King of the Pile

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

"You know what?" he says to Larry's son. "He told me those were $5 apiece. Can you call him and ask him if I can have 'em for five?"

Larry's son says he can't do that, something about it being Larry's anniversary and do not disturb.

Both men just look around silently for a few seconds, waiting for some invisible cue.

The son says, "You want to split the difference?"
"Yeah, that sounds good to me."
In the end, the New Life Christian Fellowship gets 15 fixtures, which Butch estimates would retail at between $50 and $60 a pop, for free. Salvageman Larry gets a little money. And Butch ... what exactly does Butch get out of this deal, besides the warm fuzzy feeling of having contributed to the good cause?

Not much this time, and that's where Secret No. 7 comes in: It's all right to get screwed once in a while. If you let 'em beat you once, they'll owe you.

Tim DeWalt is a more traditional junkman than Butch, but he's known Butch, he reckons, 15 years. Tim ran an auto salvage yard in La Porte for almost a quarter century before quitting it three years ago. He had started it as a sideline to his day job; for 23 years, he taught the industrial and mechanical arts. These days he's just got the wrecker service to mess with.

"Butch has junked all kinds of things. He's got a couple of friends that demolish buildings, and they'll call him, and he'll get to spend a few days alone picking through whatever's there."

Most every junker, by the way, uses the same sort of locution in talking about these sweetheart deals. It's always framed as an opportunity to spend some time alone with the junk, as if it were a lady, perhaps even a virgin, and the junkers had been granted the privilege of pitching first woo.

DeWalt remembered one of those deals. It was a car dealership near Almeda Mall. The demo company called Butch, Butch called DeWalt, and DeWalt paid $500 for a car painting booth, took it down, put an ad in the paper and sold it to a guy in Mexico for $8,000. New, it'd cost $25,000.

"You have to know what you're buying and deal accordingly. Butch is pretty sharp on that kind of stuff. He's talented at it. He knows a lot of people. He's got the gift of gab. And I'll say one thing about him: He enjoys life. He'll take off and go fishing."

The next stop is one of Butch's favored junking grounds. He calls it his "honeyhole." He doesn't want the name revealed. The place is a large institution, one with substantial disposal needs, necessitating a Materials Management Division, with which Butch is on good terms.

Beneath the low concrete ceiling, fluorescent lights illuminate row upon row of retired desks, and clusters of chairs from metal and folding to leather and rolling. Stacked stainless steel racks of slightly obsolete computer equipment recede all the way into the underground horizon.

Butch hasn't been here in a month or so, but the man on watch remembers him, and they strike up a conversation.

In the course of things it comes out that there've been some administrative shakeups at the institution. Some things have changed.

"A lot of these places," says Butch, "have these hierarchies, and you can go around and around and around before you find the one guy who can say, 'Yes, go ahead, take it away.' "

Butch had found that guy and made this basement his honeyhole. Now it would be someone else responsible for saying yes, or many someones Butch had yet to meet, and he'd have to go through the circles again to lay his claim to this institutional treasure trove. His friend in the basement had to get permission now.

Secret No. 8: It is, very definitely, who you know.
"But," said the guy in the basement after 20 minutes' banter, "you know what I do have ..." and led Butch over to a dozen pallets weighed down with computer and surveillance monitors. These, said Basement Man, were genuine no-need-to-account-for-it garbage. The landfills wouldn't take them because of a gas in their innards, and they were just eating space at the institution, which needed them gone.

Did Butch want all several hundred of them?
Yes, Butch did. For here was a picture-perfect example of Secret No. 9: Volume, Volume, Volume.

"I will take anything you've got," Butch says, "as long as you've got a lot of it."

R.J. lives up a mildewy concrete stairway in a rambling, partially built-out apartment over an equally rambling warehouse below, the whole of which R.J. rents for $400 a month. According to his buddy Butch, R.J. is the junker king of Galveston Island, a self-styled latter-day pirate.

R.J.'s hair is greasy and longish, and he may not have bathed that day, and he is convincing when he says, "Look at me. You wouldn't buy anything from me," even though he proves to be exceptionally nice to talk to.

"I used to have a used car lot," he explains. "I couldn't make any money selling the damn things. But I made a good living buying them."

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