Letter from Jamaica
Seeking a Jerk Chicken Grill? See the Metal Man
PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica – I first spot him when we are stuck in evening traffic on one of the main commercial streets in this small coastal town in the northeastern part of the island. My co-host – and driver – Richard notices me watching the man, who is busy wielding a blow torch in a small kiosk filled with junk metal.
“That is the metal man,” Richard says. “He make any-ting you want.”
A few days later I hike down from the mountain overlooking the town and its beautiful blue Caribbean harbor. It’s mid-afternoon on a hot winter day. Port Antonio is bustling with activity not seen in similarly- sized American towns largely because everyone is on foot, not behind the wheel.
The dusty roads are filled with shoppers, students in uniform heading home from school and idle dudes hanging on street corners. Mostly women operate the small shops and kiosks bunched tightly one after the other. The always present hypnotic beat of reggae filters out of various shanty bars where men swill Red Stripe beer or rum and toke on the local ganja. In front of a restaurant consisting of four stools and a makeshift counter, a man grills a batch of jerk chicken. [Port Antonio is the birthplace of jerk cooking.] The intoxicating smell almost pulls me in. But I walk on.
It takes me a while, but I find the Metal Man. He introduces himself as Maurice. Sitting next to him is his friend, Ruppert.
Maurice, wearing gray sweat pants and a blue tee shirt over a small but muscular frame, is busy piecing together a household grill of some sort. He wears thick glasses as the years of toiling over such precision work have taxed his eyesight.
He takes a break to answer a few questions, beginning with: “Where did you learn your trade?”
His father taught him when he was around five years old, he says. “But he showed me only one thing.”
He doesn’t respond. Rather, he grabs a small piece of sheet metal from his scrap pile, cuts a section with some tin snips and quickly folds one part over the other. In less than a minute he’s done making something, but I’m not sure what until he puts it to his lips and blows. The piercing shrill causes me to jump back a step.
“That is one cool whistle,” I say as he hands me my gift.
“I should just go out in the streets and sell these for 20 Jamaican dollars [15 cents] each,” he says. “Much easier than this work.”
In fact, he loves this work. That becomes clear when he explains the way he handles his customers. They come to him with an idea – maybe a table, or special chair or a stove of some sort – and ask: Can you do it?
His response is always the same: “I’ll try.”
At night, in his small apartment above his shop, he thinks about the assignment.
“I draw a picture in my head,” he explains.
If the idea comes in the middle of the night and he’s too stoked to sleep, he heads back to the shop.
“I work all day and all night until I’m finished,” he says, which sounds like an exaggeration. But I notice Ruppert shaking his head in agreement.
Ruppert jumps into the conversation.
“So,” he says, “dey call him Metal Man and dey call me Wood Man. I made that man’s bed he sleep on. Ask him how comfortable it is. Go ahead.”
I do and Maurice agrees. It turns out that Ruppert’s shop is directly behind Maurice’s and they collaborate from time-to-time.
Speaking of Maurice’s shop, it measures roughly 12 feet across the front and 24 feet from front to back, although the back opens up a bit on each side. Every inch is covered with scrap metal parts of all types, leaving Maurice with a work station not much bigger than himself.
Like most businesses the Metal Man has a high season, which is the three weeks or so before Christmas. That’s when orders pour in for his most famous creation – a jerk chicken grill fashioned from old oil drums.
How many hours does he put in in December?
“I work every day all month from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.,” he says.
His take – $55 per grill – makes his year so it’s worth the effort no matter how taxing.
“What happens in January?”
“I rest,” he says.
The Metal Man, clearly anxious to return to his current project, says he’ll keep working as long as he’s able. But help might be on the way one day. Although just four, Maurice’s son joins him at work from time- to-time and tinkers with the metal, much as he did with his father. Soon, he’ll be making whistles, Maurice predicts.
“Could there be a Little Metal Man in the making?” I ask.
The Metal Man says he has seen enough.
“He has what it takes.”
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Editor’s note: This story was reported on March 3, 2020, just prior to the COVID outbreak. This is the first time it has been published.