sofa rubbing up against itself. Then from around the corner on Montrose the brothers come with a boombox blaring out a tape of the WBLS Mr.Magic rap-attack master-mix from earlier in the night. From the opposite end on Meserole the boyfriend whistling for ‘Cookie’ and Cookie’s harsh reply from down the block in front of PS 250 – ‘WHA? I WAS JUST OVER THERE!’. Then more silence that’s punctured by the sitck-up kid who ran past the window in silence but stepped hard on the sidewalk metal gates that opened to the basement.
Then the silence punctuated by the ticking clock on the wall. Then the lovers quarrel on the corner that no one can make out until it gets closer and even though the story is in the middle for me it begins with her crying ‘WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT?’ and him saying ‘CAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO ACT!’ and he walks away telling her ‘GO BACK TO THE HOUSE!’ as he feigns concern to conceal frustration ‘PLEASE JUST GO HOME! JUST GO BACK TO THE HOUSE!’ and it ends with her sobbing and her girlfriend and her sister comforting her as they pass the window. Then it gets quiet and i can clearly hear my uncle walking across the floor upstairs to get a glass of water from the kitchen followed by rummaging rats under the window knocking over a metal garbage can cover that spins three times on the concrete before it stops. Then it’s cats from Lindsey Projects bragging about runnin’ some niggas shit as they split the profits, unaware that i am lying on the couch in the dark and in order to not be a witness i roll over and pretend to sleep as they argue over who should keep the gold chain. Then the silence builds again and falls away with the distant dialogue of gunshots from Gra-han and the sporadic outburst reply that leaves you wondering when the silence will come. And then it comes suddenly that awkward silence afterwards that always seems to lasts longer than usual while you try and shake the dread of the potential outcome while the lack of a police siren to follow speaks volumes in the silence. i fill in the gaps to all these stories with a movie that plays in my head while the J train screeches over Broadway around that curve in the tracks over by Manhattan Avenue above where you caught the double G.
Williamsburg Brooklyn was a dangerous place in those days. But i felt safe in my grandfather’s house lying on my grandmother’s plastic slipcover protected couch on cool clean sheets with only a brick wall and a window to protect me from the movie that accompanied the Williamsburg Brooklyn summer night score. Watching headlights from cars creep in the window and crawl across the wall and up to the ceiling and down the other wall and then out the window again. Then the alley cat silhouette jumping up on the window sill and walking regally across the window and stretching out before lying down in vigilance. When sleep finally came the movie in my head kept playing to become a dream while the noise of the world outside my grandparents living room first floor window provided the score and i dreamed of Williamsburg Brooklyn because it was not possible to dream anything else.
“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” – Jean Luc Godard
“It ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at.” – Rakim (from Eric B & Rakim’s – I Know You Got Soul)
A while back one of my best friends Omar Villegas did an interview for a graffiti website that was interested in my work as a filmmaker and wanted to know how i went from doing graffiti to making films. The website (which shall remain nameless) never posted the interview for reasons unknown to both Omar and myself. The video was shot in July of 2009 and has never posted online in its entirety.
i decided that this was a good venue for posting the whole interview here and Omar agreed. The video was divided into three parts for uploading purposes. i speak at length about my film MACHETERO. On the surface of things graffiti and filmmaking may not seem to have very much in common but the filmmaking i do for the most part exists outside the confines of legality. i have a healthy respect for illegality.
One of the guiding principles in the making of my film was that i was setting out to create something and would not let permits or permission get in the way of what needed to be done, with what needed to be expressed. So wherever i could get away with it (and even a few times when i didn’t) i did what i wanted to do whether because it was more important than “legality”. Check out the film’s website or Facebook Page or IMDB page.
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