HOUSTON -- WITH SIX outs left before the Houston Astros won the first World Series in franchise history, an Ethiopian driver named Daniel drove me to a tattoo parlor west of downtown. He arrived in Houston the year after the Astros' last World Series appearance, landing at the airport without knowing a single person in the country. The first time he saw the freeways, he panicked, wondering why in the world he'd come to this frightening place to be a driver. Now he loves this city.
While we rode, he listened to the game on 790 AM. He didn't really understand what the announcers were saying.
"Do you know the rules?" I asked.
"I have no idea," he said, laughing. "I support them because our city is winning."
We listened to the final two innings and when the game ended, he pumped his fist.
"Wow," he said softly.
A few minutes later, I went inside to meet Herc Lopez at Electric Chair Tattoo. Inside, the postgame interviews were beginning on TV. Herc had just finished his deadline drawing session. When the game had begun, he started creating Astros tattoos, just in case, because he expected a rush in the next day or two, people getting inked to rep the city. All the baseball tattoos were going for the store minimum, $50 each, and he drew a sheet of 22 designs. Fans could choose the state of Texas with the Astros logo, or just the Astros logo, or one that says "'Stros B4 Hoes," or any of the 19 others.
"I hear other tattoo shops around town are doing the same thing," Herc said.
Charlie Ramirez, who works at Electric Chair and is also a mechanic for high level motorcycle racing teams, saw the new drawings on the front counter.
"Guess what tattoos we're doing tomorrow?" he said.
He tapped Herc's designs.
"All of these," Charlie said.
Everyone in the shop laughed.
"There are already people texting me," Herc said.
FOR THE PAST two days, in yet another example of how this is the best job in the world, I wandered around Houston during Games 6 and 7. You know, checked out what the city felt like one win from its first title since Hakeem Olajuwon two decades ago. On Tuesday, when the sun started to go down, I parked outside the D&W Lounge and went inside, entering through the side door near the patio. With the first pitch in just under an hour, I sat at what clearly had been a Wendy's table in a previous incarnation, when they had those sepia gilded-age style advertisements.
Three small televisions hung in the place. On a piece of plywood covering the pool table, the regulars set up two crock pots, communal food for tonight's game. The bar hunched low in the shadow of a coffee factory, with those bright white factory bulbs that look like a luxury condo building from far away. Two miles east was the former location of the sprawling Hughes Tool Company, created by Howard Hughes' father, which funded his son's lifetime of movie, airplane and casino shenanigans. At the old headquarters on Polk Street, the building now used by the state, the company's interlocking HT logo remains carved in the freezes. This was the core of Industrial Houston and the few remaining beer joints left from those salad days stay open late. In the dark room, the slightly surly bartender served cold Lone Star longnecks wrapped in half a paper towel torn from a roll.
When I walked in, the jukebox played some classic country song.
The next song was by Too Short.
The third was Garth Brooks. The people at the bar sang along: "The beeeer chaaaases ..."
The fourth song was "Like a G6."
That's Houston, where any detail can be both absolutely true and yet also so unrepresentative of the messy whole as to be a lie. It's the fourth largest city in America, but it's not a city at all, really, rather dozens of villages, an archipelago of cultures and classes and races and religions. There's Vietnamese Houston, with a monument to ARVN soldiers, like a statue of Robert E. Lee in a southern courthouse square, and Indian Houston, which has its own cricket ground. There's inner city Houston, which is suffering from a gang war that barely makes the local news, and the suburban Houston and cowboy Houston and hipster Houston and Chinese Houston.
There's the Houston where the men (and boys over 12) must wear a jacket to the River Oaks Country Club if they want get dinner in the Main Dining Room before the Astros game. Wind through that neighborhood, down Kirby Drive, and see the rows of huge homes, visible from the street because that's the point, each a feat of ego and personal ambition, nobody adhering to any mutually accepted architectural motif. There are vaguely Tudor homes and white modern homes, and Spanish mansions that look like the designer channeled Miami Beach, and big columned mansions whose roots lie in some sort of Tara plantation fantasy. The real money is a turn away; along the quiet and private Lazy Lane, big estates hidden behind walls of shrubs, backed up by covered fences, guard shacks and stone walls and gates.
