Invisible Riders

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.


| July / August 2006



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 his appearance.

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 something?

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.