Astros' run means more to Houston, a city of survivors

Mike Nelson/EPA

HOUSTON -- A few days before the World Series moves back here to the Gulf Coast, the guys at Screwed Up Records and Tapes are waiting on Game 2 to start. The shop is in a run-down strip mall surrounded by oil refineries and distribution warehouses, out near the invisible buffer where the bayou ends and the city begins. In the back room, the first cousin and some friends of the late DJ Screw count down the last 30 minutes before first pitch. The place smells exactly how you'd hope the back room of DJ Screw's record shop would smell -- which is to say, everyone will be in need of a Whataburger run later (bacon, jalapenos, mustard, onion, if you're scoring at home).

Big Bubb, Screw's aforementioned first cousin, runs the business.

All they sell are T-shirts, hats and the famous Screw Tapes.

"Me and Screw grew up together, since toddlers," he says. "More like brothers. It's been a struggle. I gave Screw my word. Keeping his dream alive. Trying to keep the doors open."

Out on the floor, a guy comes into the shop, asking for a couple of the mixtapes: the slowed-down, doped-out, narcotic-haze hip-hop mixes by H-Town's own beloved and now almost mythical street poet, DJ Screw, who died 17 years ago from an overdose of codeine. The customer is in a rush to catch the first pitch.

"I'm trying to get home now," he says. "Verlander's gonna do it."

He leaves, music in hand, and a few minutes later, the Astros game begins. Everyone finds a place to sit in the back room, the Garden of Eden of Southern rap, home of the hard drives holding the life's work of Robert Earl Davis Jr., better known as DJ Screw. They hum all hours of the night and day, burning the songs onto CDs for $15 or jump drives for 10 bucks a rip.

A guy who goes by Big A partakes in refreshments and exhales.

"Gotta get a 'W' tonight," he says.

They talk about the local music scene -- they seem to agree that Killa Cal Wayne is the reigning underground king -- and follow the game.

Rapper and old Screwed Up Click legend Will Lean comes in and finds a seat in the corner, fresh off a long drive back from Lake Charles, Louisiana. First thing he does is ask about the score.

By the time the game reaches the bottom of the second, something just doesn't seem right. It all feels too normal for Houston, a city that is weird above all else, and in the soothing drone of announcer pablum, Bubb realizes what's missing. This is baseball but not Houston baseball. He dials up one of his favorite Screw tapes and twists the volume knob until the whole room is awash in loud, sludgy music, which sounds like a tape player in the process of devouring its tape. Everything metal within earshot of the speakers rattles, sounding like a dozen car trunks. Bubb turns out the light, and everyone leans back into their seats, the only light from the Astros game and the cherries of the orbiting joints.

A local DJ offers to make a store run.

"They got that Dr Pepper on sale," Big A says, peeling off some cash. "Two for a dollar fifty."

He heckles the Dodgers. "I love talking s---," he says. "You know I love talking s--- for the home team."

They settle in, wanting the Astros to win a baseball game, not because they particularly care about baseball but because they love Houston, Clutch City, all nodding their heads to DJ Screw, like the 1990s had never ended at all.

Yeah, the old music seems to be telling the game: Welcome to Houston.

On Wednesday, I landed in town to wait for the Astros to come back home. The team has been the sentimental favorite in the playoffs, to be sure, just two months after Hurricane Harvey stalled over the city, dumping days of rain. There are lots of ways to explain how much water fell, like saying it was 15 trillion gallons, or more than 50 inches of rain across the fourth-largest city in the country, but the most effective way seems to be something small and simple: A high school baseball coach I met here had just finished building a pool in his backyard but hadn't added the water when Harvey hit.

When the rain stopped, his new pool was full.

