“What’s the mayor’s name?” a smiling young woman asks, leaning her head through the window of her SUV while stopped in one of the drive-through lanes at the new location of Rudy’s Chicken on Lancaster Road. “I forget.”
I know she doesn’t mean Mike Rawlings. She’s referring to the tall man in the burgundy cowboy boots who just walked past her, the guy who has been directing traffic for the past half-hour—moving pylons, waving his arms, hollering and fussing, smiling and cajoling—helping customers navigate Rudy’s new two-lane drive-through.
“Dwaine Caraway,” I say.
She turns to her passenger. “See, that’s the mayor of Dallas.” She turns back. “That’s what I was trying to tell my girl here. That’s the mayor of Dallas right there.”
Even though she’s speaking in the present tense, the smiling young woman in the SUV is not entirely wrong. Caraway was the mayor on an interim basis, from February to June in 2011, after Tom Leppert resigned to run for a U.S. Senate seat. Now he’s back on the City Council, term-limited out next year.
In District 4—the sprawling area south of downtown bordered by I-45, I-30, and Loop 12 that he’s represented as a city councilman since 2007, and lived in since 1961—he might as well still be mayor. Touring Caraway’s district with him is like a real-life version of the scene in Goodfellas when Henry Hill winds his way through the back of the Copacabana, with a handshake and familiar word for everyone he encounters.
Except in this case, the scene lasts six hours—an endless stream of honks and waves, shoulder-to-shoulder hugs, friendly reminders, and, occasionally, stern admonishments—and instead of a front-row table at the Copa to watch Henny Youngman perform, Caraway winds up eating a tuna Flatizza at a Subway, inside the Walmart he helped get built on a hill that used to be a junkyard full of buses and pit bulls.
“All right, mama,” Caraway says, walking past the SUV again. “Get ready to rock.”
“Even before he was in office, he could drive down the street—this is before he is in office—he could drive down the street and people would wave, walk up to the car, knock on the window, tell him to roll it down,” says Michael Davis, Caraway’s appointee to the City Plan Commission and his longtime right-hand man, as we pull up to Caraway’s modest house in the Cedar Crest neighborhood. His wife, former Democratic State Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, arrives not long after we do, home from a trip to Philadelphia, wearing an Elect Barbara Mallory Caraway t-shirt.
“People beeping, waving—nobody here I’ve seen have that reaction,” Davis continues. “And it’s not just District 4; it’s just everywhere. They want to talk to him about something. They remember him from school. I guess it’s just different when you grow up in the area, and you’re always involved in politics and crazy things.”
Caraway is in his early 60s and listens to the old R&B records he grew up with when he drives. (What he drives: a black BMW 750i, with DWAYNE—yes, DWAYNE, not DWAINE—vanity plates.) Wedged between the passenger seat and center console is a jewel case for a Curtis Mayfield CD. When he was driving home one night about 15 years ago and noticed the under-construction clubhouse at Cedar Crest Golf Course was on fire—the clubhouse he fought to get rebuilt while he was on the city’s parks board, after it mysteriously burned down in the 1960s—he was listening to James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Right now, it’s Johnnie Taylor’s “Running Out of Lies”: “You know, a lot of times, I don’t want to talk about it / I try, I try to get it off my mind / But then my conscience—you know everybody got a conscience / My conscience get to bothering me.”
For better or worse, Caraway rarely wrestles with his conscience, at least regarding whether or not he should say something. The answer is always “yes,” and the time is always “right now.” It’s partly why, a few weeks before I met him on a Tuesday in the middle of May, Caraway was described to me as “the most trill councilman ever.” If you don’t listen to much Bun B—and if you do, bear with me—“trill” is a portmanteau combining “true” and “real,” and I suspect few council members, in Dallas or anywhere else, have had a word popularized by a Southern rapper ascribed to them.
