King of the Pile

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

The product, in the barter world, has to sell itself. Need is the salesman. The trick to junking is knowing how to buy at such a deep discount that the junker can more or less give the stuff away and still maintain a profit margin.

The walls of R.J.'s apartment are testament to his skill in this regard. They're covered with the signs of The Flying Dutchman, The Jetty, Yaga's, any number of classic and not-so-classic Galveston restaurants he's "liquidated." He's got a beautiful wood bar, with brass footrails and glowering brass eagles assembled from four different restaurant closings, and a giant redwood rising sun covering one whole wall.

"It's all antiques and shit," he says, "but I probably haven't put $100 into this place."

From restaurants, R.J.'s moving up to hotels. He just purchased the contents of one in Louisiana. He names the place, but like Butch earlier, doesn't want it printed.

"This is not a family business," he says. "We don't invite the uncle."
He's being willfully cryptic, but the uncle to whom he refers is Uncle Sam, and at issue, or preferably not, is the Internal Revenue Service.

He's got a stack of photos of hotel room interiors, with beds and paintings and desks and chairs and carpet and bathroom fixtures that'll go down in the demolition if R.J. can't find a place for them.

He's a week away from starting the actual salvage operation, but all the beds, he says, are already sold.

It's getting dark by the time Butch mentions his monitors, and it happens that R.J. knows a place in Houston that'll buy them for $3 a pop, which makes for a smallish score on the hotel scale. Still, with Butch's access and R.J.'s buyer and Butch's trailer and a little bit of hauling, that's close to a $600 day between them. They make plans to get together over the weekend and turn the trash to cash, but questions about the business have put R.J. in a reflective mood.

He's 46 already, and Butch is 53. R.J. doesn't know anybody younger than himself who's doing what he does, and he wonders who will be the next generation's junk geniuses.

"I just don't see the young talent coming up," he says.

There's one more stop on Butch's junking tour, but he won't say what it is. He drives down to the seawall and left, toward the Bolivar Ferry.

Turns out the Bolivar Ferry is one of Butch's favorite things in the world.
"I always dreamed I'd buy one of these ferries one day. They run 'em for a while and then retire 'em."

What would he do with his ferry?
"Make a house on it, ferry around."
As the ferry slides across the black water toward the peninsula, Butch turns his storytelling to subjects far afield from junking. About how he grew up in a boy's home in Amarillo, on which subject he chooses not to elaborate.

About his youth as a commercial fisherman working for tips in the Gulf ( "You learn to recognize the lizards fast, and you stay close to them. You know what I mean. Lizardskin boots. Anybody has lizard boots, you know they've got money.")

About his tumultuous family life. Butch claims to have been married five different times to three different women. There was a marriage, a divorce, remarriage and another divorce with the first woman. Ditto with a second. Followed by 20 years with current wife, Laura.

"I done tamed down."
He has a 21-year-old son by the second marriage, and he's now helping raise Laura's three kids by her previous marriage. One of those kids recently made him a grandfather.

He tells tales that beg questioning. His two years in Vietnam sound like Gomer Pyle meets a day in the park. He says he never killed anyone, walked around with candy which he distributed to children, and carried a camera with which he "shot" people. He makes a big deal out of the "shot" pun, like it's something very funny that only he has thought of.

He says he got out of the service and went to San Francisco, where he apprenticed to a glass blower at a laser manufacturer and parlayed that talent into a side business as the inventor of the glass pot pipe.

He says he worked as a laborer on the Astrodome and that there was a competition among the workers to see who could write his name on the highest point on the structure. He says the portal from the center catwalk to the small platform on the dome's exterior apex is crowded with names, but that only he was chosen to go through that portal, shimmy to the top of a pole and attach a windsock sort of device.

It's all pretty hard to believe, but back at Butch's house, he pulls out a photo album and turns to a Polaroid that clearly frames an exterior view from the top of the Astrodome. There's a windsock device in the foreground. It has Butch Forest's name on it.

Fishing, he says, is probably the one thing for which he ever had a real talent. He just knows where the fish will be. He can feel a hook enter a fish's mouth before the fish knows it. And he loves being out on the water. Even if he's just taking the Bolivar Ferry for free.

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