Miami Mystery: It sounds like an ice cream truck — but it’s full of knives

A couple of you have written in the past couple months asking about the ice cream trucks that sharpened knives. This sounded crazy to some of us too, so we investigated.

Roaming the neighborhood, playing tinkly old-time music, it’s easy to mistake the afilador (knife sharpener) for an innocent ice cream truck — until it gets close enough for you to see the photo on the side: knife after knife after knife.

Longtime afilador Jorge Luis Gonzalez wants to make sure you know the difference. Peek inside his truck and it’s like a scene from a horror film. A metallic smell lingers. Hundreds of sharpening tools line the walls. There’s a blade in plain sight everywhere you look.

For Gonzalez, this is home. The van’s dashboard is decorated with good luck charms from his wife: A large brown monkey, a dried up cactus plant, and a braided horse tail.

“Sometimes people come thinking I’m an ice cream truck and they start laughing,” says Gonzalez. “And I say hey listen, leave that monería, the monkey is right there.”

A sharp start

Most children are told not to play with knives, but Gonzalez grew up surrounded by them. As a 10-year-old in 1975 Cuba, Gonzalez would shadow his father as he continued his grandfather’s tradition of being a mobile afilador.

The tradition began with Gonzalez’ grandfather in Galicia, Spain. When he moved to Cuba, he brought over the “carraton” (mobile cart) and the “pitico” (the music played whenever an afilador is near).

Gonzalez would shadow his father every Sunday in a different province of Cuba. Sometimes Camaguey, sometimes el Vedado. But he could only watch, and occasionally file knives with a rectangular stone.

Gonzalez immigrated to Miami alone at 15 years old. Underage and lacking a work permit in the United States, he started doing what he knew best: knife sharpening.

“I started on foot with the carraton (cart), and my father sent me the pitico (flute),” says Gonzalez. “I keep that original one at home.”

For awhile he just sharpened knives on the sidewalk. But carrying the carraton onto buses to get to Miami Beach or Hialeah proved too arduous, so he upgraded to a van. Today, his van reads “5 Star Sharpener.” It still plays a version of the music his father used to play in Cuba.

“The music has never changed for years,” says Gonzalez. “In all countries, it’s the same music. It’s tradition.”

The daily hustle

Gonzalez is on the road every day by 9 a.m. By 10 he’s playing the signature afilador music to announce his presence. While there are plenty of mobile afiladores in Miami, all neighborhoods are up for grabs. Most of the time Gonzalez will hit only one neighborhood a day, but he also  makes house calls.

His clients include restaurants, beauty salons, barber shops… and your average knife or machete owner. (Because Miami.) During the interview, two separate clients call him in a frenzied state. One of them is an elderly woman who can’t walk.

“That’s why I made it mobile, to make it more comfortable for people,” says Gonzalez.

That’s his favorite part of the job, he says: bringing service to people who can’t seek it out themselves. That and the art of leaving a seemingly unusable knife looking brand new. His face is pure bliss and pride when he’s repurposed a knife.

“The best thing is to get something that’s oxidized or looks like it can’t work and leave it brand new,” he says.