The sixth song on the jukebox was "Hurt."
"Johnny Cash!" someone screamed.
"Everyone I know goes away in the end," someone else sang.
A few minutes later, the song was in Spanish, a Mexican ballad.
Two songs later, Dwight Yoakam sang "Purple Rain."
About the only thing these various Houstons have in common is a deep inferiority complex, fueled and fanned by people who come to town and rip the place after only seeing the soulless downtown and the traffic. It's an easy target, given the sprawl and cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls. The commercial blandness hides a wild, cool place. Like Cleveland, Houston loves T-Shirts about itself, and for the same reason: The designs will say loudly all the things Houstonians believe should be said by everyone. The shirts are brag, a poor man renting a fancy car for the weekend, or talking too loudly about a business deal in an airport. They're a window into the city's pride and insecurities.
One local T-shirt company is called FYHA.
That stands for, naturally: F--- You, Houston's Awesome.
The store is above a barber shop. A guy named Edgar cuts hair in the back, surrounded by his collection of vintage skateboard decks mounted on the wall and a black leather jacket autographed by the Ramones. He watches the Astros games in his garage with a cooler of beer or listens to them on the radio in his truck if he can't find the television station. On Tuesday, after a visit to him, I went upstairs to FYHA and bought a shirt that says: Houston & Space City & Hustletown & Clutch City & H-Town & Bayou City & Screwston. Houston is all those places, and many more I won't ever know about. There are people who live their entire lives on their own island of Houston, without ever really learning about the ones just a mile or two away. There is no single truth.
Tuesday night, the national anthem came through the D&W Lounge's television speakers.
Someone in the bar stood up.
"You're only supposed to stand up if you're at the game," a guy says.
"I'm taking a knee like everybody else," a woman says.
Someone sang along, out of tune but strong.
"What so proudly we hailed ..."
MOST PEOPLE SPEND the first few innings of both Games 6 and 7 stuck in the city's Medusa's head of traffic-choked freeways and interstates. It rained on Tuesday, which made the brake lights lose definition and become, through the windshield's overwhelmed wipers, a blurred sea of glowing red, like the deepest pit of hell. That sentence is only purple if you've never sat in Houston traffic, which is another of those rare, universally shared experience in the metro area. To paraphrase Liam Gallagher describing a hangover past age 40, it's like being kidnapped by the Taliban.
On Tuesday I left D&W in the top of the first and walked into a coffee shop in Little Saigon right as the Astros took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third. The café was one of a handful of similar spots along Bellaire Boulevard. The air felt hot and stifling inside, with little or no air conditioning. The waitresses wore the whisper of a costume, not just on Halloween but every day -- lingerie nurses on Tuesday night -- and during rare moments when bad pop music wasn't blaring, the only sound came from the off-key jangling video poker machines in the side room, where people poured money while catching glimpses of the World Series. The target audience seemed to be lonely men a long way from home.
The Astros played on the big television in the main room, which is usually reserved for big European soccer matches. That's what makes this World Series run subtly important here, even if it's difficult to notice and hard to define without sounding preachy. Astros mania is nothing like Cubs mania, or Red Sox mania, at least in terms of ubiquity or palpable energy. But it does pop up in every corner of the city. Not every person in Houston cares about the Astros, but some people in every part of Houston care, and that might be as significant as a wild and frothing Wrigleyville.
As I sat in the Vietnamese café, it was the top of the fifth inning of a game the team would go on to lose. The waitress brought me an iced coffee. This café felt just like ones I've been to in Vietnam, like a businessman picked it up and moved it, changing virtually nothing, from the glassware to the waterfall on the wall. On most days, there's not a single thing about the room that might indicate, even a little, that you were sitting in America, much less Houston. But tonight, some folks are wearing Astros gear and watching the team nurse a lead, 15 outs away from a title that they'd have to wait another day to chase.
A guy in front of me put his hands behind his head and leaned back.