Before Game 2, fans lined up down in the old train station, which had been turned into a makeshift postseason Astros shop, buying pins and hats and jerseys. The local buses said "Go Astros" on the front. The waiting game from the record shop repeated itself everywhere. The day drinkers lounged in the perfect weather, mid-70s with a breeze, wasting the afternoon at the West Alabama Ice House, an open-air dive bar with cold beer and a taco truck. Bikers sometimes show up there on the weekend, partying alongside the former Big 12 and SEC frat bros. On the other side of town, groups of gambling Vietnamese men in the cafes along Bellaire Boulevard drank the sweet, strong iced coffee with condensed milk. They were served by a woman dressed as Wonder Woman, hustling for extra tips. The stereo played melancholy Vietnamese love songs, and the guys placed bets and stared at Italian soccer on the screens. Many were alone. In a few hours, all of them would be watching the Astros.

Houston famously has few zoning laws, prizing growth above all else. It's one of the most diverse cities in the country, and not in that smug Ivy League way, but in a real way, where working men and women from all over the country and world fight to carve out a little piece of a new life. It's an immigrant city. Beneath a downtown office building, there's a simple, busy food court: a Chinese dumpling house, a Vietnamese sandwich shop, an Indian place serving Mumbai and Delhi street food favorites, a shop selling Italian meatballs.

Oil and gas folks from Pittsburgh, who came south when the steel industry died, have tailgated at Texans games with sandwiches with french fries on it, just like Primanti Brothers. There's an outpost of the Philly cheesesteak place Tony Luke's. There's a Greek supermarket and a Polish grocery store. Vietnamese people from all corners of the nation can find their local cuisine; an hour after I landed, my friend Jeff and I ate a Hanoi-style lunch of bun cha and banh cuon. There are sports bars and legit juke joints and the fanciest old-line country clubs you could picture in a fevered Gatsby dream. There's everything and everyone, a city populated by expats, where people come with dreams and plans, putting them on the line and rolling the dice.

There's no place like Houston, the most American city in the world, really, with all the good and bad that conveys. Like Memphis, its music is not just entertainment but a moan and wail from the guts of the place: dirty sounds like ZZ Top and DJ Screw and Albert Collins, soulful country like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. What other city could produce both Beyonce and Kenny Rogers? Listening to 97.1, the classic country station, while driving near the edge of town, always makes me feel like the radio isn't playing in the car but rather in the sky. Glen Campbell's "Galveston" might be about Vietnam, or about the Civil War, or the Crusades. Houston is a city that shakes off easy attempts, such as this one, to define it, the kind of place where, after living such big American lives, people as divergent as Howard Hughes and Lightnin' Hopkins can find their final resting place, just a few miles apart.

Around the fourth inning, with the game tied, I leave the record shop and wind my way north to a bar I like called Alice's Tall Texan. Two community tables along the back are for food; every night has the potential to be a potluck at the neighborhood joint, depending on who brings what. Someone brings a tray of sandwiches for Game 2. The bartender watches over her regulars. Her son is in the military, left home after graduating from high school and never came back. He makes sure to send money home.

"He takes care of his mama," she says.

The ceilings are low, and the only two celebrities on the wall are J.J. Watt and Jason Aldean. A freezer in the back keeps big chalices and mugs cold for the draft Shiner or Lone Star, which comes in large or small. The real regulars knew to sign the book: There's a series of notebooks, and if you're invited to buy a poker chip to put in the bag, then you sign your name and throw in a dollar every day you're there. If your chip gets drawn on a day when you signed, you win the pot. People have won thousands.

In the last hour of the game, the bar gets quiet and tense. There are two tables of fans, until the stress gets to be too much and one table leaves. Some people go outside when they can't stand to watch.

One guy literally pulls at his hair. He wants to fight the umpire.

Another watches a television in the corner alone.

A third guy, standing at the bar, says he just feels hopeless -- not about the game so much as everything. "It's just one of those nights," he says. "I have existential dread. Just end it now. With the rest of my misery."

The Astros fall behind, then come back. A customer with feathery Whitesnake video hair compliments the bartender, trying to run a little game. The Astros pull ahead in the 10th, then let the Dodgers tie it, then hold on to a one-run win an inning later. The bartender films the bar's reaction with her phone. People leapt in the air and hugged each other, running around giving delirious high-fives.

