King of the Pile

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

It does not, however, house Butch's wife. The back of Butch's house was charred to near-uselessness in a fire last year, and Laura refuses to move in until he repairs it.

Out back is a pool that Butch salvaged from a health club. He backhoed a hole in the ground, pushed the fiberglass pool into it, filled around the edges with sand, and paved it round with bricks laid lightly on the soil.

It's dirty now, in winter, but it runs in season on salvaged pumps.
Out back are sheds with contents that defy brief description and trailers filled with entire abandoned McDonald's franchises. A weedy pond is home to Butch's 11-foot alligator, which he raised from a baby, which eats out of his hand, and which isn't always around, since there's no pen to keep him from sliding out for a day's fun in the nearby bayou.

In front, there's what advertises itself as a sandwich shop, and which in fact is three or four salvaged modular buildings and food carts jammed up together and stocked with salvaged stainless steel kitchen equipment and racks with bags of Easter-packaged jelly beans Butch bought for pennies on the dollar after the holiday.

There's a snarling, 20-foot great white shark rising up off the roof, and right now, since his kitchen burned down, it's where Butch cooks his meals. He says he's going to open it someday. He says "next week," but he's been saying that for a while.

The place is a junkyard, is what it looks like, and Butch has a running narration for every trailer and every pile -- an appraisal of the object's new retail value, a recollection of what he got it for (usually nothing), and a speculation as to what it might be good for, what it might be worth and to whom.

He shrugs off any suggestion that the junk might be growing in a little too tight around him, devolving from controlled chaos into something less desirable.

He's erected a fence and actually cleaned the place up lately, he says, in a preemptive attempt to ward off potential complaints.

Besides, there's Secret No. 6, formulated early by this man who has probably never cleaned up his room, who explained that he hadn't ever started junking, per se -- he'd just always junked, because he never had anything to start with: You can never have too much junk.

He works, as he said, on his own schedule, and sometimes that schedule runs from very early in the morning to very late at night.

Sometimes, says Laura, his wife of 12 years, he "leaves and just stays gone."

When I finally got him on the phone again, he was headed out junking, but he agreed to wait half an hour if I wanted to tag along.

We piled into Butch's Econoline van and headed down Texas 146 toward Galveston. There was a collection of inspirational cassette tapes ("Weathering the Storms of Life (2)" and "New Life Christian Fellowship") on the dash, but Butch didn't listen to anything, because that breaks his focus when he's on the lookout for hidden treasure by the side of the road.

Butch pointed out half a dozen little restaurants along the way that had built their kitchens or their dining rooms on Butch-provided salvage. He unfolded his wallet and pulled out a half-dozen cards, each with his name, the name of a restaurant and a remaining number of free meals on offer.

Butch doesn't often pay for dinner.
He's going to look for some lighting fixtures at an abandoned mall. Butch needs them because he's helping out with the construction of the New Life Christian Fellowship's new home in La Porte. He's not really a religious person, he explains, with a nod at the tapes, but he likes the sound of the preacher's wife's voice, which is the voice on the cassettes, so he's been listening in.

Then he points up to one of the electric power lines that skirt this stretch of road, at a twiggy jumble nestled in a trestle.

"You know what those are, right? Parrot nests. They come off the boats. Hundred dollar bills, just flying around."

He hits 61st Street and turns north back toward Houston and enters The Island, a hulking roadside mall that's been abandoned as many years as it was ever open. It's precisely the sort of deal Butch likes, where a demolition is scheduled, and a junkman cozy with the demolisher gets a few days or a few weeks alone to part out what's left.

Except Butch didn't get this deal. An acquaintance named Larry did.
But Larry wasn't here today. His son was, and he guided us back to the remains of a church that once held worship in the mall. Toward the back, behind several hundred gliding theater seats and assorted podia, was a pile of the light fixtures Butch was looking for. He needed 15 and began sorting through the half dozen individual parts that comprised a single unit.

"How much does he want for these?"
"Ten dollars apiece for those right there."
Butch points to a nearby stack of larger, presumably more valuable, fixtures.

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