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@Work: 'Coconut Man' Clement Williams

April 23, 2006 – Sole proprietor Clement Williams is a happy man who loves his work. Most mornings Williams arrives at Magens Bay before 7 a.m. to climb the many coconut trees that line the beach and the arboretum on the south side of the park property.
The straight lines of a coconut grove planted decades ago by Arthur Fairchild — the philanthropist and avid tree lover who deeded the property that is now Magens Bay to the people of the Virgin Islands — are still visible from certain vantage points.
Once up the tall, gently swaying trees, Williams is free to grab his day's products, drop them to the ground below and gather them up for sale.
He is often seen donning his herb cap, machete in hand, pushing a wheelbarrow — full to overflowing with his green "catch" — down the beach road to his market at the entrance of Magens Bay, said by "National Geographic" to be one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world.
Perched on a makeshift chair — an overturned five gallon bucket — Williams wields his machete like a fine chef with his knife, whacking and carving to apportion the nuts to whatever configuration is dictated by his customers' needs.
Some want the water (full of electrolytes); others, like this reporter, are seeking the rich meat that can be used in a variety of raw foods dishes, including raw ice cream, or that can be eaten directly from the nut. Still others want to slurp the jelly directly from the nut.
You can usually separate the tourists from the locals when you see how they choose to take their water. Some will drink it from a red-striped straw inserted into the hole Williams creates with his machete. Others — like the two visitors who strolled up to Williams' market one morning recently — drink straight from the hole, eschewing the idea of a straw.
The two Guyanese men, who said they now live in New York and were on a cruise, greedily downed the water of five nuts. Done with the water, they ask Williams to split the coconut so they can scoop the meat from the nut with a makeshift spoon that Williams deftly crafts from the outside green shell of the coconut.
Born on Nevis in 1961, and after graduating from school there, Williams migrated to St. Thomas, following in his mother's footsteps. He has been on St. Thomas ever since.
"I've been the coconut man for a long time," he says.
He learned his craft as a young man on Nevis. "I watched other people and then taught myself to climb the trees," which he says is the hardest part of his job. "It's very hard work."
Oddly, the only accident Williams ever had was when he was using a ladder to reach the nuts, which often live 30 or 40 feet above ground, underneath the thick fronds that shoot out from the tops of the smooth-barked, slender palm trees.
He says the ladder fell backwards when he was clearing trees at the Renaissance Hotel in Smith Bay many years ago. "But I never really hurt myself," he says.
Selling coconut water and meat to tourists and passersby at Magens is not Williams' only source of revenue.
Along with hiring himself out to resorts and private homeowners to clear trees of the nuts that can become dangerous when airborne, he also has several regular customers who order coconut water by the gallon. The Pony
Bar in Frenchtown and "Henry's" bar, he says, are two of his regular customers. He sells the water for $15 a gallon. "I try to be reasonable," he says.
He also sells a bottled drink he calls sarsaparilla, that he gets from a vendor who bottles it on Nevis. He says it's from sarsaparilla and coconga root. Williams couldn't explain what exactly caconga root is, but says it is "all natural."
As for the coconut water or meat, he charges $2 per nut — a fair price for fresh nuts. Hybrid nuts from Thailand, imported and sold in stores like Whole Foods in New York City, can go for anywhere from $3 to $5 a piece.
Bill Jowers, manager of Magens Bay, pays Williams to clear trees for him. "Every year he comes to me to make sure I give him his tax papers," Jowers said recently. "He gets very upset if I don't have them ready for him."
Williams explains he is faithful about paying his taxes and has an accountant who handles them for him.
Although he has never been to the United States, Williams does travel periodically to Nevis — in the past to visit his daughter, Quentin.
His face lights up whenever he talks about her. However, Quentin, 19, is in college in the states now, and he says he's not sure where or when he will see her again.
Williams, who says he has never been married, rents a room in a home in Smith Bay. He says he was "not lucky" where love and marriage were concerned, but that has not deterred him from having a good life.
"I like what I do," Williams says. "I am happy doing it. I am a happy man."
Williams takes orders over the phone and can be reached at 775-9421.
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