King of the Pile
Butch Forest is 53, on the tall side, gregarious, strong, nondescriptly handsome, with the sort of casually bearish bearing and the sort of textured skin tone and the sort of thatchy blond forearm hair that begs he be described as sandy. Central casting might pitch him as a car salesman or a once-famous athlete.
He's showing off his boat, the one he likes to take out into the Gulf of Mexico, 30, 40, maybe 50 miles offshore -- whatever distance might be necessary on any particular day to put Butch Forest out in the blue water, where he can see the fish hovering beneath his hull, and where, according to Butch, who is every bit as formidable a storyteller as he is a fisherman, he pretty much has his way with a rod and reel.
It's not much, the boat, maybe 27 feet, junked on the inside, with ratty carpet and disintegrating vinyl, but it has a fighting chair, a good loud stereo and a 200-gallon ice chest bolted to the floor. But what Butch is most interested in showing off at the moment are these few decorative strips of oak that he's salvaged from an out-of-business auto detailer's warehouse and screwed to the inside of the hull to hold the ratty carpet up on the side wall.
The thing is, Butch used screws longer than they needed to be. Long enough, actually, to have spiraled all the way through the hull and punctured the outer skin of the boat that Butch likes to take 30, 40, maybe 50 miles offshore into the blue water. Butch is showing this off because he thinks it's funny.
"How much water do you think can come through those little holes?" he asks. "I've got good pumps on this boat anyway."
That the pumps too are salvaged, that the entire boat and everything in it is, in fact, the unwarranted, unpedigreed, who-knows-where-it-has-been product of casual horse-trading, under-the-table barter and slapdash modification bothers Butch Forest not a whit.
While the average Joe trades away hours and days and whole weeks of fantasy life to pay the bills and notes of modern life, Butch figures -- and so far he seems to have been right -- that a little first-hand know-how and a whole lot of third-hand junk is all he'll need to keep himself afloat out there in the deep blue water.
And therein lies the accumulated wisdom of a man who has learned how to live off the land.
Living off the land. The image conjured is one of nut-munching nature lovers searching for epiphanies of simplicity in landscapes unmediated by consumerism. Or outback survivalists stockpiling seeds and digging self-sufficient holes in which to hide from fallout -- Y2K, nuclear strike, pick your apocalypse.
But here at the ass end of a twentieth century in which a subconscious collective need for any sort of meaningful connection to the landscape has led, oddly, to the presence of a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle in three out of four paved suburban driveways, Butch Forest actually, truly, lives off the land.
Or, say it this way: Butch trades tractor-trailers full of auctioned kitty litter and rifles through Dumpsters.
He's a junkman. He collects other people's castoffs and leftovers and finds a use for them. In so doing, he's amassed a paid-for house, a paid-for van, a paid-for boat, and aside from junking, which is certainly work, but which Butch convincingly insists he'd do regardless, he doesn't even have a job.
He doesn't have a credit card, either. He figures he's written a total of maybe five checks, maximum, in the past ten years. He swears he never even has any cash, that most all his transactions are trades and barter, but he says this with the sort of vocal wink that makes it clear this is not the whole truth.
"I eat when I want, I sleep when I want, and I work when I want," says Butch, who almost always smiles. "You wouldn't believe what people throw away."
I first met Butch because I needed some firewood and didn't want to pay market price, which runs about $150 a cord. Butch's classified ad in the Chronicle offered same for $20.
I called. Butch said he only had about 15,000 cords left, so I'd better hurry on down to his place in La Porte. And while he had me on the phone, did I need any mulch? There was plenty of mulch, too, hot and steamy, the good stuff, there for the taking. Did I have a trailer? Friends with trucks? You've never heard someone try so hard to throw something away.
Here's the First Secret of living off the land: They Want It Gone.
Seems Butch had a buddy with a tree removal service. For 15 years, the buddy had been been dumping chopped wood on an otherwise empty lot in La Porte. Local authorities finally decided the wooden hill was a hazard and told Mr. Tree Removal to clean it up.
"You give that mountain to me," he said, "and I'll make it gone."
So Butch made the deal. The authorities, seeing a regular diminishment of the log mountain, take the heat off Tree Removal Guy, who avoids tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. Butch gets a steady stream of twenty-dollar bills in return for no greater investment than a little classified ad. And I get as much firewood as I can carry for a price so low it may as well be free.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"Isn't this great?"
When the ferry docks in Bolivar, Butch cranks up the Econoline and drives onto the shoulder. He waits for the traffic to pass him by. When the road is clear, he pulls a U-turn and drives back onto the ferry headed to Galveston. He'll continue on late into the night, carrying forth on the going price of mud minnows free for the taking if you net them in the ditches near the causeway, and checking in on a few favorite Dumpsters. There's nothing much to be had this night but a rifle stock poking out from a pile of coffee grounds, and though he senses that the rest of the rifle is in there somewhere, he doesn't go looking for it.
"I don't like to dig around in garbage, this wet stuff."
Tomorrow he'll go out looking again, unless he goes fishing instead, because Secret No. 10, when you're hustling garbage for a living, is that you never know what America might be throwing away today. Which, to Butch, translates like this: "Every day I wake up, and it's a brand new world.