Since he’s been on the Council—and, okay, well before—he’s been the squeaky wheel that an oil spill couldn’t fix. While speaking his mind, and usually doing so at top volume, has gotten results—you don’t get a hot-sheet motel torn down quietly—it also means Caraway overshadows himself. His bigger ideas (his wide-ranging campaign against sagging pants that landed him on Dr. Phil, the single-use plastic-bag ordinance he got passed earlier this year) obscure the smaller, block-by-block work he’s been doing, building what he calls “little nooks” of retail activity.
An example: last May, during a meeting of the Council’s quality of life committee, Caraway brought up one of his little nooks, a few blocks of Cedar Crest Boulevard between Bonnie View Road and Stella Avenue. The idea: with a little help, a loosening of the rules governing sidewalk cafes and awnings and so on, it could be another Bishop Arts District. Certainly an achievable goal, given that Bishop Arts wasn’t always Bishop Arts.
But the only idea anyone remembers coming from Caraway at that meeting was his proposal to dig up Main Street and turn it into a canal, so Dallas could have a river walk like San Antonio.
Later in the day, I ask Caraway if he thinks he gets in his own way sometimes.
“Nah—they just don’t want to hear it,” he says. “I’ve been making too much progress. You ain’t seen nothing but progress. You ain’t seen nothing but progress. Man, come on. When I’m ranting and raving and all that stuff—but look at the results from ranting and raving. Motels are shut down. Things are here. Community’s clean. But it takes every bit of that just to get to these points. And if it were to ever be where folks really are sincere about the things that we should be doing, we wouldn’t need all that shit.”
Caraway has five phones.
He may actually have more—six or seven or even eight is no more ridiculous a number than five—but he has five with him today, all within arm’s reach in the front seat of his BMW. Three of them, the ones he uses the most, are almost identical Samsung models, and so when someone calls him, and someone calls him pretty regularly—you don’t wind up with five phones by accident—he has to pick up one or two of them before locating the correct phone. It might be his daughter, Hawaii, or her daughters, Lanai and Maui. Or maybe it’s city staff, or a developer, or a neighbor, or a constituent, or his parents, or someone from his advertising and consulting company, or maybe a friend. It’s always someone.
Playing this phone shell game—the call was on the teal Samsung on the right all along!—doesn’t faze him in the slightest, so I assume Caraway carries five (or six or seven or even eight) phones with him all the time.
Caraway is well over 6 feet tall and, between the heels of those burgundy cowboy boots and a couple of inches of gray-flecked afro, he looms even larger. He has a voice to match, a cannon that fires italics and exclamation points and never needs reloading. He punctuates his sentences with his hands, nudging, tapping, elbowing—sometimes grabbing and shaking the arm of his listener.
“Come on, man.” He nudges me with his elbow. “This is what the fight is about. You see the opportunity. But it’s the missed opportunity.” He taps me a couple of times on the knee and points to the window, to make sure I see the row of knockdown buildings and overgrown trees he’s talking about.
“You look at all of this. What do you do with this?” He grabs my shoulder and shakes it. “And look what’s behind it—downtown.” He almost whispers this. “The whole Trinity. The whole piece of it. It’s right there. The whole piece. It’s all right here. So when the mayor is talking about growing south, well, goddamn it”—he softly punches me on the arm—“I’ve got a good place for him to get started!”
He laughs, staccato, huh huh huh, like the engine of a lawn mower trying to catch.
Caraway was the president of his senior class at Roosevelt High School, right here on Bonnie View Road, in 1970. But he got his first taste of government the year before.
“This was all dirt,” he says as we drive up a hill not far from the campus. “This was my first challenge to City Hall. We had to walk up this dirt hill, through the mud, to get to school. I had these sidewalks put in, right here. So that was my first interaction with City Hall, in 1969. We had to go and petition the city to get these sidewalks.”
Cedar Crest Golf Course is just around the corner from his house. When Barbara served on the City Council from 1993 to 2001, she named her husband to the parks board. A music promoter, advertising salesman, and former radio DJ, Caraway didn’t have any prior political experience. The golf course was one of his first big projects.
“There was this one-story, cinder-block building here,” Caraway says. “Little gray thing.”
