Sunday, March 28, 2010

La Cucaracha

Quote of the blog:

My roommate Gaby is scared of dogs - and understandably. When she was nine she was on her bike when three dogs started to chase her – two German shepherds and one cocker spaniel (Gaby uses the term “ferocious cocker spaniel”). As they chased her and nipped at her fast-peddling feet she heard the owner call the dogs off, “Hunter! Killer! Beast! Get back here!”

I’m not afraid of dogs but I am afraid of large bugs; cockroaches specifically. Three years ago when I discovered a gargantuan cockroach in my room I called Gaby for help. She was not inclined to assist me – she is not a fan of cockroaches either. Finally, in all seriousness, I looked at her and said, “I will take a bite for you.” She looked at me, nodded, took the can of Raid from my hands and walked with me to my room.

Sometimes, when we walk by a larger dog, Gaby will still move behind me and whisper, “You owe me a bite.”


Last Thursday, my friend Mycah told me and my other friend Talia about a commute he’d had earlier in the week. He was on the subway to Brooklyn after a long night of traveling. He sat across from a man who fit a certain subway rider stereotype. I wish there was a name for this persona. If you’ve ridden the NYC subway, or probably the metro anywhere, you know the type: the person who carries themselves in a way that lets you know they don’t care what you think, they know they're cool. That's right foo', they wear their sunglasses on the subway. This guy slouched confidently in his seat (if you can call a slouch confident), head slightly cocked to the side, his legs spread apart with his forearms resting on his thighs (I think this posture is meant to discourage people from sitting next to him). He stared ahead with disinterest and, I like to imagine, his lips were pushed out just a bit – like some people do when they raise their chin and give an acknowledging “what’s up” head nod.

Mycah saw something move on the rider’s shirt. He looked closer and thought he saw a giant cockroach peering around the edge of the man’s jacket. The bug waved one long antennae at him. Mycah did a double-take, blinked, and when he looked again it was gone. His tired mind must have imagined it. At least, that's what he thought until the cockroach crawled out from under the man’s jacket - it was an American cockroach about 2” in length (as opposed to the 1/2" German cockroach that also dwell in NYC). It crawled up his shirt, onto the outside of his jacket and down the forearm. All of this took just a few seconds. Our cool subway rider hadn’t noticed the stowaway and maintained his aloof demeanor until he saw a movement on his sleeve. When the rider saw the cockroach he lost his cool. He jumped up and frantically shook his arm, dislodged the cockroach and sent it flying across the subway car. It landed at the feet of a woman who screamed and proceeded to stamp the roach over and over again. The subway rider adjusted his coat and resumed his nonchalant pose for the rest of the ride. The roach’s destination was never discovered.

Mycah reenacted the scene for Talia and me. We laughed and shuddered all at once. The idea of having a giant cockroach inside the clothes you’re wearing - uhhhhhhh.

The morning after Mycah told us the tale of the subway roach Talia came into the office and exclaimed, “It’s Mycah’s fault! If he hadn't told that story!...”

I was surprised, “What happened?”

The previous evening, after Mycah shared his story, Talia went home to her studio apartment on the Upper East Side. She opened the window by her oven and set about making pasta for dinner. The sauce was simmering in a pan on the stovetop when she got a phone call and walked out of the kitchen for a moment. When she returned she was horrified to see a huge cockroach and a baby cockroach on the windowsill looking down at the sauce in the pan. They reached out and grabbed each other’s foreleg, swung their legs back and forth as they squeeked out a “One! Two! Threeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Talia yelled “Nooo!” and rushed forward as BOTH cockroaches jumped into her pasta sauce. It was a double cockroachicide. I’m just glad that she saw them before she stirred them in or put the sauce in the fridge for later.

Those stories remind me of another story that I can’t tell without shuddering. It’s not specifically about cockroaches, but I feel like it’s related. One Sunday, Gaby and I sat in church two rows behind a man who attended our ward. He was an interesting sort of fellow and, well, would probably never win a gold star for hygiene. We were singing a hymn when I grabbed Gaby’s arm in alarm. A full tick/flea-like bug scurried out from his collar and down the back of his wrinkled shirt. Gaby gripped my hand in return as a medium sized spider crawled out in pursuit. A girl, the only one on the pew in front of us, calmly reached out with a tissue and killed the first bug. I don’t know what happened to the spider. That was three years ago and we still get the heebeejeebies when I think about it.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m brave, that I would be steady and calm if faced with an emergency; however, if you throw a giant cockroach into the mix I am neither of these things. If I were to provide an excuse I would say it’s because I lived in Panama when I was nine and ten. The cockroaches there were massive and flew through the air, the wings making a heavy bddddddddddd-ddddd sound. Sometimes their long antennae would poke through electrical sockets like live wires. One time a large roach flew around my bedroom and I threw a book at it. Alas! My aim! The book only hit air and then the wall. The cockroach changed direction and flew directly towards me in what I perceived as attack mode. I yelled and dove under my covers. I wouldn’t come out until my mom saved me (moms are good at that). I don’t deal well with large roaches. Never have, and based on the next story, probably never will.