Houston's sports franchises carry the power to briefly shrink this comically sprawling city. This week, it's the Astros. One day in the future it might be the Texans or the Rockets. This has little to do with the games and much to do with that feeling of being disrespected.
Anything or anyone from Houston doing well is celebrated.
Three hours later, after watching the final out downtown, I went back to the D&W Lounge for a nightcap. The driver looked over his shoulder at me.
"Did we win?" Mohamad asked.
"So we play tomorrow?"
"What was the score?"
He paused and almost spat the next word.
In the next three hours I'd watch an Elvis impersonator, in full costume, rip Reverend Hairspray himself, Houston megachurch prosperity gospel huckster Joel Osteen (The King's opinion, although, having read my Bible, I agree). Suzanne talked almost pornographically about her butcher's jalapeno sausage and deer summer sausage, sold out on North Shepherd Drive. Gabriel told me about cooking his mama a brisket and then washing his clothes for work. Mary, the bartender, told me about seeing Jerry Jeff Walker at Liberty Hall in 1973. The bar would play the Astros manager's postgame conference live and eventually a Tejano ballad about a girl who likes to dance. Gabriel wore an Astros hat. Suzanne wore an Astros jersey.
Everyone made plans for Game 7.
"We're gonna shine tomorrow," Mary said.
Bean tostados would be the pot luck set up on the pool table.
The fans drank beers and bitched about Joe Buck and John Smoltz, who they were convinced had it out for the Astros and Houston, just like everyone else.
"We don't get no respect," a man at the other end of the bar said.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
"The Rockets don't and the Texans don't," Suzanne said.
GAME DAY ARRIVED on Wednesday morning in a typically Houston fashion.
At first glance, you'd never know a title game was being played. The city got up and went to work. The local cricket club didn't even have a watch party to watch the Indian national team play that morning at 8:30 local time. Members have jobs and bosses who didn't much care about a sporting event. At La Familia Meat Market on the east side, people shopped for marinated chicken ($1.69 a pound). Nobody talked about anything really, moving up and down the aisles. Men played the two video poker machines in the corner. Nearby, someone had painted an anchor on a building, with the words, "Houston Por Vida."
I drove around for hours, from the east side's factories to the west side's Chinatown, hitting a lot of the neighborhoods inside the loop, traveling the entire six and a half miles of Asian businesses on Bellaire Boulevard from basically Eldridge Parkway to St. Agnes Academy's athletic complex. Only if you did something like that (and a native Houstonian would be much too smart to attempt it) did the city's desire to win Game 7 come into focus. If you paid attention, you'd notice the messages on marquees all over the city, in Third Ward liquor stores and Montrose hipster bars and on billboards, one of which said, "Show L.A. Real Star Power," with the Astros star logo on it. At Fu Fu Café, in an upscale Chinese mall, a few customers watched "Days of Our Lives" and ate soup dumplings. A waitress lamented the fact that nobody would want to eat with such a big game to watch.
"Tonight no business," she said. "People stay home."
The past week of World Series games has briefly transformed Houstonians from a group of disparate people chasing disparate dreams into something that resembled a tribe. Only a communal experience, which comes so easy to some cities and so hard to others, can shape a huge metropolis like Houston into something resembling a cohesive place. People in big, anonymous places are always hungry for that feeling. This week a woman showed me a picture on her phone of some friends who'd flown to Seattle to see the Texans and instead of going home decided to go to Los Angeles. They wore old Colt .45s hats.
"Are they baseball fans or Houston fans?" I asked her.
"They're Houston fans," she said.
On Richmond Avenue, at The Hat Store, which sells Stetsons and does custom jobs, too, a few customers came in and out. The owner, Gary Silver, worked behind the counter with a steam iron, flattening the brim of a hat. He did his work carefully but with a familiar confidence, born out of decades of repetition, precise like a Japanese sword maker. They've sold hats to George H.W. Bush, Dusty Hill from ZZ Top, Lyle Lovett and Astros legend Craig Biggio. Last season, Jon Lester, David Ross and some of the Cubs came in to shop.
"We've been at it for 102 years," Gary said.
