Biking the distance

Daily Pilot

Salome Hernandez doesn't use high-tech gear. There's no spandex in his closet. No clip-in shoes, no bottles that squirt straight lines of water into his mouth.

He's just got his 20-gear Trek road bike and a helmet. That, and the one thing just about everybody yearns for these days: a job.

Hernandez pedals to his job at Muldoon's Irish Pub on Newport Center Drive in Fashion Island, where he's been working as a busboy for more than two decades. He's been riding back and forth to the job for 22 years, earning minimum wage, plus tips, bringing in $2,200 a month during the good years.

But he's no boy.

He's a 52-year-old man who knows the value of holding a job, having grown up in an impoverished part of rural Mexico.

He's an immigrant who established roots in Irvine more than two decades ago and hasn't looked back, except for an occasional visit home during the holidays now that he's a U.S. citizen and doesn't have to worry about the repercussions of re-crossing the border.

On Wednesday night, Hernandez received the Rosalind Williams Service Excellence award from the Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau. Every year, hotels and restaurants and retail stores compete to get their candidate to win an award, but only one can win the plaque from among the never-ending yearly pool of hundreds of applicants.

"I love my job," said Hernandez in an earlier interview Wednesday, as he nervously watched the plates fill up at nearby tables while he took a few questions. "All the customers, they like me, and that's a good enough reason to come to work.

"That's the best reason."

And some of those customers sometimes offer him rides when the weather turns stormy.

Other times, the wait staff at the pub pulls him aside and says "Enough is enough. Let us drive you home in this rain."

But Hernandez, more often then not, refuses. He perseveres. It's more fun being independent, he said.

To get a sense of how far he bikes, every day he logs 36 miles: Nine miles to work from his apartment in Irvine across from the Irvine Police Department, nine miles back to home for a two-hour lunch break; nine miles back to work again after his break, then nine miles home again for the evening, which wraps up about 10 p.m., sometimes 11 p.m.

When he goes home for lunch, he admits that sometimes he takes a nap.

"But I love biking. I do it for the fresh air, for my health," said Hernandez, who was born in the small town of Ezquiel Montes, in the Mexican state of Querétaro

And he looks pretty fit because of all the pedaling.

It would be hard not to be.

Hernandez isn't just supporting himself financially. He's supporting his two daughters on his busboy wages: 21-year-old Andrea, who attends Orange Coast College; and Heidi , 25.

"They're both looking for jobs, but I'm here for them until they figure out what they want to do with their lives," he said. "It's important that they get an education first. That's the most important thing."

Sometimes, Hernandez added, family finances can be somewhat of a struggle. He admits, although reluctantly, that he and his two daughters have to live on a "tight budget."

"When the economy is bad, like it is lately, and there aren't as many customers, it can be really difficult," he says.

But he's always got his bike, he says.

"Sometimes, it can be a relief — just getting on it and pedaling away," he added. "Sometimes, when you're riding, you don't have a care in the world."

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