A little after 8 a.m., Jorge Luis Gonsález climbs into his “Mastodon,” turns on speakers and plays a distinctive tune as he embarks on an odyssey spanning as much as 60 miles through the streets of South Florida.
The Mastodon — named after the extinct prehistoric animal distantly related to elephants — is actually a mail truck converted into a moving workshop filled with an array of gadgets and tools this afilador uses to sharpen knives, cutting tools and other devices.
“People tell me ‘Hey there! What is it that you do?,’” said Gonsález , 50. “Others just laugh. Some even put a rag on their heads and make a wish. That’s what people did in the old days. It was said that if you made a wish in front of a knife sharpener it would come true.”
In an era of booming virtual relationships, Internet shopping and a culture in which everything is “disposable,” meaning it’s often more practical to throw away broken things rather than try to fix them, Gonsález has been able to earn enough from his mobile sharpening business to raise 10 children.
“I learned my trade from previous generations,” said Gonsález , who picked up the skill from his father and grandfather in Cuba.
Gonsález said he remembers watching his father and grandfather grind away on one of 18 wooden stations set up up in various towns between Havana and Oriente province on the eastern end of the island. The stations were powered by foot through a wheel connected to a rock used to sharpen the tools.
“My father would get off from the train at any given place and he had a work station there,” Gonsález said. “He would get his whistle and I would accompany him.”
In April 1980, Gonsález arrived in the United States “by accident.” He was 15.
After skipping school with a friend, he went on Fifth Avenue in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana until he reached 72nd Street. There he ran into a multitude of Cubans who had forced their way into the Peruvian embassy to request political asylum.
The sea of people “pushed” him inside the embassy, he said. When he tried to leave, it was too late: Fidel Castro’s regime had closed off access to the building.
The Cuban government later opened the port of Mariel to boats from the United States to ferry away those who had overtaken the Peruvian embassy and any others who wanted to flee the island in what became known at the Mariel boatlift. Gonsález unwittingly became part of one of the largest mass exodus from Cuba.
It would be 10 years before he saw his parents again.
Once in Miami, not knowing English or anyone other than a distant aunt, Gonsález decided to try to make money the only way he knew how: sharpening tools.
He equipped a wooden cart like the ones his father and grandfather used in Cuba and went door to door under the scorching sun to offer his service.
“I walked 10 miles daily; I had so many muscles on my feet that I could break wooden blocks in a snap if I wanted to,” Gonsález joked.
His business grew with the increasing number of clients and after five years of traveling the streets on foot, he was able to buy a motorcycle. Later came the improvised workshop trucks: “My Toy,” “The Girl,” “The Hunchback,” “The White One,” and his current “Mastodon,” — the largest of all.
“I name each truck,” he says with pride.
As Gonsález’s business grew, so did his family. He has 10 children from different relationships and currently shares a home in Homestead with his wife Aylema and three children, Katharine, 23, John, 22, and Jean Claudio, 17.
“I like what he does,” said Katharine, who is a nurse. “It’s a job that people will always need. My friends think it’s interesting and they ask him if they can go inside the truck.”
His wife Aylema is copilot of the “Mastodon.” She’s the one in charge of taking orders, turning in the sharpened tools and running the finances of the business.
“When I met him I thought that his work wasn’t worth it because this profession doesn’t really exist here,” said Aylema, who also immigrated from Cuba.
Both travel between 40 to 60 miles daily through Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, taking orders. The sharpening service costs run from $3 to $8, depending on the size or style of the dull tool that needs sharpening.
“Wherever the road leads me, that’s where I go,” said Gonsález .
His clients are predominantly Hispanics with professions that require sharp tools including, knives used by chefs, scissors for hair salons, shears for animal grooming, tools to trim beards and even rollers to slice pizza.
“He sharpens everything, knives, scissors, whatever,” said Robert Mendez, an electrician who pays Gonsález to sharpen his work scissors, tongs and tweezers. “He’s the best there is. There’s a few out there but he’s the best.”
Gonsález says the biggest satisfaction his work provides is the ability to give new life to tools that would otherwise be discarded.
“I make them shine with new life,” he said. “When you fix a tool, people even give you tips...There are some special tools that are worth fixing and when I do, people leave with a ‘Colgate’ smile on their faces.”
But like with most jobs that require physical and manual labor, his body also has paid the price. Day after day, Gonsález breathes in the metallic dust and oxidation from the tools he sharpens. He also has been injured by sparks, chips and shavings that have struck his eyes.
Still, he says he wouldn’t trade being a tool sharpener for any other job.
“I have two new cars, my house in Southwest, I celebrate my children’s birthdays every year. All of those are satisfactions I’ve secured through my work,” he said. “I’m gonna die being a tool sharpener.”
Follow Sergio Candido on Twitter @sncandido