Documented: Riding across America with Diego

I'd never planned to do much traveling by Greyhound, particularly not coast-to-coast. Then again, I hadn't exactly planned to have my car and all my worldly possessions stolen in Los Angeles, either.

But these things happen, and when you're stuck in California with less than $150 in your bank account, sometimes you have to resign yourself to the 67-hour bus ride back to Charlottesville. This was my spring break from UVA. Armed with naught but good spirits and a paperback copy of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, I began my odyssey.

You can always count on quality weirdness when you ride the Greyhound, and even before we reached Texas, I'd had no shortage of entertainment including, but not limited to

*getting pet-named "Spanky" by a mother whose own spawn seemed to go by "Ronnie B." and "Ronnie J.,"

*having my leg soaked by a narcoleptic Tucsonian called Hamburger with a talent for synchronized flatulence and drool-spitting, and

*seeing someone barfing in a station water fountain for the third time in two weeks.

But it's not all good times on the moving mini-metaphor of a trans-American Greyhound. For each tale of eccentricity, there are a dozen other stories to hear, quieter but no less worthy.

It wasn't until our bus rolled out of El Paso that I met my new seatmates who'd boarded there: a snappily dressed, painstakingly groomed Mexican with a little boy on his lap and a glorious moustache. It seemed a good chance to practice my Spanish, so I turned and started talking.

"Ummm. Hola."

"Hola, amigo. ¿Como estás?"

"Así así, gracias."

And so on. I managed to ask him where he was going, and his reply (so far as I could translate it) was touching. His sister was in the hospital, and they were going to pay her a visit.

His head was starting to droop, and he looked exhausted, so I motioned that I'd take his son on my lap if he liked. He gave an appreciative nod and passed the boy right over. A feisty youngun, for sure.

"¿Como te llamas, buddy?"

"¡Diego! ¡Diego!" the boy chirped. A kindred saint. I tried to explain that my name in English and his name in Spanish came from the same origin, but my meager lingual talents didn't quite get the job done.

"¿Cuantos... eh... cuantos años tienes, Diego?"

He must have just turned seven given how proud he was of it. "¡Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis, siete!" Diego got a real kick out of hearing me count to seven, so we did it a few times, trading off numbers until we both shouted "¡Siete!"

Diego was so entertaining that I didn't notice that the bus had come to a stop on the side of the road. Our counting game was interrupted by the sharp bark of a German shepherd.

I looked out to find that we were stopped at a border patrol checkpoint. Diego's father had snapped awake, and his eyes flew left and right with the nervous spasms of a boxed lab rat. The collective stomach of the bus, easily three-quarters Hispanic, was quickly sinking.

A beefy caricature of a Texan, wearing the most predictable cop sunglasses and cowboy hat, boarded.

"All righty if you're not a U.S. citizen, I'll be needing your papers." He started working his way down the aisle. As he neared us, Diego's father fumbled through his wallet but could produce nothing more than a worn and weathered photocopy.

The border patrol officer stopped at our seat and bothered me first. After I satisfied him that I'm a relatively benign citizen of the great 48, he moved on.

"How about you, amigo?" he said to my seatmate, who was timidly proffering his photocopy. "What do you call this? What do you call this? What are you trying to pull? Come on with me."

Diego writhed blissfully in my lap, entirely ignorant. His father got up slowly, undoubtedly feeling every eye on the 55-passenger bus bearing down on him.

I watched out the window as the officer led Diego and his dad, head hung, into the station. Diego walked with a lively, unwary step, and his fine bowl-cut hair bounced as he held his dad's hand. Another officer finished checking the rest of the passengers, and as we pulled out, I could see through the blinds into the office where Diego's dad was being questioned.

One of the few other English speakers on the bus called over to me: "Hey, you won the lottery. Got a seat to yourself!" Didn't strike me as terribly funny.

At the next meal break, I was out of cash and didn't eat. Our bus driver, a gruffly James Earl Jones type, offered me a homemade tuna salad sandwich. ("I can't stand the wife's tuna fish anyway," he grumbled.) I asked him how he felt about America turning on one of its neighbors, a man trying to visit his sister in the hospital.

"Papers are papers," he shrugged. "I just drive the bus."

The man had a point. Papers are papers. Maybe if I saw it happen every day, it wouldn't bother me, either.

I believe in synchronicity, so it didn't surprise me when I opened the Post just the other day and read an article about illegal immigrants. A group had crossed into California, 20 of them packed into the bed of a pickup truck, only to be nabbed by the border patrol.

I found myself wondering if Diego's daddy would try that next. I wished him luck.

James Graham is an undergraduate architecture student at UVA.