Among the many things on the mind of Cal Wayne this past weekend, the Houston Astros ranked third or fourth. We met before Game 5 in a parking lot of a local sports bar starting to fill up with fans. I'd heard of him during my stay in Houston for the World Series: described as the best rapper in the city, famous inside the neighborhood where he grew up and basically anonymous outside the 281, 832 and 713 area codes. He's from the Cuney Homes, a famous, or infamous, housing project on the south side, and except for the nine years he lost to prison in four separate stints, he has spent his life trying to take his music to a wide enough audience to hit it big.
When I emailed him to ask to meet, my request was simple: Show me your city on a night the Astros play.
He agreed and took his task seriously, wanting to make sure I saw the right places and understood the subtext around them. First we did a big loop around the major highlights, circling the tangle of freeways and flyovers, playing beats from his phone while he rapped over them as he drove. This sounds obvious, but it's astonishing to see a really talented rapper do that up close. He explained English was his best subject in school.
Sitting in the backseat of his Buick, he juggled multiple cell phones and social media accounts, the full-time work of being a hustling musician. The songs sell themselves -- if he can get them to people's ears. His music is best described as journalism, telling the struggles and joys of living in Houston in 2017. The songs are documents. His latest album, "Ghetto Superstar," is as close as the Third Ward will ever get to having a full-time beat writer: Someone who lives and works in the place he writes about, and someone whose fans believe gets it right.
Sunday was an especially big night for him.
His new song was scheduled to be released at midnight, and while he tried hard to keep a calm exterior, he seemed anxious about the reaction. For an artist whose main calling card is his connection with the street, every release is a referendum.
We stopped off at Timmy Chan's to get some wings and rice and gravy. (We were saving his favorite chicken joint Frenchy's for a late night run after the game, he explained.) He ordered a combination rice, loaded with egg and all kinds of meat, and then he swung by his old neighborhood. An old friend saw him and stepped out into the street. We stopped to talk, and Cal Wayne invited him to the club later.
"I got a section," he told him.
The guy seemed confused about why he'd have a party and then realized.
"I'm tripping," he said. "I didn't even think about it's the World Series ..."
"That's what I told you earlier," Cal Wayne said to me. "It hasn't really registered to this community. It's not a baseball city. If this was the Rockets, m-----f----- would be going crazy."
Cal wanted to give some of his food to the guy, sensing he might need it. The guy turned down the first two offers to take some of Cal's rice but eventually accepted and thanked his friend.
"The Third Ward," Cal said, "it's genuine around here. Everybody looks out for each other. Once they see you're genuine and you didn't come to hurt nobody, you're cool."
He sighed and exhaled. It's when people do come aiming to hurt that worries him. His voice got low and a cloud passed over his face.
"There's so much beef stuff right now," he said.
The sun went down and we kept riding, with him rapping his own songs and those of other people he admired. He drove slow down Cleburne Street, which runs behind the Cuney Homes.
"My brother got killed in that building right there," he said.
He paused and pointed again, with a writer's sense of drama and timing.
"And we was born in the building next to it," he said.
It's a tense time in Houston, he said, a sense of dread felt acutely by people in his neighborhood, if not by most of the people in attendance at the Astros' games this weekend.
"They killed 20 people out here this summer," he told me.
"Why?" I asked.
"Gang war," he said. "Worst the city has ever seen."
Sometimes, because he's respected by people on both sides of a particular issue, he said he gets asked to mediate gang disputes. But ever since he got back from prison this last time, he senses that while the younger gangsters still respect him, they don't look to him for advice. The kind of hold he's had on the streets is a fragile thing, one he fights to maintain and extend with each song. It's one thing for a national artist to put out music and see the reactions on the internet. Cal Wayne gets feedback face-to-face. He feels like the younger fellas don't want to hear him tell them to stand down.
"I understand that mentality because I was young once," Cal said. "But I tell em: 'I survived this long for a reason.'"
