"HUBCAPS" - Joe's Story - "Oradell dealer took a bumpy road to success!"

Hubcap Joe is miffed. On the concrete river known as Route 80, where the billboards on 100-foot-high stilts seem like giant fly swatters as they peer down on the insect-swarm of traffic, Hubcap Joe was expecting a patch of potholes.

Why, just the other day, Hubcap Joe had driven his Buick Century -- outfitted with a CB radio, a cellular phone, Motley Crue tapes and a stuffed miniature bear on the dashboard with a plastic Dallas Cowboys helmet -- over this section of washboard highway, relishing every sweet rut and bump, his brain in overdrive over the chrome-plated possibilities of hubcaps rattling loose and spinning off Camrys and Tauruses and -- yes, pleeeeease God -- Volvos.

"I love Volvo caps," he explains later. "I have 10,000 hubcaps, but I have only three Volvos. That's why I like the hunt. I want what I don't have."

But what is this now?

"Ah," Joe says, a frown rutting his forehead at the smooth road, "they paved it. This is no good."

Or is it?

A piece of chrome glistens. Then another. And another. In all, 14 hubcaps -- silvery mushrooms amid the gray-black grime -- sit along a 50-yard stretch, reminders of the potholes that were filled just a few days before.

Hubcap Joe pulls over on the shoulder, flips on the specially-installed orange flashers, slips on a pair of white gardening gloves, pulls at his orange reflective vest, then walks along the shoulder taking only the best of the lot -- hubcaps for a Ford, a Geo and a Camry.

"Not bad," he says, tossing them in the trunk.

Joseph, a k a Hubcap Joe, has perhaps one of the most arcane perches from which to watch the stream of modern life pass by. He collects the rounded refuse of America's car culture -- then sells it back to us. He even has an e-mail address.

"Hubcap Joe goes cyber-geek," Joe says, laughing at himself and reciting his code: hubcapjoes........

He is, by nature, something of an iconoclast. While a student at Bergen Catholic High School in the mid-1970s, Joe would collect hubcaps in his free time, sometimes leaving school in his sport coat and tie and wandering the roads on foot. He has scaled bridges, trekked across exit ramps and sprinted across Route 17 in search of hubcaps. Once, he walked from his home in New Milford along Route 4 to New York City, filling a plastic trash bag with disks.

The childhood hobby eventually blossomed into a full-blown career -- maybe an obsession. While most of the nation was basting turkeys on Thanksgiving Day, Joe and his brother Rick -- who, like Joe, is unmarried -- removed more then 5,000 hubcaps from the garage of the New Milford home where they grew up. The brothers stacked the hubcaps on the driveway and cleaned them with a power washer.

"Then," Rick says, smiling proudly, "we watched the Dallas Cowboys game."

Picking up hubcaps is not exactly the sort of career move that is lauded in the pages of Smart Money. But then, maybe the gray-suit crowd on Wall Street that spends its time searching for small-cap-value stocks never understood the sheer, pride-in-your-gut value of snatching a wire-spoke "cap" from the wilds of the Cross Bronx Express way and reselling it for $50.

"I can spot a hubcap, upside down, at 60 miles per hour," Joe Joe says, "and know what it is."

His business philosophy is simple. Suburbanites make a habit of commuting long distances, often traversing roads pockmarked with potholes. And often, those potholes are located on dangerous highways or bad city neighbourhoods. Joe is afraid of neither.

"I go back to the spots where my customers won't go," he says.

He is standing now on the shoulder of Route 17, not far from the Paramus sprawl, in a spot with a semi-permanent bump. He returns to it regularly when he needs a supply of hubcaps. He will take a visitor there, but only if the precise location is kept secret.

The roadside is littered with all manner of junk -- crushed coffee cups, plastic soda bottles, even a toaster oven. On this day, however, the hubcap crop is sparse -- only one cap from a Camry.

For Joe, the potholes, fissures and bumps that are the enemies of motorists are his friends. He has found other rough spots on roads and highways, logging their locations and scouting them on Sunday mornings. And he mourns a bit when the road crews eventually discover the potholes and fill them in.

"They repaved this," Joe says, driving over a patch of fresh asphalt on Route 17. "That hurt me."

The words may seem odd, but Joe takes his work personally.

At his hubcap shop on Kinderkamack Road in Oradell, the walls are decorated with more than three dozen caps, from cars ranging from old Chevys and Oldsmobiles to Geos and Fords. In a back room, he stores new hubcaps. As business has boomed, Joe has turned to buying a portion of his hubcaps directly from the manufacturers. There just isn't enough time to search the roads and still meet customer demand.

One afternoon recently, a middle-aged woman walked in. Joe eyed her car as she pulled into the driveway, then looked away.

"I've never bought a hubcap before," the woman announced.

"Oh," Joe answered, "there's always a first time."

By a desk, Rick was smiling. He has heard this conversation dozens of times. A motorist has lost a hubcap and has come to this store, filled with silver-colored disks, in search of a replacement. It's a bit like entering a passport office for the first and only time in your life.

"I know what you need," Joe said. He then proceeded to tell the woman the precise year, make and model of her car -- a mid-1980s Lincoln Continental -- and the precise type of hubcap she needed.

"How do you know this?" the woman asked, surprised.

"I know," Joe said. "I've been doing this a long time."

They are the words of a professional, and when you hear them from a man who collects hubcaps they seem surprising. But then, this is Joe's career, complete with the same business trappings the rest of us have.

While the rest of us have our work routines -- morning coffee, a trip to the bulletin board, a gossipy chat with the boss -- he observes something of a routine, too. Each Sunday -- his main hubcap search day -- he attends Mass at St. Helena's Church in the Bronx, then has breakfast at Ellie's Diner. From there, he spends an hour searching for hubcaps in his favorite domain -- the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

It is midmorning on a Thursday, and Joe has decided to hunt again along the Cross-Bronx Expressway -- a hunt that will be virtually fruitless. Before he gets to the Bronx, however, he wants to check out a hubcap he longs to get.

He is passing now through the tolls on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge. The January morning sun glistens off the pavement, still wet from a nighttime drizzle.

"I'm looking for this cap I spotted just the other day," Joe says, removing his sunglasses and leaning forward on the steering wheel and squinting in the glare.

"There!" he says, pointing. "See it?"

If ever there was a hubcap equivalent of a pearl that is too deep for a diver to reach, this is it. On the left side of the highway that leads to the bridge sits a wire-spoked, shiny chrome hubcap from a Buick Park Avenue. It is impossible to snatch -- unless, of course, you stop your car, risk an accident in the automotive rush, and jeopardize your own life by standing in the left lane of the bridge traffic to get the hubcap.

Joe considers the possibilities and keeps driving.

"I can't get it," he says. "I can't stop here. I'm not crazy."

Originally published in The Bergen Record, January 27, 1997

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