Facing my demons in the Big Apple
15 November 2018 15:17
New York City. When most people think of the Big Apple, they picture the skyline, joggers in Central Park, grand museums, fancy restaurants, yellow cabs, arty Bohemians in the West Village, maybe junkies in the grungy East Village and Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side, Wall Street bankers, glamour, perhaps even King Kong, but the indigene that I, as a New Yorker, unfortunately cannot dissociate from it all, one who is undeniably, indelibly and inextricably woven into the fabric of this vibrant ultra-urban city is the cockroach. I know they are not unique to New York City. They exist in South America, in Asia… and lots of other places. But I grew up in Long Island where there are none, and in Paris, where I’ve spent half my time for the past twenty years, I’ve never heard of a roach except in one of those giant high-rise buildings near the periphery of the city. Certainly, in the rest of Paris, they do not exist. I have never seen one in any place I’ve lived, even when I was a student, nor on the streets. That said, at least I’ve always known the word for roach in French, ‘cafard’, whereas I didn’t know what it was in German until recently. I asked a German-speaking Dutch friend and he seemed baffled. ‘You know, the insect that Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, aka The Metamorphosis, turns into? That dirty disgusting bug!’ I made some grimaces to get the message across. He scratched his head, thought for a minute and suggested, ‘a kakerlake?’ I burst out laughing. (It sounds like ‘cacalaka’ and ‘caca’ in French means ‘doo doo’.) ‘That can’t be a real word! That sounds ridiculous.’ He nodded his head and repeated, ‘I think it’s a kakerlake.’ Incredible, to not even know the word for ‘cockroach’, because you’ve never needed it, presumably. (Vocabulary says a lot about a culture. When you study German, one of the first words you learn is ‘ordentlich’ which means ‘orderly’, and then ‘Getreide’, which means ‘grain’, as in beer and bread, and you then learn the words for rye, wheat, barley… whereas in French you learn ‘grève’ which means ‘strike’ and ‘être en smoking’—to be dressed in a smoking jacket—i.e. black tie.)
In New York City—whether in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island or Queens, roaches are unfortunately a fact of life. Hopefully, you live in a building that sprays—regularly—so you don’t need to interact, much. Even then, I’ve seen them scuttling across the sidewalk late at night. My Swiss friends recounted a traumatic experience this summer in Brooklyn, on a terrace where a horde of roaches came out of nowhere—crawling, flying, and swarmed over them. ‘It was like a horror movie,’ my friend said, shuddering from the PTSD, her eyes huge. (Having come from Switzerland, it was remarkable she was even able to identify what the creatures were as she probably had never seen one before in her sheltered life.) When I read the artist Eric Fischl’s memoir, the main image that stuck with me was when he described lying in bed in a loft in his early years in New York City and the ceiling collapsed from the weight of roaches that showered onto him.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a building that sprays once a month. I am against chemicals but I make an exception for bugs, which I abhor categorically. I suppose I don’t mind the ladybug or the dragonfly, but give me a non-poisonous snake any day, instead of a roach. So in the eighteen years I’ve had this place in Manhattan, I’ve only seen two live roaches—or ‘waterbugs’, and three dead ones. I don’t know what the difference is between a ‘waterbug’ or a ‘roach’ but as far as I am concerned, ‘waterbug’ is just a euphemism for a giant roach. The first time I saw one, my boyfriend was with me. I started to scream, naturally, and run away. When he learned why, he was scornful and logical for possibly the only time in his life, ‘You’re so much bigger than it. Why are you so afraid?’ But at least he did deal with it and flush it down the toilet.
The second time, I was less fortunate. I was all alone. It was crawling slowly across the floor and I had no idea what to do besides shriek with no one to hear, much less care. To squash it with a shoe would be awful—to see that gross goo come out… there would be a lot of it, because it was enormous! It would be too disgusting. I shrank with revulsion at the thought. What could I do? I couldn’t call the doorman. He wasn’t allowed to leave his desk. But necessity is the mother of invention. Without startling the roach, so it wouldn’t pick up speed, I stealthily pulled out the vacuum cleaner from the closet, plugged it in and sucked it up. Ahh… it was so satisfying. Mission accomplished in one clean stroke! But in a minute, I heard, cush, cush, cush, cush… It had survived and was struggling to get free. I ran the vacuum again, hoping it would do the trick. But no, it was indestructible. (What is the saying? After a nuclear war, there will only be roaches and Keith Richards?) I could hear it, cush, cush, cush cush… What would I do now? The problem was, my vacuum had the kind of vacuum bag that you have to empty and reuse. I’d have to dump the contents of the vacuum bag out into another bag and I was certain the roach would crawl back out and escape and I’d be back to square one, or worse—I imagined it attacking me with vengeance. I couldn’t just throw the whole thing out. Again, I thought of going to the doorman, but it was too preposterous. I kept running the vacuum over and over, buying time, while racking my brain. Finally, I had the solution. After running the vacuum to stun the roach, I quickly opened the vacuum and put the vacuum bag into a plastic bag and tied it tight before the insect could recover. By the time the first cush cush sounds resumed, I was putting the entire thing into the freezer. I didn’t think even a roach could survive that. I felt very proud. But the job wasn’t completely finished yet.
Though the days went by, I couldn’t bring myself to empty the vacuum bag with even (I hoped) a frozen roach. Before I was forced to need to use the vacuum cleaner again, I left town. Meanwhile, I’d had an idea. My Belgian friend was going to stay at my place for a few days while I was away. I figured he owed me. ‘Could you please do me a favour?’ I wrote in French by email. ‘In the freezer, there is a big plastic bag with a vacuum bag inside. Could you take it out and dump out the contents of the vacuum bag into the garbage and throw it out for me?’ Of course I didn’t explain why the vacuum bag was in the freezer and why I was asking him to do this for me. But he didn’t ask and what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Plus, he was a guy, after all. ‘With great pleasure,’ he wrote back gallantly and then reported that the job was done. When I returned home a few weeks later, thrilled by my cleverness, I hunted around for the vacuum bag so I could finally vacuum. I couldn’t find it. I wrote my friend and asked what had happened to it. Why, he’d thrown it all in the garbage of course! ‘Oh no,’ I wrote him. ‘You weren’t supposed to throw out everything, only the garbage inside the filter.’ I could have done that myself, I thought. Ugh. I couldn’t just buy a new filter so I had to buy a new vacuum cleaner. That had been an expensive roach. But I made sure the new vacuum cleaner has disposable bags so when the new culprit arrives—hopefully not any time soon or even better, never, I’m ready.