Butterfly Joe careened right into me on Sunday afternoon. That’s how we met. I got the impression that I wasn’t the first person he had backed into. He was spindly, stilt-tall and had a wild way of touching every item in his booth at once. Housed under a white tarp, his business was less of a shop and more of an altar to winged beauty—blatant holiness among the tourist throngs of South Congress. I watched his animated fingers flit back and forth, worshiping the form of every glass-encased papillon. He was a priest in disguise.
Butterfly Joe is one of those South Congress characters that has been around the block a few times and is all the stranger for it. If I had to guess I’d say the following: Vietnam vet, motorcycle enthusiast, LSD, heart of gold. His wall of iridescent butterflies evoked a strong emotion. I felt tears building, but wasn’t sure why. Maybe Joe sensed it because he comforted me with an outpouring of stories. “This one here,” he pointed a leathery finger at a giant emerald butterfly, “comes from a farm in Brazil. They got a guard there with a machine gun. That’s the only way to protect these rare ones—turn ‘em into commodities worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s twisted but that’s how it goes. These butterflies are gold. Their plants are gone. Been bulldozed over. They got no place to go and they’re on their way out.”
His heartache was evident, but he also seemed buoyed by love. “Wanna know something?” he asked, exposing the underside of a blue-speckled specimen. “Butterflies are the only insects that play. There ain’t no other word for it. I’ve been watching ‘em since I was in fifth grade and I know it’s what they’re doing.” His hands frolicked above his unkempt hair, mimicking the pattern of butterfly games. “What’s funny is that butterflies don’t have a single reason to play. They’re lowest of the low on the food chain. Lots of creatures eat butterflies. How can they protect themselves? They can’t except with the warning colors of their wings. From the moment they come outta the cocoon it’s go, go, go. They gotta find a mate and take care of business real quick, before it’s too late.”
Butterfly Joe shook his head as he imparted further revelation, “People don’t realize that butterflies never live long: maybe a few hours, at most a few days. Most of ‘em are eaten or hurt.” He paused and an active light entered his eyes, “But still they play! They have JOY!” He roared the word “joy” triumphantly, like he wanted the whole city to know the way butterflies dare to revel. I felt something like life shoot through my body and for a second it was just me, Joe, and the dead butterflies.