Holdout: 23 Florida Ave. NE
Like most auto businesses, Hubcap Tom’s, at 23 Florida Ave. NE, has a grimy countertop with computers, business cards, and other merchant paraphernalia.
But owner Richard A. Smith doesn’t hang out behind the counter. He runs Hubcap Tom’s from the driver’s seat of his cherry-red Chevy TrailBlazer. When customers pass the front entrance of his lot, he yells at them from the driver’s seat, “What do you need?”
Smith keeps three packs of Parliament Light 100s wedged around his seat. He has a white towel draped around his neck and the window rolled down. He keeps the SUV facing the street, the motor always running. Just in case. “You never want to go inside and get boxed in,” he says. “You’re fucked at that point. Out here, you have options.”
Behind Smith’s strategic post lies his merchandise: rows of old and new tires, wheels, and rims. Spare Detroit-made doors cram against a boarded-up row house. Taillights dangle from hooks like Christmas ornaments. A mound of hubcaps takes up the back corner. Beware-of-dog signs are posted everywhere. Smith used to have dogs, a couple of Rottweilers and a beautiful, 80-pound black pit bull named Rocky. They either leapt the fences or were stolen. He misses Rocky most of all: “Rocky wasn’t meanthat was the trouble.”
You have to be mean here to survive. Most of the residents are gone, their houses bulldozed to make way for developer Douglas Jemal’s revamped Peoples Drug warehouse space. The housing that remains shares block space with boarded-up façades. At night, the warehouses close down, yielding the sidewalk to drunks and crackheads migrating from the methadone clinics nearby, Smith says. Sometimes, during the day, they come by his storefront to sell him batteries, ask him for change, or even try to steal his tires. That’s why Smith sits in his car.
The stickups are bad enough, Smith says. But he really can’t tolerate the fires. Out of spite, boredom, or whatever, he says, people like to throw gas into his scrap yard and light it. The last fire was six months ago, he says, the third in five years. The blaze cost him $20,000 worth of damage and destroyed a shed, electrical wiring, and about 100 tires. Burnt tires are a bitch to clean up.
“My heart went right down to my putz,” Smith says. “It’s depressing. It took me a month to get undepressed. You have to eat shit for two, three months to get really started again.”
Smith started Hubcap Tom’s 33 years ago, renovating an old ice house. His family was always into scrap. His grandfather had been running a District scrap yard since 1918. He branched out because of the simplicity of dealing in auto parts: You just have to know what fits and what doesn’t fit. Still, he wonders why he sticks around. He’s had about six offers to sell in the past two years. One offer was for $1.2 million. But he didn’t sell. He can’t think of anything else to do.
On a recent Saturday morning, Smith gets robbed of $150 worth of tires: He replaces a guy’s tires, and then the guy just drives off. Smith beats himself up over it all dayShould have gotten his money first.
But by the afternoon, the sun is out and customers are pawing over his tires and rims and he’s making good money.
“Whatcha got?” Smith asks one of his mechanics.
“He’s coming to get those rims,” the mechanic says.
“The guy’s here with the 900 bucks?” Smith asks.
“Yeah,” the mechanic says.
“I don’t knowmy dick’s hard,” exclaims Smith, for whom a quick cash deal carries an erotic charge. “How’s yours?”
“It’s tingling,” the mechanic responds.
“Goddamn!” Smith bellows. “Let’s do it, baby….I want to get his money first.” CP