Two weeks ago during the thick of that horrible heat wave, I came home late at night from teaching a class. I really had to pee. I opened the front door, then the bathroom door. When I flicked on the light, I screamed. Sitting on my pristine bathroom counter was one of the biggest cockroaches I had ever seen in my life.
I screamed again, this time so loud that I thought Kevin from across the hall was going to come out and see what was wrong. He didn’t, which makes me wonder if Kevin would be there in my hour of need. Regardless, there was still an enormous bug on my counter, and I needed to use the bathroom.
I tried swatting at him, careful not to actually touch him. He didn’t seem fazed. Then I picked up a can of hairspray and spritzed him a bit. This woke him up and sent him back down the drain from where he most likely came. Then I turned on the hot water full blast, hopefully sending Mr. Cockroach to a watery grave.
Such is summer in New York. As everyone heads out to beach and weekend homes, the cockroaches move in to take up all that unused real estate. Most of the time they are pretty discrete and go back into hiding before you return. I had not seen a bug that size in my apartment since 2003, when I moved in. Back then, parts of my bathroom walls were exposed and the bugs didn’t know the difference between their side of the tile and mine. Once the holes were patched up, we went on to lead separate lives.
For a day or so during the heat wave, I couldn’t understand why the roach chose to hang out in my bathroom. I am seldom in that apartment, so there is no food lying around and never any trash. Certainly they weren’t looking for cuisine. That said, I got on the internet and researched cockroaches. Why me? Why now? Was I being punished for always making fun of Murray Hill? True, it was New York and yes, I lived in a basement apartment, but so did seven other people in my building, and when I asked, none of them ever mentioned even an occasional bug.
It seems that I’m not the only person who wanted to know about these creatures. A simple search turned up lots of links and icky photos, including links to people who collect roaches for pleasure. That wasn’t me. I wanted to know what these things were and why they were lounging on my commode.
The heat, it turns out, had a lot more to do with it than I realized. Roaches, the stubborn devils that they are, can live up to a month without food, but only a week without water. During the heat wave, it must have been rough being a roach, as water was in short supply and it hadn’t rained in about two weeks. Roaches prefer the dark, so if they’re crawling around in the open, it means they’re really looking for water and likely on their last leg. That’s good news, especially if you have a can of Raid handy, or even a bottle of Windex. Both, I have found, will send a roach to meet their maker.
Here’s the best news about finding a roach in your apartment: You know everyone has that one jackass friend, who, when you tell them you found a roach they say, “You know, for every one roach you see there are fifty more in the walls that you don’t.” That jackass friend is wrong. Unlike ants, roaches are not social creatures. There is no queen roach, no ring leader and they don’t divide up work. They just don’t have the brain power for it. True, roaches tend to be found together, but only because it’s usually in a place where there is water and a lack of light. They at least understand safety in numbers. There’s no such thing as a “scout” roach, that one roach who crawls across your kitchen floor on a supposed reconnaissance mission for the rest of the squad. If a roach is randomly in the middle of your floor, he’s looking out for himself and his own survival, not for that of a clan behind your oven.
One of my suburbanite friends, bless her heart, asked if I could legally break my lease because of the roach. I laughed out loud. In New York, in the summer, you can’t break your lease because you find an ugly insect in your bathroom in 100 degree heat. It was one bug, in my bathroom, not my bedroom.They will not be filming Joe’s Apartment II in my living room anytime soon. My errant roach went away once I chased him down the drain. I like to think of the the critters as lower life form telemarketers, if such a thing is possible. Annoying, unwanted, but no matter what I do, there’s no guarantee they will ever go away.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.