On Wednesday his son, Matt, helped the English-speaking customers and a female clerk helped those speaking Spanish. Gary's grandfather started the American Hat Company in 1915 and he taught his son the trade, who taught Gary, who taught Matt. Father and son were both watching the game tonight. Standing around the counter, shaping hats, repairing old ones, monogramming new ones, they debated the Astros pitching strategy. Why remove Justin Verlander the night before?
"Go 'Stros!" Gary said as I left.
Around five in the afternoon, the sky threatening more rain and the temperature still high enough to make the air sticky, I walked over to Minute Maid Park. As they'd done every time the team played a postseason game out of town, the team was having a watch party, opening up the concessions and playing the game on the big video board and on every television in the place. As I got settled in the press box and the fans arrived, I noticed the stadium's stereo was playing Lyle Lovett. It seemed like the perfect anthem to Houston, his hometown, and the theme song about this Astros season: "No, you're not from Texas, you're not from Texas ... but Texas wants you anyway."
The game was about 90 minutes away -- the wait almost over.
These upcoming hours would be the best this baseball season would ever feel. The fever brought on by the World Series never lasts long, maybe a few more days. It'll break soon, the villages and their inhabitants returning to insular orbits. Sports success is the ultimate civic sugar rush, a short high and a quick, tumbling crash. People will soon forget the way they felt when the Astros won Game 7, and they'll forget the hidden and beautiful unintended consequence of that victory: All over the flawed and beautiful city of Houston, for 48 hours, people with little in common cared about the same thing.
BOTH THE TENSION and pride were palpable as Minute Maid Park filled with fans.
The team gave away vouchers and all of them were claimed. There were at least 15,000 people, with more coming in as the game played out. Fans packed the lower deck from halfway down the right field line to the bleachers in left. The club level seats were filled, and people packed into the concourse and tried to find an angle to get a glimpse of "El Grande," the stadiums' enormous screen.
Long before the first pitch, the fans chanted, "Beat L.A.!"
A vendor shouted out about cold beer.
Fans wore shirts from NASA, from the local MLS team, from a Saudi energy company. Jonathan Almeida pushed his 2-year-old son, Elijah, in a stroller. A woman wore a shirt memorializing her grandmother, Gloria Renteria, who died in March.
Chiras Bhata, who played high school baseball and now plays cricket, wore a cricket jersey that was in the Astros colors.
"Once in a lifetime," said his friend Viral Bhata, no relation.
There was a lot of nervous energy.
The risk of coming together and caring so much about something is that earnest desire makes a city vulnerable. Earlier in the day, I'd been talking to underground rapper Cal Wayne, who is a star in the Third Ward but mostly unknown outside the inner city. "Every team that goes to a big game gets nervous because they know how much the city needs reviving," he said. "Being an underdog is one thing but knowing people literally need motivating, each of our teams go up in a series only to blow the lead."
The stadium shook when the first run crossed the plate. When the second run scored, Hami Elahmad started giving high-fives to his friend Omar Raad, and to strangers.
Elahmad wore a Clutch City tank top.
"It was crazy here yesterday," he said over the noise, "but it's even crazier today."
There might not be another moment like this in Houston for a decade, maybe two, when not only does the city unite, but that unity manifests in something you could see, and smell, and most of all, hear. Minute Maid Park rocked and rolled Wednesday night, the crowd acting exactly like the game was being played in front of them. Hami and Omar could have watched at home, or in one of the endless bars showing the game around town, but like so many people who came to Minute Maid on Wednesday night, they felt compelled to be with people. No other city has ever had these consistently busy watch parties through an entire postseason, and I wondered if the sprawling and disconnected nature of Houston somehow fueled this desire to come together, to not just live in their little village, not during a time like this.
"It's one time we get to experience it together," Elahmad said.
He looked around, wearing his Houston T-shirt proudly. He and his friends took in the celebration, the Astros staked to a lead they wouldn't give up. The next three hours would be a coronation, a victory lap, and Elahmad would stand in the crook between the upper deck and foul pole and feel the same thing as everyone he could see. That's why he came here, for a communion.
"I want to do it with the city," he said.