So a few years ago I came home from work, we’d just moved into our apartment a few months before and we had left the windows open. I was in the middle of leaving a message for my sister when I screamed mid-voicemail and hung up. A Monster Cockroach scuttled from the window behind my dresser. I called Gaby in a panic. Her calm voiced reassured my pounding heart and I could tell right away she had a plan, “Ok, I’m going to be home soon.”

I sighed in relief. Reinforcements were just what I needed.

“I want you to go to the kitchen and get the can of bugspray under the sink.”

Yes, bugspray. That makes sense. “Ok, I’ve got it.”

“Ok, good,” She said, “Listen carefully. Go to my room. Spray the baseboard at my door. That way if it leaves your room it won't come in to mine.”

A half hour later, after promising to take a bite for Gaby, imagine the following scene:

Gaby and I staring at my dresser. We knew the monster roach hid behind it. If my brother were home we would have pulled the “man card” but we were on our own. Gaby had the can of Raid and I had stomping boots on. My job was to pull out the dresser and Gaby’s job was to spray the roach. We decided that it was time to take action. We stood there for another five minutes.

Finally, we counted, “One, two, three.” I pulled the dresser from the wall and Gaby looked, and looked, and then jumped and screamed. The next five minutes went something like this:

Both of us: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (gulp of air) AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! (Gaby sprayed Raid the entire time).

I looked at Gaby. She was spraying Raid behind the dresser, her eyes shut. Somewhere in our screams I had retreated to the doorway. I was yelling and laughing, “Don’t lose it! Watch where it goes!”

She opened one eye and then yelled back, “It crawled behind the other dresser!" She looked at me, "And you LIED about it’s size! It’s HUGE!”

To be fair, I hadn’t told her how big it was. I was afraid she might not help me if I told her I had a roach the size of a mouse in my room. I wouldn’t have helped me if I were her.

I waved fumes out of the way to see Gaby, “I’m scared.”

She couldn't see the cockroach any more and stopped spraying. We took a few moments to gather ourselves and reposition. Gaby sat on my desk, every once in a while spraying behind the dresser while we discussed tactical options. I sat on my desk chair with my legs up underneath me (you know, in case the roach ran out from under the dresser). Again, our strategic plan was to pull the second dresser away from the wall and spray the Goliath. I took a deep breath and pulled the second dresser out from the wall. We both looked behind it. We both screamed again.

There, lying on its back in a puddle of Raid, was the massive cockroach. Its long crawly legs stretched up to the ceiling. It was ginormous. Gaby sprayed it some more just to make sure it wasn’t faking death. We may have used an entire can of Raid.

We needed to dispose of the body, but I just couldn’t get close enough to it to pick it up with anything. Gaby declined my generous offer for her to throw it out. I’m embarrassed to say that I ended up taping a dustpan to the end of a broom handle. I held the bristled-end of the broom, and scooped the roach into the dustpan, and walked – the dustpan at the end of the four feet pole in front of me - to the garbage room by the elevator on our floor.

Even in death the cockroach held some power. For fifteen minutes we jumped at the slightest noise or brush of cloth on the leg thinking it was a nasty insect.

It’s kind of a catch-22 with bugs, rats, etc. Once you notice a few, you start looking for them, and the more you look for them the more you see. And sometimes you think you notice insects that aren’t there. Even now, after retelling these stories, I just jumped when my hair brushed my neck. If I can’t maintain my cool when I’m only writing about roaches who knows what I would have done on the subway if one actually crawled onto my sleeve.


  1. I know someone who had a flying cockroach get stuck in her braces

  2. Brook!! I love all your posts, I just caught up on the last few =)

  3. I love that they held antennae and jumped in the sauce together! One, two, threeeee!!!

  4. I look forward to your posts every week!

    When I moved here to Texas I found one of those 2 inch cockroaches in my house - I was freaked out at first but then I was so happy that it wasn't a scorpion that I wasn't freaked out anymore. I can handle the cockroaches just watch out if I ever see a scorpion!

  5. Those are some horrible stories you just told! Somehow I have encountered very few cockroaches in the city and things had better not change now that I've read this post. If you ever need some good material for a post about mice, Liesel and I have some great stories for you!

  6. This American Life has a "great" segment about roaches (& bedbugs):
    (Act II: Sleep's Tiniest Enemies)

    Those who fear bugs beware. You may never sleep again.

  7. This is one of the best things I've ever read. Thank you for that.