Hubcap Joe and the Art Of Roadside Recycling

Spring's return is marked by gigantic potholes and flying hubcaps

Finally, it's spring.

For many Northern states, that means more than crocuses and daffodils. It means the potholes are blooming - and the hubcaps are flying.

Most people in the region bemoan the annual ritual of weaving through the slalom course of road craters. Slow reflexes can mean an expensive trip to a mechanic for a realignment.

But here on the shoulder of the Cross-Bronx Expressway - one of America's busiest highways - Joe Demarco smiles at the pockmarks that, to him, look like dollar signs.

Mr. Demarco is better known as Hubcap Joe. For 20 years, he's been scouring the roadsides of New York City and northern New Jersey, eyes peeled for the shiny glint of orphaned hubcaps.

Like his colleagues elsewhere - Hubcap Jack in Linwood, Pa., Hubcap Mike in Santa Ana, Calif. - Hubcap Joe sees his profession as "recycling" roadside debris, providing a public service as opposed to merely profiting from the seasonal misfortunes of others.

"I love to see potholes," he admits. "I hate to see road crews."

With specially installed flashers atop his car, Joe cruises the highways each weekend in search of hubcaps, which he takes back to his shop in Oradell, N.J. There, he straightens out any bends, taps out dents, buffs a new shine, and resells them.

While this year's mild Northeast winter has been disappointing to Joe (and a blessing to car owners here), there's been no shortage of potholes elsewhere in the country. Chicago road crews have reportedly been patching an average of 2,000 potholes a day.

There's no question that potholes can cost consumers money. A study by the Michigan transportation department found that the average driver there spends $107 each year due to lost hubcaps or out-of-alignment front ends caused by potholes.

But those craters in the pavement are expensive to fix. Last year, following a particularly nasty winter, New Jersey spent $30 million to repair its potholes. The state created a 1-800-POTHOLE number for frustrated drivers to report culprit craters. By this time last year, New Jersey had repaired 23,500 potholes, says Dave Brown of the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

"It's the freeze-and-thaw cycle that does the most damage," he says.

Indeed, potholes are caused when pavement (either asphalt or concrete) expands and contracts, allowing water and road salt to seep inside small cracks and holes. When the temperature dips, the water freezes, expands, and creates bigger cracks in the pavement. Then, the constant pounding of cars and trucks breaks off chunks of roadway to open a wound.

Terry Ehrich, editor and publisher of Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vt., says that, for all their technological advances, automakers have yet to perfect a pothole-resistant hubcap.

Many automakers - like Honda, on its Civic, and Plymouth, on its Voyager - have simply given up and eliminated hubcaps, replacing them with stylish wheels.

"So Hubcap Joe may be a relic some day," Mr. Ehrich laughs.

Hubcap Joe realizes that, but figures he's got at least another decade left to comb the bitumen byways. If only the weather would cooperate. "This year won't be as lucrative as last year," he says, wistfully recalling last winter's record snowfall.

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