Miguel had more reason than usual to be anxious as he drove his aging big rig out of the Port of Los Angeles’ bustling China Shipping Terminal.
By his own admission, his 24-year-old truck was dangerously overloaded. The suspension was shot, the tires nearly bald. Over his CB radio, other drivers barked warnings that the California Highway Patrol had set up several checkpoints nearby.
“I’m worried,” said Miguel, a 47-year-old independent operator who requested anonymity to avoid trouble with the law.
“If I get inspected, I could get put out of business,” he said, easing into traffic while scanning for the CHP. “Something real bad could happen at any moment on the road. I’m doing the best I can. It’s a vicious cycle.”
It’s also a way of life for many of the about 16,000 truckers who serve the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, the nation’s busiest port complex. The truckers reflect the extraordinary rise in port traffic in the last decade and are key to what government officials and businesses hope will be continued growth in the future.
But keeping many of those trucks on the road is a shadowy economy of risk-taking drivers and discount mechanics, body workers, welders and junkyards—legal and otherwise—amid the refineries, murky channels and harbor terminals between Long Beach and San Pedro.
Profit margins for the independent operators who serve the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports are thin—so some, like Miguel, cut corners whenever possible.
For example, because a gauge showed that the weight of his load exceeded regulations—and because he views his truck’s brakes as untrustworthy—Miguel used the trailer’s brakes to stop the entire rig. The CHP considers that maneuver particularly dangerous—and illegal.
It costs him about $500 to fill the tank with diesel fuel and roughly $2,000 a year for truck insurance.
Repairs have to wait
On the morning Miguel warily watched for the CHP, he had contracted to haul a 40-foot trailer to Rancho Cucamonga. The 80-mile haul, one of two such trips he planned to make that day, would gross him $320.
But the emergency repairs needed on the truck—it has 3 million miles on it, the equivalent of about six round trips to the moon—would have to wait.
Miguel couldn’t even afford to visit a lot just outside the gates of the China Shipping Terminal where truckers can get tread carved into their balding tires by llanteros, or “tire men,” before getting on the 110 or 710 freeways.
Tools of that trade include hand-held electric “hot knives” connected to pickup truck batteries. Regrooving, which is usually done by machine, is legal, according to California traffic codes, provided the tires are designed for it and their inner steel belts are not damaged in the process.
But outside of China Shipping, the llanteros didn’t seem to mind when their blades occasionally sliced into the belts of their customers’ tires. Scraping out a fresh groove, a llantero simply said, “I groove tires for guys who can’t afford to buy new tires. I charge $10 to $12 per tire. Takes about 20 minutes.”
In the meantime, low-income truckers in need of repairs gravitate toward a part of eastern Wilmington traversed by dirt roads and lined with repair shops—though “shops” implies that these businesses all operate out of buildings. In some cases, the repairmen work in open lots hidden behind corrugated metal sheets.
The shops are thrifty alternatives to dealerships. At JNJ Truck Repairs, for example, an engine overhaul goes for about $1,800. “A dealer will charge about $4,000 for an overhaul,” boasted JNJ’s owner, Juan Enriquez, 42.
A block away, Mexican ranchera music issued from a boom box in a cluttered yard where truck driver Augusto Arroche, 32, of Long Beach waited for body shop workers to finish repairing a large crack in the hood of his 8-year-old rig. “A dealer would charge about $3,000 for this job, and take two weeks to do it,” Arroche said, as a husky brown guard dog named Mambo roamed nearby. “Here, they’re charging $700—and they agreed to let me pay $400 today and the rest later. At 3 p.m., I’ll be back on the road.”
“There’s an inspection going just up ahead of us,” [Miguel] said, nodding toward a roadside CHP team eyeballing everything on wheels near an Interstate 110 onramp. “I can wait around until they leave, which will cost me time and money, or take my chances and hope they’ll just wave me through.”
He decided to kill some time. Miguel made a hard left turn and began maneuvering his massive rig along a circular route that took him over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, through neighborhoods and industrial parks. It took about 30 minutes to get back to the freeway onramp.
“They’re gone—fabuloso!” he said. “Today’s my day.”