Monday, January 30, 2023

From the Archives - Cockroaches at La Loma


Here’s another blog post from way before there were blogs. As with so many other random essays from my college days, I’d printed this, photocopied it, sent copies around to my friends and family, and then just waited for the accolades and admiration to come flooding in. I’m still waiting, actually. See? Proto-blog!

Cockroaches at La Loma – March 18, 1989

Before I came to California, I had never seen a cockroach. I had read about them in books (e.g., how they’d be the only survivors of a nuclear war) but only recently have I become acquainted with these foul creatures. Ironically, we never had a roach problem at La Loma until just after they fumigated our apartment for the first time. Now the kitchen is literally crawling with them.

Roaches aren’t like other insects. When you squash an ant, for example, or at least when you squash many dozens at once, you can hear a tiny crushing sound, as the exoskeletons are shattered. But roaches seem to lack body armor; they’re just smushed into a greasy spot on your finger. But even more interesting is their flight instinct, which I think is unique for an insect. Unless ants take over a man’s kitchen, you see, they’re generally safe from mass slaughter because they just aren’t very much fun to kill. They never run; they just amble about carrying crumbs of food back to their anthills, completely unaware of their impending doom. And actually, a random ant can feel reasonably assured of being left alone. I myself don’t have much visceral negative reaction to seeing an ant. They can be kind of fun to watch as they purposefully move about, carrying an object many times their own size. We can even respect them, since they have sophisticated colonies and so forth. I don’t tend to bother killing them unless I have a full invasion, in which case I might take drastic measures like creaming them with a dish sponge.

Look, I know this essay is supposed to be about cockroaches, and I promise to get back to that. But I realize I have more to say about ants. When I lived in Colorado, it was very rare to have an infestation. Maybe ants weren’t as copious there due to the harsh winters or something, who knows. (I never said I was an entomologist.) But the downside of Colorado is that at high altitude it’s hard to bake. Cakes in particular disappoint. So during a family visit to my grandpa’s place in St. Helena a couple years back, my mom baked a gorgeous chocolate layer cake. We knew it would be moister and denser and more delicious than the airy, dry cakes we’d get in Boulder, so we went for a long walk to work up an appetite. The cake was waiting in one of those cake thingies old people have, with the pedestal and the tall glass cover. Upon our return we lifted the cover to discover that the cake was absolutely swarming with ants. Where the hell had they come from? They were stuck in the frosting and struggling to even move. We couldn’t face the loss of that cake—it was just too huge a disappointment—so we decided to just eat it anyway. I loved the thought of these intruders being literally eaten alive, sliding down our throats with no hope of escape. The cake was still great; the ants gave it a little piquancy.

But normally, there’s no sport in killing ants; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. And I think we all know how easy that is. Because we all have friends who call us up and are like, “Hey, I have a bunch of guns, and my uncle just delivered a big barrel full of live fish. You wanna come over and shoot some? Just for sport?” And of course you head right over, because it’s not disgusting at all, the way they bleed and bleed until the water is basically red and you start to wonder if a fish can feel terror, until you remember watching your high school friend’s piranhas chasing goldfish, and it was obvious the goldfish were fleeing, and so in that barrel the more selfish fish are diving for the bottom, squirming past others and hoping the spree ends soon, and oh my God, why are automatic weapons legal in this country?

Gosh, sorry, I got a little distracted there. I had been saying how ants go about their business blithely and never flee, whereas cockroaches must know that they’re the most hated insect on planet Earth, because they always run for it. Once you surprise them by turning on the kitchen light, they take off helter-skelter (or is it pell-mell?) for the nearest place to hide. If you’re lucky, you can kill one or two before they’ve all escaped. Strategy really comes into play here; if you can anticipate their escape route, you can head ‘em off at the pass. But when you do kill one, it’s not so much fun because you get that oily black smear on your thumb. I think it’s a kamikaze defense mechanism.

My roommate really hates roaches. It’s not that I don’t; I just respect their survivalist tendencies and their lightning speed. But he behaves as though their existence is a personal insult to him. I doubt he’s self-aware enough to realize that he’s probably the reason we still have them; he’s easily the biggest slob of our trio here. For example, if he doesn’t feel like washing a pan, and fears I might prompt him to do it because it’s my pan, he’ll actually hide it behind the fridge. So if anybody deserves to be angry around here, that’d be me. But who gets angry at a damn insect? Answer: my roommate. (And you thought that was a rhetorical question!) He totally lost it the other night after failing to kill a roach, and actually punched the fridge. I was secretly kind of pleased about this because that fridge had it coming. It sucks. It’s the loudest fridge I’ve ever heard and it runs constantly. Its noise is so annoying, when I sit down to eat in the kitchen I often reach around back and unplug it. (That’s typically how I end up finding my pan.)

Well, after feeling like the jackass that he is over his bruised hand, my roommate finally bit the bullet and laid out some cash for two Roach Motels. I’ve only seen these devices in advertisements and “Far Side” books, and was kind of surprised to learn they still exist (as do Ginsu steak knives, which I’d thought were mythical). I always wondered how Roach Motels “kill roaches dead” without being toxic. I mean, after all, I don’t want any deadly chemicals in my kitchen (besides the ones in my food, of course). Well, therein lies the biggest advertising fraud in commercial history. Roach Motels don’t even kill roaches once, so the redundant slogan is misleading twice over. They actually work on the same principle as the Eagles’ celebrated Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. It’s basically a box with ramps leading into it, and a sticky floor that smells, to the roach, like a tasty treat. The unsuspecting roach walks up the ramp, falls into the goo, and spends the rest of his life trying to un-stick himself. He eventually dies either of old age or exhaustion.

It’s really kind of sad looking into the Roach Motel at all the little black bodies, often stacked on each other, desperately trying to escape this horrible doom. Roaches never give up, either. From the moment they drop in, they pull frantically with one leg at a time, but the leg snaps back again as the sticky goo proves superior even to the roach’s proportional insect strength. Entertaining a fanciful notion that perhaps I could hear them screaming, I put my ear really close to the Motel. What did I expect to hear? I remembered the scene of Johnny the Boy desperately begging Max Max for mercy: “What are you doing? I wanna know … what you’re doing! You think I’m silly don’t you. Don’t do this to me!”

I have fairly large feet, and I wear these cool Nike Team Conference basketball shoes, which are black and white, and which I like to call my Shamus. I think they’d do a great job of stomping these Roach Motels flat, and putting all those poor roaches out of their misery. You see, I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of feel bad for those roaches, working themselves to death in there. But the motels don’t belong to me, and still have vacancy. My dippy roommate probably thinks he could extract the existing roaches somehow and use the motels again and again. So, I dare not mess with them. I guess my best bet is just to go hide my pan.

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