Thursday, July 19, 2007

An Allston Icon Mourned

ALLSTON — For more than three decades, Harold Madison Jr., better known as Mr. Butch, walked the streets of Boston. A staple in the Kenmore Square area from the 1970s until gentrification forced him towards Allston in the 1990s, he had since become a part of the community’s experience, a homeless beat philosopher with a smile that people can’t stop talking about, known in equal measure for his panhandling, drinking and guitar-playing.

Mr. Butch was a familiar sight and one that, since last Thursday, has been sorely missed, following a motor scooter accident early that morning.

Toni Fanning, owner of Ritual Arts in Allston, and a long-time friend of Mr. Butch, has been helping assemble a memorial service for the fallen Allstonian. Somberly talking about her homeless friend, she tried to articulate Allston’s "tremendous loss."

"People expect to see his smile," she said. "They expect Mr. Butch here. He’s part of this neighborhood."

An outpouring of sympathy for Mr. Butch has cropped up all over the Internet, where thousands of funny and friendly tales of Allston’s de-facto mascot have been posted. One site went so far as to campaign for the placement of a memorial statue in Mr. Butch’s likeness.

"You couldn’t imagine what it was like here the day it happened," recalled Fanning of the depression overwhelming Harvard Avenue.

Butch panhandled regularly in the neighborhood, and numerous people donated to him upon every encounter. Remembered by friends as "good with money," he had local merchants hold his savings in various "banks" at their stores. When he was low, he’d go to friends and pick up his money. Ultimately, he had saved enough to purchase a Vespa motor scooter. It was that purchase that ultimately led to his death.

Fanning, like many in Allston, didn’t immediately strike a bond with the mercurial Mr. Butch.

"When I met Butch, I was intimidated," she recalled. "Here was this big, black man — he was much bigger then — and I wondered ‘why would people idolize this homeless guy who seems to be mooching off of everybody?’"

Her lack of understanding didn’t last long. By the time Butch made his way to Allston, Toni accepted him as a friend and neighbor.

"He wasn’t anyone to be afraid of," she said. "He was here for happy days. He looked out for people. I wish I had the guts to live [like him]."

Audrey Valmas of Allston, another employee at Ritual Arts, also has fond memories of Mr. Butch.

"I saw him here all the time, probably at least three times a day," she said. "He was always pleasant, always smiling. He just had a charm to him."

"There was nothing traditional about Mr. Butch," Fanning added. "Oh, he loved living in the streets, and he just didn’t want to go into housing. He considered the whole city his home — maybe even the whole world... His cousin said he could live ten lifetimes and never know as many people and achieve the notoriety Mr. Butch did. We’ve gotten calls all over the country asking about him."

Fanning, as well as other merchants and Butch’s family, have assembled a memorial service for him on Sunday, July 22. The "parade" to celebrate Butch will start at the intersection of Harvard Ave. and Commonwealth Ave. at 7 p.m., and will feature a "New Orleans-style" brass band, as well as friends and family. A church service will be held at 8 p.m. at the International Community Church on 557 Cambridge St. in Allston.

A memorial featuring Mr. Butch’s possessions is currently in the window of Re:Generation Tattoo at 155 Harvard Ave. Donations for his service are being accepted at that location.

(Bulletin reporter Lydia Mulvany contributed to this story).

This article originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on July 19, 2007.

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