My Cockroaches

If you can’t get rid of them, you can at least get to know them. 

 

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Professional pest-control people won’t let on about this, but to purge your home of cockroaches once and for all, you follow a two-step procedure.

Step One: Bulldoze your home to the ground.

Step Two: Cart everything away, including the foundation and landscaping. Your goal is a dirt lot.

That’s what worked for us. That’s how we beat our cockroaches in North Dallas.

Of course, tearing the house down took an emotional toll. In fact, we left it to strangers to do it. Six months after the last human inhabitant (Mom) died, we sold. By doing so, we knew we’d doomed our worn-out, one-story ranch-style place, which was fast becoming surrounded by gleaming new starter castles. And it was sad that our home no longer fit in the neighborhood we’d known for 50 years. But by selling to someone intent on demolition, we knew the silver lining.

We’d nailed the cockroaches.

Mom would have been thrilled. She wasn’t good at hating things, but she did hate them. It was different with other bugs. If she heard the chirrup of a cricket under the couch, she’d cup the little fellow in a puff of tissue and place him out on the patio. But she stomped cockroaches, in shoes or bare feet. And we backed her. On this issue, our family of eight achieved a solidarity that could elude us at other times.

Infested

Even in Texas, which ranks world-class when it comes to year-round cockroach infestations, our house stood out.

Once, maybe a decade after we moved in, Mom took advantage of an Orkin pest control promotion for a free home inspection. At the end of his lengthy visit, the Orkin man said, “Ma’am, Dallas has five kinds of cockroaches, and this house has four of them.”

We were happy we didn’t have the Brown-banded yet. But we did have the ones below, which I’ve done a little research on, to become better acquainted with these companions of my youth.

The German. This one’s not just the most common cockroach, it’s the most common household pest in the country. It may ride-hop into a home in a bag of groceries or on a bundle of firewood.

The American. Here’s the giant of the cockroach world. It can grow to be more than two inches long and race across walls and ceilings.

The Smoky-brown. This one uses plumbing lines (a.k.a., the cockroach highway) to move inside and outside at will.

The Oriental. Like the American, it’s big. It’s a bottom dweller. Outside, it lurks beneath a rock or in a compost heap. Inside, it’s below the sink or refrigerator. The Oriental has attitude: To enter a home, it will walk right under the front door.

Dominance

It could be argued that, especially in highly infested Texas, cockroaches weren’t living in our space, we were living in theirs. They were just letting us provide the conditions they needed to continue a successful trek through time. Who were we to mess with one of the most successful insects on Earth? How could we battle a life form that has shown up in the fossil record for 300 million years?

With the cockroach’s impressive ability to adapt, no doubt next week, one of them will learn how to word-process. Then it will whip out an instant motivational best-seller called The Art of Dominance, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Scourges. Here they are:

1. Live on Anything. If it doesn’t fight back, eat it. Although you prefer sweets, dog food, grease and beer, if necessary, make it work with used pantyhose, a postage stamp, sewage or a dead mouse.

2. Get Your Work Done in Four Off-peak Hours a Day. When humans head to bed, scurry around for four hours to get what you need. Then hide in a crack for 20 hours. Repeat.

3. Dispatch That Pesky Need for Sex. If you’re a female, be efficient. Store sperm on you to cut down on the number of times you have to hook up. Over your lifetime, pump out a whole lot of egg sacs.

4. Be a Loner. Spend all your time meeting survival needs. Help no one, and make no friends. Only hang with other cockroaches if you can’t find a place to hide alone. Females, eject your egg sac (that is, your next 15+ kids) from your abdomen. Leave the kids to chew their way out of the sac a month later, when you’re long gone.

5. Spread Your Brain Around Your Body. Situate your brain partly in your head, partly in your abdomen and partly in your legs.

6. Keep cool. Go with the flow. If possible, molt to adulthood in a quick 40 days. But if you don’t have the right temp, moisture and food for that, take months. Once you’ve got all your parts together, don’t stress if you lose one. Leg fell off? Grow another.

7. Stay Repulsive. There’s power in being something everyone wants to avoid. Your enemy knows that you walk across dog poop, and then you walk across the pizza they left out on the counter. They’re aware that your cast-off exoskeletons, egg sacs and droppings dry up and float through the air, causing asthma. They hate being around you. Use that.

