by Junot Diaz
An essay on the one time my family apartment was broken into while we were away on vacation and how I solved the Mystery of the Stupid Morons. Appeared in The New Yorker, June 13, 2011.
All the Dominicans I knew in those days sent money home. My mother didn’t have a regular job besides caring for us five kids, so she scrimped the loot together from whatever came her way. My father was always losing his forklift jobs, so it wasn’t like she ever had a steady flow. But my grandparents were alone in Santo Domingo, and those remittances, beyond material support, were a way, I suspect, for Mami to negotiate the absence, the distance, caused by our diaspora. She chipped dollars off the cash Papi gave her for our daily expenses, forced our already broke family to live even broker. That was how she built the nut—two, maybe three hundred dollars—that she sent home every six months or so.
We kids knew where the money was hidden, but we also knew that to touch it would have meant a violent punishment approaching death. I, who could take the change out of my mother’s purse without thinking, couldn’t have brought myself even to look at that forbidden stash.
So what happened? Exactly what you’d think. The summer I was twelve, my family went away on a “vacation”—one of my father’s half-baked get-to-know-our-country-better-by-sleeping-in-the-van extravaganzas—and when we returned to Jersey, exhausted, battered, we found our front door unlocked. My parents’ room, which was where the thieves had concentrated their search, looked as if it had been tornado-tossed. The thieves had kept it simple; they’d snatched a portable radio, some of my Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers, and, of course, Mami’s remittances.
It’s not as if the robbery came as a huge surprise. In our neighborhood, cars and apartments were always getting jacked, and the kid stupid enough to leave a bike unattended for more than a tenth of a second was the kid who was never going to see that bike again. Everybody got hit; no matter who you were, eventually it would be your turn.
And that summer it was ours.
Still, we took the burglary pretty hard. When you’re a recent immigrant, it’s easy to feel targeted. Like it wasn’t just a couple of jerks that had it in for you but the whole neighborhood—heck, maybe the whole country.
No one took the robbery as hard as my mom, though. She cursed the neighborhood, she cursed the country, she cursed my father, and of course she cursed us kids, swore that we had run our gums to our idiot friends and they had done it.
And this is where the tale should end, right? Wasn’t as if there was going to be any “C.S.I.”-style investigation or anything. Except that a couple of days later I was moaning about the robbery to these guys I was hanging with at that time and they were cursing sympathetically, and out of nowhere it struck me. You know when you get one of those moments of mental clarity? When the nictitating membrane obscuring the world suddenly lifts? That’s what happened. I realized that these two dopes I called my friends had done it. They were shaking their heads, mouthing all the right words, but I could see the way they looked at each other, the Raskolnikov glances. I knew.
Now, it wasn’t like I could publicly denounce these dolts or go to the police. That would have been about as useless as crying. Here’s what I did: I asked the main dope to let me use his bathroom (we were in front of his apartment) and while I pretended to pee I unlatched the window. Then we all headed to the park as usual, but I pretended that I’d forgotten something back home. Ran to the dope’s apartment, slid open the bathroom window, and in broad daylight wriggled my skinny butt in.
Where did I get these ideas? I have not a clue. I guess I was reading way too much Encyclopedia Brown and the Three Investigators in those days. And if mine had been a normal neighborhood this is when the cops would have been called and my butt would have been caught burglarizing.
The dolt and his family had been in the U.S. all their lives and they had a ton of stuff, a TV in every room, but I didn’t have to do much searching. I popped up the dolt’s mattress and underneath I found my D. & D. books and most of my mother’s money. He had thoughtfully kept it in the same envelope.
And that was how I solved the Case of the Stupid Morons. My one and only case.
The next day at the park, the dolt announced that someone had broken into his apartment and stolen all his savings. This place is full of thieves, he complained bitterly, and I was, like, No kidding.
It took me two days to return the money to my mother. The truth was I was seriously considering keeping it. But in the end the guilt got to me. I guess I was expecting my mother to run around with joy, to crown me her favorite son, to cook me my favorite meal. Nada. I’d wanted a party or at least to see her happy, but there was nothing. Just two hundred and some dollars and fifteen hundred or so miles—that’s all there was.