"Alice is gonna come here and be all smiles," the bartender says.

She turns to some customers and explains that there might be a visitor arriving, to join in the communal joy. "If you see an old lady come in, that's Alice. She's a big-time baseball fan. She's 77 years old, and lemme tell you: Some words come out of her mouth!"

The first home game for the Astros is Friday, with two more to follow over a frenzied baseball weekend, and it's certainly an interesting time for the circus to land in Houston. A lot is happening. The last hurricane shelter, set up in an abandoned shopping mall, is down to about 90 people, and the Red Cross hopes to have it closed by the end of the week. Yesterday afternoon, a high school baseball coach named Kelly Mead drove me around the northern suburbs, which were hammered by the floodwaters. At one point, traffic went down to one lane because the city was finally fixing the gas pipes. He's the coach at Kingwood High, which was damaged so badly in the storm that the entire student body is sharing a building with another high school in its district. Summer Creek goes from 7-11:25, and then Kingwood goes from 12:11-4:30.

Mead took a lot of video of the rising water, and he played the clips and narrated as he drove. A lot of people put in their boats near the Jiffy Lube to help with rescues, but any craft with less than a 200-horsepower motor couldn't handle the fast currents roaring through streets. The area around the high school, which saw incredible flooding, as high as 16 feet in some places, is all nice subdivisions and strip malls with the newest chains. Everything is shiny and new.

It's a boomtown, really.

The destroyed Whataburger had been open maybe a month, he said, and the HEB grocery store had been there about six months. Nearly everything that got flooded, it seems, is a new build.

The boomtown vibe has influenced the recovery, too, as people are working hard to clean up and start anew. Mead's players jumped right into helping teammates and neighbors, ripping out sheetrock, getting dirty. For his career, he has often worried that the stuff he tells players about values and ethics goes in one ear and out the other. "You wonder if they're listening," he says. "When the flood hit, we really saw they listened."

Two of the Astros, Josh Reddick and Joe Musgrove, came to talk to the team one day. At first the kids were shy, but after some prompting from the players, the teenage boys finally started firing questions.

The first was about wearing a Speedo during a celebration.

The second was about Kate Upton.

The power will get turned on at the old school any day now, and he hopes they might play some regular-season games in their stadium. Life is going on.

That's a typical Houston reaction to something. To trudge forward. Wednesday afternoon, as the sun began to go down, I met a local poet for a coffee at a place that could be in any European capital. Long Chu's parents fled North Vietnam in 1954, moving south to escape the communists, then they fled Vietnam for good in 1975 when Saigon fell. Two months ago, Harvey destroyed their home. For the third time in their lives, they are starting over. "They have taken in a lot of suffering," he says, "and I think, for my mom, what she said immediately: 'When I was 30, in 1975, I felt like I could do anything. Now I don't feel like I can do anything.' It's a very hard realization."

The people of Houston, many of them, had to endure trials to even arrive here.

People fled governments and wars, and there are constantly refugees arriving from around the world. A good number of Iraqi and Afghani interpreters for the U.S. military end up moved to Houston. Many former New Orleanians live in Houston after being run out of Louisiana by Katrina; for them, Harvey was the second major storm in 12 years. Houston was founded by two real estate speculators from New York, the land bought mostly on credit, and that striving and salesmanship remains coded in the city's residents, both those who have lived here for generations and those who arrived in the past few months. The storm served as a civic reminder of that past. "What Harvey has done is really underscored that everything is rootless," Long Chu says. "There are no roots. And even if you think you have roots, even if you think you've put down roots, things are not tied down."

Houston is, most of all, a city of survivors, which gives the city its energy but also infuses everything with a hardness -- or sadness, as Long Chu describes it -- some sort of understanding that life is a tragedy broken up by moments of joy and light. When people call a city tough, or gritty, or "Clutch City," as the T-shirts call Houston, that's what they're talking about: a civic understanding of both the game and the score, like when the local team plays a World Series game and an entire area code just stops.