The street lamps are still on at 6:45 in the morning, and Rick Butler is ambling from his van toward the MacArthur BART station. He stops at the newspaper box on the corner, picks up two piles of the Oakland Tribune, and wanders to the other side of the entrance to put them on a rack serving passengers arriving from that direction. He walks between the box and the rack every few minutes, collecting coins in a jar and giving change to people buying newspapers.
This is Butler’s routine every morning, but it’s not his job—he is not a newsvendor. The real newsvendor, Boyd Woodsoe, shows up twenty minutes later and brings him doughnuts for breakfast. Butler doesn’t drive his van to the station either; it’s parked in the BART lot where he sleeps for free. During the rest of the day Butler has his own business in front of the station entrance, where he sits in a chair tilted against a mailbox and sells hats he’s made that cost $10 to $25 each. “I taught myself,” Butler says of how he learned to make hats. “I also make scarves and purses on order…I don’t make gloves because I have to make two. I am too lazy.” The business is a little slow because of the heat around this time of year, but Butler says he’ll take more orders when the holiday season comes. “I don’t need a lot of money anyway,” he says, biting into a hotdog a passerby has given him. True.
In 20 minutes, Butler can crochet a yarn ball into a hat that he says is unique. Like a mini handicraft exhibition, the hats are collected on a blanket laid on the edge of a plaza strewn with cigarette butts. The colorful hats easily stand out from the surrounding grey concrete. “Every hat is different,” says Butler. “I take a picture of every hat I make so I remember.”
He also takes photos of all his customers with his cell phone, which functions purely as a camera most of the time. Butler’s “apprentices” occasionally come to make hats with him at the BART station. Mike Bradley, an engineering student at UC Berkeley, is one of them. Bradley was on his way to class when he met Butler about seven months ago. “I said, ‘Can you make me a blue hat?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’” Bradley recalls, but says Butler never actually made him the hat. “So I asked, ‘Can you teach me how to make hats?’” Bradley recalls, “He said, ‘Yeah, bring some yarn.’ So I brought some yarn and he taught me.” Now several hats made by Bradley are lying among Butler’s. People can barely tell the difference.
Butler says he’s sold thousands of hats since he moved to the BART station in late April, 2007. But his hats are not what get him the most attention. “People don’t come to see me. They don’t come to see the hats. They come to see the dogs.” Butler says. “Don’t get me wrong, I am not mad.” His dogs, both brown female pit bulls, are called Mama and Littleone. Seldom chained, they usually lie or sit near Butler’s feet as they are told to, although Mama tries to sneak away from time to time. Every once in a while, people will come pat them. “The highlight of every visit to Kaiser,” says a lady hurrying by who stops to pat Mama.
“The dogs got everything: food, bones, money,” Butler says, glancing at the change in a plastic bucket sitting on the ground that he’s labeled the “dog fund.” Mama and Littleone now have 51 friends on their Facebook page that Butler created for them, which is in no way a genuine reflection of their popularity. Last May, Mama was hit by a car and sent to a nearby animal hospital, leaving Butler a $1,500 vet bill. Butler says he was not worried about the money at all, because he knew that Mama would be taken care of. Passersby made donations to the “dog fund.” At the hospital, Butler says, “When I went to put money on her bill, they said it’s already been paid…People anonymously came by and paid the bill.”
Butler says people can tell whether he’s a good or bad person by how well behaved the dogs are. “I can make the dogs vicious or I can make her nice,” Butler says. “It’s not about the dog. It’s about the owner. People come pat the dog and they talk to me. They feel safe.”
But it took time for everybody to get to know him. Butler is 6’1’’ and weighs 230 pounds. His face is growing whiskers. Sometimes he directly asks people for food; sometimes he stares at beautiful women walking by. “One of the best reasons I picked this station,” he says, “is you got a lot of pretty women.” When Butler first got to the station, he had to look through the garbage cans for food. Some BART police officers would ask him to leave, since he doesn’t have a permit to sell anything. When that happened, he had to hide.
Butler, who is originally from Oakland, would rather not talk too much about his past. But the version of events that he will share is that he spent part of his adult life working as a high school football coach in a city near Stockton and that he quit his job because he simply got tired of doing what he’d been doing for 20 years. “When I played football in high school, I got my knee hurt. I couldn’t play any more, so I coached,” he says. “I like the sport, but it’s not like ‘Oh, I can’t play anymore, it’s the end of the world!’ No.”
Until he purchased his van this January, Butler only had a bench to lay his head on. He also struggled with his family relations. “I am not saying that I am a bad person,” Butler says, “but I’ve done things in the past I am not proud of.” Because family members were upset with him, he says, “I disappeared from them…We stopped talking.”
Butler began making and selling hats to earn money, but he also tried another job. In January 2008, he went to work at a laundromat near the station. Even though the job “didn’t work out,” he says, after only a few months, he met someone there who changed his life. One day that March, an Oakland artist and writer named Matthew David Rana went in to do his laundry. He started talking with Butler and then became so interested in making hats that he ended up going regularly to learn from Butler. The two became friends and six months later, they came up with the idea of doing something with Butler’s story—drawing a comic book. The 16-page book, based on Butler’s animated character and his monologues, was created by Rana in May 2009; it’s titled The Autobiography of Ernest Patrick Butler: His Battles with God, Life and Self.
Butler says he and Rana tried to sell the book to comic book stores but no one was interested. (“Your missed opportunity,” Butler calls it.) So they decided to sell them at BART, which turned out to be amazingly good for business—they sold more than 600 copies in the first couple of days. “If I have ten here now, they’ll be gone by the end of the day,” Butler says. “They just won’t stay. They just do not stay.”
As part of a Portland, Oregon, art project called Open Engagement, the two gave an interview to the writer Victor Maldonado. “I think to myself, ‘Would I be OK if I hadn’t met Matthew?’” Butler said during the interview. “The book opened up for me to talk to my parents. With my parents, it opened me up to get this van. Would I even be in the van or would I still be sleeping on a bench? The book opened a lot of doors for a lot of stuff.”
Today, although he’s “still trying to deal with stuff in the past”, Butler believes the book helped him repair his relationship with his family. “The book helped me to explain certain things to certain people,” Butler says, “and they also got to see how I was living outside. I am actually doing OK.” Now during the weekends he can go to his parents’ or sisters’ houses to take showers, he says.
“Some people ask me if I would do it all again if I had a chance to do it all again,” Butler says. “Sure. I feel comfortable living outside. I know tons of people now and I am happy. I am always guaranteed to get fed.”
But Butler doesn’t really want to be popular. Last year the book drew more attention than he wanted. “There was just too much going on, I didn’t want all that to begin with.” Butler says. “I used to go to the BART bathroom so I could have some peace and quiet.”
Butler says Rana is coming up with a second comic book about him. But until then, he’ll just sit in his chair, make his own hats and watch the day passing by. “Eventually I’ll just retire somewhere and go camping and fishing everyday with my dogs,” Butler says. “That’s it.”