The old golfers who played there told him that wasn’t always the case, that back in the day, Sunset, Kimball, and South Oak Cliff high schools held their proms at Cedar Crest, in a grand, three-story clubhouse, before it burned down, not long after black families from South Dallas started moving to Oak Cliff in the early 1960s. One of them—“this little old man, he had four fingers, Mr. Moore”—brought him some photos.
“So, at that particular point, I began, of course, to get a little bit more vocal and started challenging.”
He found out what the old clubhouse had been worth—about $3 million, versus the $300,000 or so its replacement was on the rolls for—and started hollering and screaming. The money eventually appeared, but he kept hollering and screaming.
“ ‘I want the same type of a clubhouse that was here before and I want it as white as the White House’—that’s what I told them,” he says. “That’s why it’s this color, No. 1. I told them I wanted white sand. I don’t play golf that well, but I said, ‘When Tiger Woods is playing, he’s got a bunch of white sand out there.’ But our sand was old—like dirt out there. You see that white sand over there?” He pokes at the windshield at a mound next to the parking lot.
“Said we couldn’t have a driving range. Said we couldn’t have one because of the trees and all this. There’s a driving range over there now. Okay. We had to kick their butt. It’s a shame we had to kick their butt to make ’em do it. We didn’t have irri-ga-tion. These folks were dragging freaking water hoses to water this goddamn golf course, okay? But now we have irrigation. I understand why people don’t like me, because I’m a person that’s going to fight to get things done. But you see: a beautiful golf course. You see: white sand. You see: the driving range. You see: irrigation.”
He pulls out of the parking lot to head around to Illinois Avenue, where he saw the fire that almost burned down the clubhouse again before it was even finished, slowing down to point out the $70,000 porte cochere he says he fought (of course) to get included and the electrical lines he fought (of course) to get buried. We are driving parallel to the course, along a wrought-iron fence he fought (of course) to get built around Cedar Crest.
“Of course, now I’ve got to fight to get them to come paint it,” he says, as we pass a rusty section of fence, and then another one. “Come on, man. Why do I have to wait to be the one to say come paint? I shouldn’t have to do that, all right. Little bitty things I’ve got to pay attention to.”
The revitalization of the golf course is just one of Caraway’s stories, but it’s also sort of all of his stories—hollering and screaming to get something done, then hollering and screaming to make sure it stays done.
Caraway’s parents were one of the black families that moved to Oak Cliff in the early 1960s. Mattie and Bruce bought their house on Corinth Street Road in 1961 and have been there ever since. Mattie had a beauty shop in the back. They’re both 87 and retired now.
Caraway knocks on the door and is greeted by Bonnie, the woman who takes care of his mother, who has dementia.
“Hey, Mama,” he says over Bonnie’s shoulder. He walks in and hugs the tiny woman swallowed in her housedress. His father is still asleep.
“Mother, where’s your medicine? I need to know where your medicine is.”
“You don’t need to know where my medicine is unless I want you to know,” Mattie says. She’s tiny, but she’s still the boss.
Bonnie eventually finds it as we’re on our way out. “She ain’t took none of it,” Caraway says, heading back in the house.
“Let him deal with it,” Bonnie says, when the door closes behind him. “She already jumped at me today.”
The soundtrack for our trip is not Johnnie Taylor—he turned it off after a few songs—but the constant chiming of the BMW reminding him to put on his seat belt. Caraway drives however he wants. We stop at green lights and sit there through three light changes if he has a point to make. We cruise slowly with hazards flashing, or not; we stop wherever, whenever.
He has a voice to match, a cannon that fires italics and exclamation points and never needs reloading.
He has a voice to match, a cannon that fires italics and exclamation points and never needs reloading.
“When I’m in staff’s ass and I’m in code’s butt, I’m saying, ‘Hey, man, why am I the one gotta come show you this?’ Okay? Now, code is doing a great job. I do not complain with code. They respond to me quicker than anybody. But I want all this torn down. Yes, I want it torn down. Look at this. Do I want this? Does the community deserve this? Look at that man’s pants.” He stops abruptly and leans across me to yell out the open window:
“Pull up them pants!”
