It was a fairly typical New York Avenue pothole, a half-foot deep and several feet wide with jagged asphalt edges. It was resting smack in the middle of the left lane near Kenilworth Avenue NE and was impossible to avoid. It certainly wasn't the sort of spot you'd expect to find treasure, let alone happiness, but a 30-year-old Silver Spring truck driver insists he discovered both right there.
His name is Reggie Giles. He said it happened one icy night last January when the car he was driving suddenly went thump through the crater. While braking and mumbling oaths at his misfortune like any other mortal, he opened a window and heard his two left hubcaps clanging down the street behind him. After backing up the car, Giles got out and retrieved his hubcaps, but was amazed to also find about 20 others resting alongside the road like so many casualities of war.
An erstwhile collector of urban debris, Giles scooped the hubcaps up and the next morning trucked the lot of them to a hubcap dealer on Branch Avenue who paid him a buck apiece. "Then," he said, "I turn around and see them selling the stuff for 10 and 20 times what they paid me."
Reggie Giles didn't forget that. He'd always wanted to be an independent merchant, and when, six months ago, he was laid off his trucking job, he decided to enter the hubcap racket himself. Rising at 4 a.m. each morning to browse through junkyards and scout all over town for potholes and their booty, Giles now owns his own hubcap dealership on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. He sells everything from Rolls Royce caps and Chevrolet centerpieces to inner rings and El Dorado mags.
Squeezed between a used car lot and an outdoor grocery near Reedie Road, Giles Hub Caps is not a plush or pretty place. With slats of weatherbeaten wood holding up dozens of shiny hub caps and yards of rusty steel screen, it looks something rather like a chicken-coop-gone-disco.
But looks are deceiving. For to Reggie Giles, a brawny Washington native who quit school in the ninth grade just to find a job so he could buy himself a pair of shoes, this place really represents a little patch of paradise. "I'm doing all right," he says. "A man's gotta do something to feed a wife and seven kids."
Actually, it seems only natural that Giles, at 30, should become a connoisseur of hubcaps, junkyards and potholes. This is a man who grew up in the desperate streets of Northwest Washington with little education or money. His mother, the sole provider in a family of six, was disabled at a pie factory where she worked when Giles was still a boy, and Giles said he was forced by circumstance to make it on his own.
While many of his partners in the neighborhood of Fifth and P streets NW were headed to drugs or booze or jail, Giles said he went to work in a car wash, where he toiled through the winter with frostbitten hands. He said he learned to add and subtract on the ruler he used when he got a job hammering together storm windows and doors for an aluminum company. He learned to read, he said, when he worked as a produce truck driver and matched names and addresses on a manifest with those on a map.
But he was always a scavenger at heart, an urban opportunist, a grand master in the art of Finder's Keepers. He would often travel through the city's back alleys, behind thrift shops and hardware stores, peering inside garbage cans and dumpsters for hidden and salvageable goods. "I felt weird about it at first. People would look at me like I was a bum," he says. "But one man's junk is another man's gold." And sure enough, Giles found what he considered gold -- discarded vacuum cleaners and lamps, radios and clocks and television sets, which he said he was able to repair and sell.
But Giles' biggest killing was made in paper, a word that makes his eyes sparkle to this day with the kind of commercial glee that true-blue entrepreneurs might know best.
"I'd go behind government buildings downtown and pick up reams of it. I mean, hundreds of pounds of it. Plain white typing paper, computer paper -- everything," he says, smiling upon remembrance. "I took it to paper companies to recycle. They bought it for $4 or $5 for every 100 pounds. The government caught on to that, though. I don't know what they do with it now, but it sure helped me through a tough period when I needed the money bad."
He earned $4.50 an hour when he was trucking produce all over town, and while he won't divulge how much he's making these days in hubcaps, Giles does allow that he isn't suffering much. "I'm a man of God," he says. "The Lord gave me this place of business and He watches over it. I'm in good hands."
Some passersby apparently don't see it that way, however. "A few people think I've gotten my hubcaps illegally, you know. Shoot, why would I want to steal all these things? They're all over town. Either I pick 'em up on the streets, or I buy 'em cheap from junkyards.
"One time," he went on, "the police showed up here saying they'd gotten a complaint from some woman who told them they ought to check me out. She told them, 'ain't no black man have no business owning so many hubcaps.' When that happens I just show them my vendor's license," he said, leading a visitor to his office and pointing with pride at the $16 license nailed to a wall near the door.
Giles moved to Silver Spring a decade ago to give his children a better place to grow up in than the street corners of Northwest. His oldest son, 12-year-old Alfred, is already a partner in the hubcap business, scrubbing and hosing down the merchandise. "My boys gotta learn the work ethic," Giles says. "When this one turns 13 I'm gonna give him a lawn mower and put him out to work on his own."
Giles Hub Caps may not look like much, but it enjoys a prime location. Much of the day Giles stands on the sidewalk in front of the coop, peering at the parade of Georgia Avenue traffic before him. One out of every 10 cars, he estimates, is missing a hubcap. When he spots a capless auto he is quick to point it out to the driver. "Right here!" he shouted one recent morning at a white-haired woman driving a red Mercury that was missing one hubcap. He pointed at a Mercury cap hanging on the coop behind him. She took the bait, and paid Giles five bucks for it. "How'd you lose it?" Giles asked. "Pothole last winter," she replied, as Giles frowned sympathetically.
Giles' prices vary from $5 for popular models to $50 for a single Cadillac hubcap outfitted with spokes. But he says his stock is down because these are the dog days for the hubcap business, most of the potholes around town having been repaired. Come winter and spring, though, Giles figures his stock will boom. "I'll be everywhere, then," he says. "Fourteenth Street Bridge, Cabin John Bridge, Wilson Bridge, New York Avenue. Heck, I know one place on a hill in town where all you have to do is wait at the bottom and the hubcaps come rolling down right into your lap. Most people don't even stop to get them."
While Reggie Giles has found independence and a bit of nirvana in hubcaps, he admits he is not entirely content. At the moment, he said, he is looking ahead to exploring yet another angle. "Ceramics," he whispered. "I know this place in Virginia that makes clay elephants and monkeys and stuff. Goin' down this weekend to check it out."
You never know, he said: "Next week this all might become 'Giles Pottery.' "