He spent one night under a juice glass. When I left my studio apartment in Manhattan in May, I thought I’d sealed every tiny crack. “Bugs’ll eat through just about anything ‘cept steel wool,” the building handyman assured me. “Just keep the place bone dry, food-free and pack the cracks.” I bought a squishy brick of steel wool wrapped in orange plastic from the Home Depot on Sixth, and I went around my clean apartment on my knees with a Swiss Army knife in one hand and a pillow of steel Shredded Wheat in the other. “Eat this!” I thought, stuffing most of a metal biscuit into the one hole I found in the moulding.
I didn’t want to think specifically about what kind of bugs I was keeping away. Taking ‘bone dry’ to extremes, I ran to Duane Reade across the street and bought plastic drain covers: I hoped the cashier thought I bought them to trap hair. I even purchased a large plastic robotic insect and set him loose at odd intervals hoping to impress his crunchy exoskeletal rivals. I imagined bug fraternal meetings at the Lice Lodge. “Have you seen the whopper in 11J? He is my mutant hero. Let us give him a wide berth. The throng would respond, antennae waving: “All Hail, Superbug.” I left fully confident that I would come back to a bug-free apartment.
The first thing I did when I got back to NYC on Wednesday was pull all the linens from my bed. The second thing I did was jump back (reflex). Aaaah, not a single speck. Then I checked the closet, pulling out a cream colored sweater and a white scarf. No worries. When I saw the little brown objects on my cutting board in the kitchen, I freaked. “The scourge, the expense, the shame! BEDBUGS!”
Wait a minute. Would a bedbug infest a cutting board? Those weren’t bugs. They were… turds. Too big to be bedbug turds, too small for mice. I gave the cutting board a tentative tap. Then I jumped back. From the far corner I saw independently waving antennae in a universal “What the fuck/Who goes there?” gesture. I had to admire this stolid foe. He managed to survive in a food-less, waterless kitchen all alone (God willing). I searched for his companions, for more turds or gnawed boxes of Trader Joe’s Gluten Free Macaroni and Cheese. It only took a few minutes to surmise that he was a lone starving intruder, a lost sentry.
The guy next door had just moved out. I’m guessing the activity stirred this critter from our shared eighty-year-old walls. The bug just ran in the wrong direction, that’s all. And I’m not the crack-packer I thought I was. From his small circle of feces, I figured his world was quite small, so I told him to stay put and we’d work things out. I’d left Montana early. It was dark, I was dead tired, and my giant bug agreed to stay in the corner of my kitchen until morning. In exchange for his tacit cooperation I decided to capture him instead of having to listen to a sickening sound, clean up an awful mess and entertain cousins who, at the smell of things, might want to sit shiva.
There’s a reason sports cars look like cockroaches: these buggers accelerate like a friggin’ Lamborghini. I didn’t want him straying, so after a few jumpy tip-toed attempts with an inverted highball glass, I gave up. I hung my head, apologized to the corner where I assume he went to catch his breath. I crossed the street to Duane Reade and bought an eight-pack of Combat Large Roach Traps. I bought a six pack of Hansen’s Root Beer and some nail polish to disguise my shame. If I was going to be a real New Yorker, I could not have a fertile, free-range pet cockroach.
I said a few words to myself about the cycle and ultimate pathos of life and all that. Then I set out six of the eight black disc traps and left the apartment. Nature would undoubtedly (according to the COMBAT box) take its course. When I returned that evening, I put on thick blue rubber gloves and lifted each trap. He might have taken the bait and gone back to some unseen nest (shudder) to die. He might be in one of these discs. It was impossible to tell. I had just gone to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and I was feeling raw. I decided to clean out the dead bug’s home in the morning. “Jesus Christ! There he is!” It was 7 a.m.
I’d pulled out the microwave to sanitize my entire kitchen and there was my cockroach, healthy as ever. Combat roach trap, my ass. Whoa! He’d jumped to the counter and was accelerating for a corner. I grabbed an empty juice glass, and with only a minor injury to one of his antennae, I GOT HIM! I was panting. He was jumping inside that glass ten times his height, which is impressive for a starving, dried out bug.
I pulled out a piece of triple-wrapped biscotti and ran it under cold water, carefully squeezing it under the glass. “You deserve this.” I meant it. I slid a piece of cardboard under the glass and sealed it with a large X made of clear packing tape. Shaking my insect companion to the bottom, I punched a few small air holes and zipped him into the front pocket of my backpack.
He’d survived a lonely, food-less, climate-controlled life in my kitchen. I pondered where to let him go. For a moment I considered the window. Eleven floors down? Naw, that would be cruel and way too close. What horrors if he landed on someone’s head. I wasn’t sure it was legal to release cockroaches in New York City–I was imagining the ire at City Hall, “Guilty, your Honor. Just throw me under a juice glass until I have paid my debt to society.”
When I found nothing prohibiting the act, I decided to carry him to Chelsea’s famous elevated park, the Highline. I pretended to fuss with an iced mocha on a park bench as passersby crowded a particularly overgrown section of the pathway. I loosened the packing tape and readied myself to pull it back. As I fussed with the makeshift cage, my cockroach finally discovered the food I put in with him. He began to maniacally consume the hazelnut biscotti.
I suspect the poor thing may be blind, or that all cockroaches are vision-impaired, or that he realized this was his last meal, and he might as well enjoy it. Maybe he’s a stress eater. My cockroach continued to munch as I finished this story. About halfway through (the biscotti and the story) I looked down and he was gone. I left the juice glass in the tall leaves, with a piece of protein bar pushed just inside the rim. If he comes back, he might be hungry.
I’m going through the apartment again looking for cracks, another pillow or two of steel wool in hand. This time I’ll use a flashlight along with my pocket knife. I think I’m going to toss the COMBAT traps. Cockroaches, I have concluded, are like people. Once in awhile their courage in the face of adversity is noteworthy. If too many of either species show up at my door, I will be tempted to use poison.