Robert Nelson and I were much closer friends than the Butterfly Man and I. Don't get me wrong: I got along with and liked the Butterfly Man, and I certainly appreciated his skills as an entertainer. However, unless he was involved in a performance, I just thought of him as Robert. It was Robert Nelson who included me in his extended family when he began referring to me as "Uncle Todd." In return, I called him "Uncle Robert," not "Uncle Butterfly."
The tattoo and its symbolism never meant that much to me. One time, my sister flew in to San Francisco, and the three of us met in a restaurant. The usual introductions were made, and Patty mentioned that I had already told her a bit about Robert. He was astounded when he took off his hat, and my sister expressed surprise at the butterfly tattoo on top of his head. He found it hard to believe that anyone could talk about him and not mention his ink. I just rarely thought of him that way.
As with most people who knew him, I was aware of the not-so-fine line between his two personalities. I also experienced how, with little warning, a raging Bitterfly could quickly emerge from a docile Robert Nelson. Fortunately, this pupation was only directed at me a couple of times. Once, amidst a group of jugglers, Robert spontaneously morphed into the Butterfly Man and put us both in an impromptu spotlight. My unasked-for role, of course, was to be the butt of the Fly Guy's tirades. I pulled him aside and pointed out that Luke Skywalker did not become a hero by vanquishing a lowly, anonymous Imperial Storm Trooper. One needs to defeat the legendary Darth Vader to earn true glory. Robert immediately understood, and the Butterfly Man went off to find someone more important with whom to have a public duel of wits.
What surprised many people once they got to know him was that both Robert Nelson and the Butterfly Man were very generous and considerate of others. I have to admit to taking advantage of this insider knowledge to earn some undeserved thanks and gratitude from my fellow MotionFest organizers.
There was no question that we wanted the Butterfly Man to be one of the guest instructors at MotionFest. It also fell on me to ask him not only to teach a workshop on street performing but also to emcee the first-ever MotionFest public show. Michael and Wil were impressed when I got him to say "yes" to both. Additionally, in the early days of MotionFest, budget constraints forced teachers to share accommodations with a roommate. There was a bit of concern as to who should be asked to share a room with the Bug Man. I knew I would end up (mostly) splitting a room with my friend Robert, and it would be fine. I let the others think I was taking a bullet by volunteering to bunk with him.
Our friendship began in the mid-eighties. For a short period, in between his Cole Street apartment and his house on Bernal Heights, Robert lived around the corner from me in the Richmond District of San Francisco. One morning, he came by unannounced to solicit my help in moving all his things out of the Richmond garage and over to the new residence across town. I only hesitated a bit before agreeing to be his mule for the day. It was a relief and a pleasant surprise when we walked over to his place, and he opened his garage door to reveal an almost-entirely empty space. The day before he had moved everything but the front fender of the Tonka truck. I gladly helped him load that one piece into his van, and we went out to breakfast on Clement Street.
Over breakfast, he revealed that the real reason he called on me that morning was to get my reaction to a letter he had received from Graham Ellis. (This was before the Internet.) During the summer, the two of them had traveled around Europe together. My memory is that Graham was writing to express concerns about how the split personalities of Robert Nelson/the Butterfly Man were jeopardizing their friendship. On the one hand, Robert Nelson was a kind, supportive, giving, trustworthy friend. On the other hand, the Butterfly Man was a total jerk. Graham's letter was questioning whether the duality was jeopardizing their friendship, and if it was worth continuing.
Robert was visibly upset. He explained that he considered Graham a good friend, was quite hurt, and didn't know how to respond. My only advice was to echo the classic, age-old wisdom with a slight twist. "Robert, you need to be true to your selves."
With that, the proverbial light went on and his tattoo seemed to glow just a bit brighter! A few days later, Robert showed me the response he had written to Graham. He watched as I read his thoughtful, heartfelt letter explaining that he also valued their friendship, took Graham's concerns to heart, and wished to assure him that he didn't want to do anything that would endanger their relationship. The bottom of the page was signed, "Your friend, Robert."
I then turned the letter over and saw he had written a second, shorter note. On the other side it said,
The Butterfly Man
I checked with Graham before posting this story. Graham remembers the letter, and added that he feels fortunate to have lived so close to Robert Nelson during the last part of his life. He also mentioned that Robert pretty much left the Butterfly Man behind when he moved to Hawaii.
copyright 2013 by Todd Strong
Copyright © Todd Strong
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