While the car is stopped, it’s a good opportunity to point out that, not long ago, Caraway could not have done that. Not yell at someone to pull up his pants, but do so through an open window. He had complained about Columbia Packing Company’s slaughterhouse operation for years, how it was polluting the environment—and his district—in every way imaginable. After pictures of the Trinity River stained red with pig blood surfaced, he was finally proven right. The facility still exists as a meat distributor, but he got the slaughterhouse shut down.
“And right here, you can let your windows down now, and you don’t smell nothing, and you don’t hear no pigs squealing,” he says. “You could not do this. These people in this neighborhood—I mean, the trucks would park right out here, with the pigs on them, squealing, getting ready to go in there and get killed. Okay? And this smell would go all the way to my house, and across the bridge. These guys are a nuisance.”
The new location of Rudy’s Chicken has only been open a couple of days. It’s important to Caraway that everything runs as smoothly as possible. He knows how many eyes are on it, because of the way the deal to move Rudolph Edwards’ popular chicken joint just one lot over from its previous location was reported. Since last May, when the city agreed to invest $890,000 on this corner of Lancaster Road, it has been called a grant. In the interest of accuracy, I’ll let Caraway explain why that’s not true.
“Rudy owned this,” he says, once the drive-through is under control. “This clear spot right here? Rudy owned that. That was a building that’s no longer here. From right here, there was a fence—there used to be an old car yard here. Rudy owned this. Right here where Rudy is, that was Katie May’s. Rudy bought that.”
In other words, that $890,000 wasn’t a grant, he says. Much of the money went toward purchasing the land Edwards had smartly acquired, with the provision that he move his business to the corner so the rest of the property could be developed. He spent more than $600,000 of that money building a new restaurant.
“And then they say they gave him all that?” Caraway says. “The city now owns this, this, that, this—all of this behind and across the street. If it hadn’t been for Rudy, they wouldn’t have an opportunity for what’s getting ready to happen. This building is coming down. There’s a new development—a business/retail strip that’s coming right here. In exchange, Rudy deeded all this back to the city. So they didn’t give him that money. I say, ‘Why y’all lie?’ ‘Well, you know, they wrote it up wrong. This is the way they presented it to the Council.’
“This is why I don’t trust them, because they write up any goddamn thing, tell us anything, we’re voting on it, then they try to clean it up after we’re gone.”
If you don’t understand why the city would invest in a corner anchored by a fast-food chicken restaurant, I can tell you that both lanes were full for the entire hour we were there. So there is always going to be car traffic. I watched people wait patiently in their cars for almost half an hour, and not one person left. Why?
“We call it ‘death chicken,’ ” says the woman in the SUV. “’Cause we about to kill each other to get it.”
Farther down Lancaster, near the VA hospital and Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, there used to be “two sleazy, drug-infested, prostitute-carrying, hot-sheet motels”—the Southern Comfort and the Sunset. Caraway and Michael Davis, along with the late Bishop Larry McGriff, worked to get them closed.
“But I want to show you what we got now,” Caraway says, slowing to a crawl in the right lane. “Look at the Urban Village.”
The apartment complex we’re at would not be out of place in Uptown or anywhere else north of Interstate 30. The developer is Sherman Roberts, the same guy who is working on the deal around Rudy’s Chicken.
“Look at what was the two hot-sheet motels. We stood here, and we shut ’em down, then we tore ’em down, then we found a way to find the resources to get this project. Let me tell you something: these are as nice and nicer than the Gables. These are fantastic. And my thing has been, if you clean it up, then folks will come. We cleaned it up, and look what’s here. Hey, man—off the freaking chain.”
Caraway has found it is harder to get a rotting house torn down than a hot-sheet motel. He stops to show me what he’s talking about. The house he shows me could only technically be called a house. The roof has caved in, and the walls look like they’d follow with a hard push.
“We have the ability to knock this bitch down tomorrow, and if anybody don’t like it, sue us. Ain’t nothing but another lawsuit that we’re going to end up settling somehow, anyway.” He laughs. “That’s why I’d never be the mayor.”
He laughs even harder.
The Pizza King we pass on Lancaster was once a Pizza Inn, and that Pizza Inn was where Caraway worked when he came home after college at Texas Southern University.
“They used to call me the Black Italian,” he says. “I could fix the hell out of a pizza.”
Caraway calls fellow councilman Scott Griggs “Chucky.”
“Like that little bad doll,” he says. They do their National Night Out together. “I call him Chucky because he is something else. I love me some Scott Griggs. Okay. I think I’m gonna change Philip Kingston’s name to ‘Spanky.’ Because they are too much. I love ’em and enjoy working with them.”
We pull up to the Apple Inn, near where Loop 12 hits I-35. Caraway tried to close it for years. “Over here was nothing but drugs and prostitutes,” he says. “I was shutting these sons of bitches down.”
But he backed off when a young Indian couple bought the motel.
“They redid this whole damn thing, and they did a hell of a job,” he says, as we open the door to a room that—apart from the giant, red, heart-shaped jacuzzi tub—looks like a page from a Crate & Barrel catalog. “Everything in here now is new. They rent by the day, not by the hour. If you are going to do it right, then I’m with you. They redid it to the point that, if I had some family in town, I’d let them stay here.”
He lowers his voice and leans in. “Now, I’m talking about some distant cousins, you understand.”
After lunch at the Walmart Subway, Caraway walks over to the pharmacy to pick up his mother’s dementia medication. He sneaks up on a woman sitting on a nearby bench to say hello. She lights up when she sees who is tapping her on the shoulder.
“You know what, you made my day when I got my Mother’s Day card,” she tells Caraway, after hugging him. “Made my day. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“There’s the famous Kliff Klub,” Caraway says, pointing down Singing Hills Drive from a stoplight on Ledbetter. “You have cocktails every now and then? Well, you go in there, tell them—hey, baby, how you doing?” A woman waves to him from the corner. “Whoever you are. When you go in there, you tell them to just give you—if you want Tito’s and cranberry—tell them you want cranberry with a dash of Tito’s. Other than that? You’re gonna have that much Tito’s”—he spreads his thumb and forefinger about 3 inches apart—“with that much cranberry.” He pinches his fingers together until they almost touch.
He says Tito’s vodka and cranberry juice is his cocktail of choice when he has cocktails every now and then. But I already know that, as do however many thousands of people listen to The Ticket’s Morning Musers.
A couple of months earlier, Caraway went on the show to talk about his plastic-bag initiative. Somehow the conversation turned to what he ate the previous day. He skipped breakfast, he said, had a 9-ounce strip sirloin with sautéed spinach and mushrooms for lunch, and, for dinner, a vodka-and-cranberry, along with some beer nuts.
Caraway’s term is up next year, but there’s still so much left to do. All the stuff he has to keep hollering and screaming about, and all the stuff he hasn’t had a chance to holler and scream about yet. The stray dogs (“You see a dog with a curly tail, he will bite your ass”), the houses and apartment buildings he knows are drug havens but can’t get anything done about, the plasma bank where drug dealers sit and wait for customers like vultures, getting the city to give him one goddang D-Link bus to run up and down Lancaster, painting the fence at Cedar Crest Golf Course, and on, and on, and on.
There’s more than he can get to, and he knows it. He’s had almost eight years, and he’s just getting started. For every success—the Walmart, the DART Police headquarters he had moved into the district, the slow but steady progress of his little nooks—there are a handful of problems. He has less than a year to do it all. And then what?
“I’m gonna do something,” he says. “I do plan to continue public service. There are four or five options that I will look at and consider. It just depends on which option becomes available.” He’s choosing his words carefully. It’s a rarity for him. “I do not
intend to challenge incumbents. But depending on the circumstances, I’m gonna leave all options open at this point.” He pauses.
“But it is going to be something. Even if I sit out a year and come back and run and stay eight more to finish out this stuff.”
And we drive on.