Portrait of an Immigrant Detainee as a Young Man

Meet New York bike-scene fixture Pablo Airaldi. He made friends with everyone—except ICE officials.

Pablo’s bike is like a phantom limb. You can tell he has an itch. He talks, at length, about the freedom a bicycle represents. “It’s one of those icons that is very childlike and in that way, represents a lot of things we have lost in this society,” he will say during a later phone call, veering off on an unwieldy tangent about how we grow up too quickly and this is one of the reasons teenage pregnancy and drug abuse have been epidemic. But now the first thing he wants to do when he gets out of here is ride for, like, 11 hours straight.

He talks about all the support from his friends. The benefits from Indiana to Switzerland, the visits, the letters. He even got mail from a 15-year-old in California who said she’d heard about his situation on the Internet and was praying for him. The envelope said “UNICORN POWER.” “It’s weird,” he says. “I never thought I did anything to deserve this.”

He talks about his mom. He calls her his rock, “the most supportive and strong woman I’ve ever met in my life.” They’re still in touch and talk nearly every other day. She’s worried about him, of course, but has grown accustomed to her son’s stubborn independence. “After the first couple of times that I told her I slept under a bridge, she was OK with it,” he explains later. “I was like, ‘It’s OK, mom! I had my knife when the bum came up to me, it’s cool.’ ”

Bloomington, Indiana, is "where I fell in love with cycling."
Ed Glazar
Bloomington, Indiana, is "where I fell in love with cycling."

She has since divorced the ex-Marine, who blames Pablo for their split. “I don’t hate him,” Pablo says unprovoked about someone he hasn’t spoken to in nine years. “He’s really the only father figure I ever had.” His eyes get glassy.

After approximately 30 minutes of this discourse—detainee visits are limited to a total of half an hour a day—one of the two uniformed guards behind the glass hands a white piece of paper to Pablo. It’s time to put down the phone.

The first place Pablo ever felt a sense of community was in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town 50 miles south of Indianapolis. With cheap rents and a median age of 23, the city fostered a rich DIY culture. One such bastion was “The Awesome Block,” a stretch of community-minded houses where intuitive kids lived and worked on their own terms, dumpster-diving for resources, throwing shows in each other’s basements. (Noise goliaths Lightning Bolt, harp nymphet Joanna Newsom, and electro-spazz ringmaster Dan Deacon early on all played there.) At the Awesome Block, the couches were cots, the local soup kitchen was its cafeteria, and Pablo rented a sunroom there for $75 a month. The cost was so cheap that he got by delivering sandwiches, busking outside a coffee shop, and performing at poetry slams. (In 2005, the Bloomington Alternative described Pablo’s public reading style as “frantic thousandthoughtspersecond.”

It was an active life, not a passive one. “Bloomington for young artistic types wasn’t the kind of place you just sat at home and did nothing,” recalls Pablo’s friend Ian, who became acquainted with him through the poetry scene there. “You went out and talked to people, you listened to people play guitars, you shared poetry, you talked about philosophy, you chased girls, whatever. You were downtown, out at the park, out at a coffee shop, out a bar, someone else’s house.”

Bloomington was also the setting for the Oscar-winning film Breaking Away. A 1979 coming-of-age story about a working-class protagonist obsessed with bike racing, the movie arcs with the Little 500, an actual cycling competition held annually at Indiana University. This sort of regional pop-sports history, along with a rich sustainable-living community, fostered the Bloomington Bike Community Project, a nonprofit with ideals similar to Time’s Up in New York City. “That’s where I fell in love with cycling,” he has written. “There I learned to be completely independent by way of an amazing machine called a bicycle.”

Ever since then, the bicycle has been a tool, a livelihood, a discount, an identity. It’s the reason that, like a lot of things in his life, Pablo’s work history isn’t traditional, either.

For more than four years, he worked intermittently for New York–based Elite Couriers—for a bike messenger, that’s a lifetime. “Most people don’t really stick with it more than six months. It’s an industry with a really high turnover,” says Kevin “Squid” Bolger, president of the New York Bike Messenger Foundation, who has been riding full-time since 1992. “It’s a job that a lot of people do for a while—it looks fun—but after a while, the really hard reality is that it’s really hard work and it’s not great pay.” He describes the bike-messenger community as “hobo college.”

With that sort of empirical education, Pablo didn’t think twice when, after moving to Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis, he tried to go to Canada for a bike race in 2008 and only brought his passport. “I almost puked in the immigration office across the border when they told me I was about to get arrested,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Wha-wha-what?’” Eight years after his arrest in Indiana, he had unknowingly brought his immigration status to the Department of Homeland Security’s attention. Court dates ensued, and so did four months’ detention in 2009 (where “I was losing my fucking mind”), and a bond release, which was later reversed as a judge’s mistake.

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