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.
Like many other independent haulers, he contracts with licensed motor carriers, or a trucking broker, linked to shipping companies and cargo owners, such as big-box retailers. Each morning, Miguel shows up at the broker's dispatch window to solicit jobs.
Like other drivers serving the ports, he's a "short-haul trucker," ferrying containers to distribution centers across Southern California.
He gets paid by the load -- the equivalent of about $8.90 an hour -- and works 65 hours a week.
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.
"When they cut into the steel belt, that tire becomes a bomb," said Harvey Brodsky, spokesman for the Tire Retread and Repair Information Bureau, a nonprofit industry association. "It's a shame and a disgrace, and an example of what's going on in our ports."
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."
The tire man was alarmed, however, when he noticed a fist-size bulge protruding from the sidewall of one of the tires he had regrooved.
"Hey, you better take a look at this," he told a driver. The driver smiled sheepishly and replied, "I know. I just need it for another month or two."
"It's dangerous and irresponsible," the driver said, shaking his head.
"But I don't have money for new tires. I'm behind on my bills. As long as the CHP doesn't stop me, I'll keep doing it."
Collaring illegal truckers remains something of "a cat-and-mouse game," said CHP Officer Patrick O'Donnell, who specializes in inspecting commercial vehicles. "We do the best to inspect as many of these trucks as we can on a daily basis; unfortunately, we can't get to all 16,000 of them.
"But they're really rolling the dice," he said. "They may get away from us on a given day, but eventually they'll get stopped."