The motivational book would also mention one of the cockroach’s greatest assets: human dimwittedness. One fed-up afternoon, an apartment dweller will set off 18 roach bombs in his living room, burning down his place and possibly several neighbors’. His cockroaches will scurry away unscathed. Another person will handle an infestation by spraying over-the-counter insecticide around. His cockroaches will thank him for solving their overcrowding. And then there’s the environmentally conscious person. Having read that cockroaches don’t like bay leaves or cigars, she’ll station these items in her kitchen cupboards. Her cockroaches will move to the pantry.

The Life of a PCO

When I was growing up, that Orkin man who inspected our house or anyone who battled pests for a living was called an exterminator. Not now. Today, he’s a “pest control officer,” or PCO.

I’ll bet cockroaches had something to do with this industry job-title change. If somebody shows up to control your cockroaches, you won’t expect the same level of performance you would if he said he’ll exterminate them. Any PCO will tell you that he can’t exterminate a pest that’s never going to go away.

Cockroaches can live for two weeks without water and a month without food. Under certain conditions, they can survive a month after losing their head. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to outdo an adversary that can live without a head.

A while back, I talked to the author of What’s Buggin’ You?, a civilian’s guide to home pest control. He’s Michael Bohdan, a PCO who owns The Pest Shop in Plano, Texas. Moving away from the current acronym of his profession, in his book, Bohdan calls himself “The World’s Most Famous Exterminator.” In the front half of The Pest Shop, Bohdan hosts the Cockroach Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall of Fame features shoebox-sized dioramas. In them, large, dead cockroaches are used in figures such as “Marilyn Monroach” and “The Statue of Roacherty.” Bohdan also gained PCO renown by appearing years ago on “The Tonight Show.” He helped Johnny Carson walk a cockroach on a leash.

Off camera, Johnny told Bohdan that his mansion in Malibu had cockroaches. Bohdan wasn’t surprised. Cockroaches are just about everywhere. And often, they’re there in quantity.

How They Rule

Bohdan told me about a day he inspected a heavily infested, low-income apartment. The broken dishwasher hadn’t been used in a long time. When he opened its door, waves of cockroaches spilled onto the floor.

I found this comforting. In the house where I grew up, we didn’t have cockroach waves. But we certainly had badass single units and small platoons. They didn’t have to appear in large groups. And they didn’t have to do much. They intimidated just by being there.

You’d be eating a sandwich in the kitchen. Making the mistake of looking down, you’d see a big Oriental skittering along the wall. Or you’d find droppings around the tuna cans in the pantry. Or brushing your teeth, you’d discover a dead German legs-up in the sink.

In those years, Dad was always working. He came home to sleep and watch the news. It was left to Mom to take sporadic stabs at cockroach management. She didn’t have the time, money or interest to commit 100% to this never-ending household project. And we didn’t help – six kids who left the Hi Hos and Cheez Whiz out night after night and adopted cats that hauled dead squirrels onto the patio.

And what would a PCO make of Mom’s firewood collecting?

In cooler months, Mom, hailing from Michigan, loved a crackling fireplace. To fuel her fires, on an errand run, she’d brake whenever she saw a pile of two-by-fours or yard wood. She’d throw the wood in her back seat. Because nobody in our family knew how to use standard tools, we didn’t own a functional handsaw. One day, a whole tree trunk appeared on the living room couch near the fireplace. Mom had shoved the root end of it into the fireplace and set it aflame. From the kitchen where she was frying pork chops and listening to Peggy Lee on the hifi, she’d periodically head to the couch to shove the trunk further into the flames.

Even though Mom hated cockroaches, she wouldn’t have sacrificed her firewood to keep them out. But she did buy roach motels and little squares of sticky paper. She placed these under the beds. When a cockroach crawled onto the paper, it was all over. (One day I spotted, amid dried-up cockroach corpses on a sticky paper, a little Gecko lizard. It was deceased. Along with its Gollum-like feet, its exhausted chin had come to rest in the glue. What a way to go.) The enemy lost a few foot soldiers in roach motels and on sticky papers but in the aggregate, it owned the place.

Once at night, I opened a kitchen cupboard to find three full-grown ones high up on the inside door. Two darted away, but the third didn’t. Jerking a long, sleek antenna over its body like a whip, it jumped into the air, right at me. It glanced off my hair, landed on the stovetop and slipped under a cold burner.

Years later, I was home visiting with my seven year-old daughter. We were reading Charlotte’s Web in bed when, from nowhere, a German raced across the pages.

