Story by Chris Shultz
Riding down Duval Street with his infectious smile amplified by a thick, handlebar mustache is a smooth looking man cruising without a care in the world. This gentleman turns on the colorful lights to his infamous bike, cranks up some Rick James, bumps the bass, and puts a smile on everyone’s face as he passes. He is the one and only Mr. James Matthew Chapman. A street is named after his family. He was born across the street from where he lives. He has 16 kids, 16 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Mr. Chapman has lived many lives in Key West and affected more than is imaginable. The Key West Weekly’s Chris Shultz sat down with him in his yard on Petronia Street where he builds his bikes to discuss some Key West history, his collection of music, “bringing the brothers together,” and CRASHING HEMINGWAY’S POOL!
How would you define Key West?
It’s the best in the best in the west you understand? There is not another place like this.
Everybody knows you from your flashy bikes with the sound systems and lights. How did you get in to doing that?
I figured if they could do it in a car I could do it in a bike. So, I stuck a speaker in a box, hooked it to a car battery and it works…same thing with my moped. I put on James Brown, Ray Charles’ dolls. I am looking for Elvis so I can get all the brothers together.
What kind of reaction do you get from people when you’re riding down the street?
Oh lord, they blind me with the cameras. When I am riding by myself I say, “thank you father, for giving me the inspiration to make the people happy.” That’s my job, to make people happy.
How long have you lived in Bahama Village?
I was born across the street at 222 Petronia Street and raised at 213 Petronia Street. I left Key West when I was 25, and when I came back, 221 Petronia Street was waiting on me. My grandfather paid $350 for this property in 1872 and when I came back it was mine… been here ever since.
You seem to know everybody in this neighborhood. Who are some of your favorite people you’ve met over the years?
I grew up knowing Hemingway like a brother. Didn’t have a bad bone in his body, always loved people. One day, me and about five guys jumped Mr. Hemingway’s wall to swim in his pool. He had glass sticking up, so we threw a rug across the glass got in the yard and jumped in the swimming pool. He came outside mad…been drinking a little. I told him to make us get out if he thought he was so bad. Mr. Hemingway said, “I tell you what, you spend one hour then get out.” Ha ha ha! He was a great man, a comical man.
You were a boxer for a little while?
Shine and Mr. Hemingway used to throw boxing matches over there at Blue Heaven. I never lost a street fight, but I lost a boxing match. During that time they gave you 10 dollars a fight. That 10 dollars went a long way back then.
How do you feel about Key West today?
I feel all right about it. It’s so quiet now I can sleep all right with my doors open. It used to be a bit rough, but the man came and cleaned it all out. It’s nice down here now with the restaurants catching on down here. Blue Heaven, Santiago’s, the Columbia girls and the coffee shop down the block.
What does character mean to you?
Someone who has not had it good in their life survives with what they have. Any man that lives with ease doesn’t know what it means to build character until he has to live rough. Character comes from when you don’t have anything and you make it through life. I came up the hard way. That’s why I love everybody and do the best I can for everybody.
Music is a big part of your life. Who are some of your favorites?
I like to play Super Freak, Let’s Boogie. I like my boy Michael Bolton…Georgia on My Mind, Aretha Franklin…I got ’em all! I got so many CDs I could bury my self in CDs.
What kind of treasures have you found around the island?
I found this coin from 1802 recently, a penny as big as a quarter. I found buffalo nickels. I got Indian pennies… I got dimes dated back to 1800.
Everybody loves your mustache. How do you maintain such a glorious ‘stache?
I don’t know… it just grows like that. I just trim it up myself. My daddy had the same ‘stache and his brother had the same style, too.
So it’s a Chapman family trademark?
Yes sir! I was also born with twelve fingers! My mother had them cut off.
Not to far off from the cats!
Any parting words Mr. Chapman.
Pick up the good book once in a while and read it. If you find anything and feel good about it, tell you brothers and sisters so they can see the light, too.