As he talked, he ate his rice from the clamshell in his lap, the steam rising in the dark car. We followed a black Camaro that drove near Emancipation Park. He pulled into a corner store to get a lint roller so he'd look good when he got to the club. Then he circled around the neighborhood, making a few final stops to pick up some friends and family, until it was time to head for a place named Live Oak to watch the game. One of the people he invited was standing outside a corner store; Cal invited him to make sure he got somewhere safe, worried about a shooting tonight. He didn't want a kid to get shot just because he hasn't yet developed Cal's sophisticated radar for incoming trouble.
Waiting outside his uncle's house, Cal's phone rang. It was a collect call from a federal prison. He pressed nine to accept the charges.
"I get out this Wednesday," the man said.
"I already told you you're taken care of," Cal said.
"I know. I'm just telling you what time."
"Size 10 shoes, 36 pants, 1x top," Cal reassured the man.
"Don't get no big ol' 2x."
Cal told his locked-up friend about the section he's arranged at Live Oak, and then once his uncle got ready, we all drove over to the bar. A valet parked our car and when we went inside, the DJ started calling his name. His manager walked in with the new single on a flash drive. Up at the DJ booth, Cal hung around until he knew the music had been handed off.
Live Oak would get the debut.
Cal couldn't get internet service and he looked stressed about it; he wanted to get his Instagram up and running so he could interact with fans and capture the moment. The Astros game played on televisions all over the club but between the dancing and the loud music, nobody seemed to be paying attention. We ordered two bottles and a waitress brought them over with sparklers lit on top of them. She danced around with them before presenting them tableside and bringing a bucket of ice. Everyone around the table mixed Hennessey and Hpnotiq. One or two added a splash of cranberry juice.
"Where my Scorpios at?" the DJ yelled above the music at one point.
Then, with no warning, the room exploded in cheers and screaming. The music stopped playing.
The DJ screamed, "The Astros are coming back!"
To be honest, I'd stopped watching the baseball game. But the crowd at Live Oak apparently had not. The Astros had hit a home run to tie the score. Throughout the madness to follow, every Astros play was greeted with bedlam and a brief pause in the music for the DJ to crow about the home team and offer drink specials.
Eventually, Cal got his phone connected to the internet and started live streaming.
It came just in time.
His new song started to play over the DJ's speakers.
He danced around his section, rapping along with the track into his phone, as his manager carefully studied the faces in the room, to see what people thought.
Soon, heads began nodding, beating to the music, even the people trying to act cool and unimpressed. By the second chorus, people were singing along to the hook, and the place became loud and alive, and for a night anyway, Cal Wayne remained the king of Houston, more popular in his neighborhood even than the Astros.
Halfway through the second bottle of Hennessy, in the seventh inning, I think, he heard about a block party and our whole group headed back out into the night. As we rode away from Live Oak, Cal saw a street jammed with flashing blue and red lights, cop cars parked at strange angles, the strobes breaking the darkness. Someone had been pulled over right by the exit off 288.
He wheeled down a side street and stopped at a local club named Spivey's. It sat at the corner of Wentworth and Emancipation. The flashing cop lights were just a few blocks away. Inside, people still cheered the Astros, who'd pulled ahead, and another DJ gave Cal shout-outs. But something didn't feel right. He'd heard that the cops stopped a rival gang member coming into their streets, which concerned him, and now some guys in the club kept trying to stare him down. It was getting late and people have been smoking and drinking.
"It's getting heavy," he said.
We got back in the cars and left again, missing the end of the game, both the Dodgers' ninth-inning comeback and the extra innings lunacy. Safety first, he said. By this time, we'd picked up a little convoy, and Cal varied the route on the drive home so as not to surprise any gangsters already on edge. He didn't want someone to see three cars passing by slow and start shooting.
Once he made it home, we all stood around in the street. The game was still going on, and Cal tried to figure out where to go next, worried about the simmering gang war, and hopeful about the Astros and, most of all, pleased with the people who'd heard his new song for the first time, nodding their heads and singing along.