For the hard-pedaling day laborers of Los Angeles, bicycling isn't exercise, a hobby, or a statement. It's a way to get to work-if there's work to be found.
Francisco Orellano wakes before sunrise. His
mornings are often the same for weeks on end. He carries his bike
from his apartment to the street. Then he pedals into the dawn. He
passes among other riders, who sit upright and silent, moving
almost nothing but their legs, which revolve not in spinning
cadences but in slow-motion circles. The riders roll forward,
determined, toward some unseen destination.
Francisco looks elegant on his bike. His gray hair and mustache
are neat; his striped, button-down shirt is pressed. He is proud of
He travels the wide boulevards that lead to the shipping
terminals at Long Beach, California. He passes unopened
supermarkets, unilluminated car lots. Occasionally he pedals
through the glow from an all-night filling station. Sometimes, as
he rides, he thinks about El Salvador, where he walked to his jobs.
But mostly, as he rides, he wonders whether he'll work today.
Francisco rides to Harbor Park, a green patch amid the factories
and warehouses that cover most of the area. He pedals up to a small
trailer and locks his bike to a tree; a dozen other bikes are also
chained up. The owners of those bikes, all men, all speaking
Spanish, give their names to an attendant, are handed a ticket, and
wait to be called for work.
Contractors and homeowners who need people to sweep away brush
or paint houses or perform other labor arrive in pickup trucks.
Ticket numbers are pulled from a hat, and the bike owners trundle
into the trucks, lucky to have been selected for a day that pays
eight dollars an hour, cash. Not every man works every day.
Francisco waits calmly. With his dignified appearance, he wouldn't
be out of place if the park had chess tables and he were a retiree
spending his golden years at leisure. Instead, he wonders: Will I
be chosen? Is today one of those days that adds up to
On this June morning, the temperature rises into the 90s.
Francisco begins to consider his options. If he doesn't get work
here, he can pedal to a few other sites, a Home Depot or one of
several street corners where day laborers for hire congregate. If
that fails, he'll ride home, only to reappear the next day.
Francisco reads the Bible every night, because
it costs nothing. 'I try to earn $200 every week,' he explains.
This barely covers food and rent while leaving him a tiny extra
amount he can send back to El Salvador, where his wife and children
are-though he quickly adds that his kids are no longer kids.
'They're grown,' he says and reaches into his wallet. I think
he's going to show me a family picture, but he pulls out his green
card. I'm surprised to learn that he's 68 years old; he looks
younger. He tells me that he arrived from his war-torn Central
American homeland 18 years ago and received political-refugee
status in 1989. Since then, he's cleared hundreds of backyards,
seen countless remodeled kitchens. He's read through the New
Testament a dozen times and pedaled tens of thousands of miles on
his bike. He's wired thousands of dollars back to his family.
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