Here’s the thing about living with cockroaches: You can never fully relax. Psychically, they rule. If they’re there, eventually, frantic one night, you’ll be raking your hands through your hair to dislodge one that may or may not be racing around your scalp. Or suddenly, to your daughter’s amazement, you’ll throw Charlotte’s Web at the wall in horror.

On the Other Hand: What Cockroaches are Good For

Over the years, I’ve participated in enough relationship-therapy sessions to know that, at this point in the discussion, we’re supposed to hear from the cockroaches. Really? They offer nothing? How could they have been around for millions of years without pulling some weight?

An objective third party might ask us to write a list of good things about cockroaches. Having grown up with them, I maintain that you could get that list on a small piece of scratch paper. But there is this: A lot of things eat them. Lizards, amphibians and birds are all supported partly by a diet of cockroaches.

Another plus: Most species of cockroaches don’t bother humans. They live in jungles and rain forests and never lay egg sacs in your underwear drawer.

In addition, entomologists and medical researchers like them. They don’t refer to them as “bugs” or “minions from Hell,” like the rest of us. They call them “research animals.” Entomologists at Colorado State University have kept a cockroach research colony for more than 20 years.

In medical research, cockroaches come in handy. They’re smaller and easier to control than a chimpanzee. You can count on them to reproduce often and consistently. And you can use them in experiments that PETA would frown on if you used chimps. (How do muscles adapt when I cut off a leg?)

Medical schools do experiments on them. Sometimes, the results sound predictable. (If I cinch a magnet onto a cockroach’s back and then make it run across a platform that has an opposing current running through it, will the cockroach run more slowly?)

If you’re really hurting for something to study, you can even study the cockroach itself. In one experiment, researchers proved that most cockroaches are right-handed.

And they have a fan club. The Blattodea Culture Group holds meetings at sites such as the Natural History Museum in London. Lecture titles run along the lines of “Collecting Cockroaches in Borneo.” Group members trade cockroaches, which they call “livestock.” An announcement for one meeting noted that a member “will supply surplus livestock from his extensive cockroach culture collection.” Delighted members left with free cockroaches.

Lucky

Strange to say, but I can understand why a person might adopt a cockroach. Once, I did myself. I saved him from dying. It helped that he wasn’t totally cockroachlike. He was a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. He lived in an aquarium at the small, alternative middle school my kids attended. The science teacher, who could be called flaky, had sped away at the end of spring term, leaving the cockroach to fend for himself.

Two weeks after school let out, the kids and I wandered into the science room to look for something we’d forgotten. We saw the cockroach lying amid the sticks and rocks in the aquarium. He was very still. There was no evidence that the teacher would be back. (She’d decided to leave the alternative school to teach at a standard junior high the following year.)

That day, I did something I never thought I’d do in this lifetime. I took the cockroach and his aquarium home. The kids and I set him up in a shelf near my husband Dave’s workbench in the garage.

In the aquarium was a sponge that was so dry it was curled like a potato chip. I soaked it ‘til it was dripping, then put it back in. The cockroach staggered over and fell on top of it. He didn’t move from there for a week. In honor of his close call, I named him Lucky.

Of course I’m just imagining this, because cockroaches don’t have personalities, but by the end of the summer, Lucky seemed to hang out with Dave when Dave was in the garage repairing something. When Dave tuned the garage radio to the ballgame, he’d sometimes find Lucky wedged into the aquarium corner closest to the radio.

And Lucky may have learned a trick. Once he got over being dehydrated and starved, sometimes he’d steady himself on the tip of a twig. Then he’d stretch out toward a rock just out of reach. With a big effort, he’d latch onto it. Then he’d let go of the twig and slink his whole body over to the rock.

I’m not saying it was endearing, but I did read it as a sign that we’d restored Lucky’s health enough that he felt all right wasting energy doing dumb things. By Labor Day, I’d decided he was nice to have around.

Then disaster struck in the form of the flaky science teacher. One day I came home and Lucky and his aquarium were gone. The teacher had found out we had him. Dave had relinquished him, although he didn’t trust the teacher as a caretaker. She took Lucky to her new classroom at the junior high where, within days, somebody cut him in two.

No wet sponge could help with that.

Why Us?

Let me be clear: Lucky was that rare thing, a cockroach who was value-added. Unlike him, the cockroaches I grew up with were all liabilities. Why did our house in a nice Dallas neighborhood have so many?

Three reasons.

First, Mom and Dad were transplants from Michigan. That made them cockroach naïfs. Unlike Texas cockroaches, