King of the Pile

Butch Forrest lives off the land. Need a used doughnut fryer?

And that's the Second Secret of living off the land. In the circular deals that recycle refuse into income, Everybody has to make a little, and the guy who's buying has to save a bunch.

Of course, just making a little here and there hardly makes for a career. The key to junk is scale.

"If you think small," says Butch, "you get small."
Or, Secret No. 3: Think big, my friend, and the world is your Dumpster.

There are many sorts of junkmen. There are the Sanfords and the Sons, traditional junkmen who deal mostly in equipment and cars, who hang their signs on the side of the road inviting one and all to browse the assorted leftovers in a culture that would rather buy a new one than fix an old one.

There are the pack rats who collect for the sake of collecting, or to further some private passion, or to nurture some private neurosis.

And then there's Butch, who, in the words of his friend and legal adviser, Tim Hootman, works behind the scenes and beneath the radar, dealing in "items that are attached to buildings."

Butch thinks Hootman would make a wonderful story himself. That's because Hootman, a lawyer who sometimes takes rusted-out antique cars in lieu of cash payment, is renovating three 1930s-era Pullman train cars as offices at the corner of Pease and Dowling.

Hootman met Butch five years ago at a gun auction in La Porte, and later Butch hired Hootman as his lawyer.

Junkmen, like most men, run into occasional legal trouble, and Butch is no exception, only he doesn't want his particular legal troubles publicized outside of private conversation.

Hootman has advised him mostly for free or for barter. The trailer we're sitting in with Hootman buddy Michael Hadley, for instance -- Butch delivered that.

"Matter of fact," says Hootman, "a lot of stuff right here I've gotten from him. That construction trailer right behind me? I took a Suburban as a fee on a case I handled down in the Valley area; he rode down with me to pick it up once we resolved this case. Then I ended up trading that Suburban for this construction trailer. And then he's in the know with so many people, he put me on to another guy that owed him some favors or something or other, and they sandblasted this trailer and painted it for me. And then those plants across the street? I got those from him about three or four weeks ago."

Hadley is into the whole economic subculture aspect of the junking business. He's from Oklahoma, and he calls it horse-trading. "Now you don't have to have a horse to horse-trade." He says the government has forced people into barter because of the unfairness of the current taxation system.

"If you can make a trade or barter or in any way beat the system," he says, "it is advisable that you do so."

In 1985, as point of reference, Hadley conspired with Hootman to bring to trial a much-publicized and thoroughly staged case in which a topless dancer friend of Hadley's dropped her top at a festival on Sylvan Beach and then had Hootman fight her misdemeanor ticket on the grounds of gender-equal opportunity. She had been videotaped baring her breasts in the vicinity of Hadley, who was doing precisely the same thing.

Hadley tries to tell the story of some man, he can't remember the name, in the Northeast, about 25 years ago, who resorted to barter as a form of protest against the IRS. He lived in a cave, Hadley said, and plowed neighboring farms in exchange for a portion of the crops. Hadley clearly admires the concept.

The Free Lunch, as most everybody knows, is nearing extinction, but it is still reasonable to hope for a decent deal.

The key to finding it is Secret No. 4: There's no such thing as garbage.
Don't look now, but one man's garbage is, as they say, another man's treasure. And from the looks of things, the man living off free garbage may be having a better time than the one who buys it at retail.

Secret No. 5, by the way: Never, ever, buy retail.
The thing is, the guy in the commercial is way too busy paying for that 4-Runner to ever go fishing on a Tuesday. Butch actually goes fishing on Tuesdays whenever he feels like it.

Butch, of course, doesn't just live off the land, he also lives on a couple acres of it, behind a ditch paralleling a blacktop near La Porte. It's a piece of work indeed -- a monument to Butch's persistence as an accumulator ("anything collectible or nailable to a wall"), if not necessarily to his craft as a builder.

He is, in fact, no more precise in the assemblage of things -- his apparent architectural credo -- than he was in screwing holes through his boat's hull.

There's the 100-plus-year-old house -- in which he's lived for 20 -- and that houses a cornucopia of taxidermy and collections of everything from Mickey Gilley's endorsed 1985 paychecks to model trains.

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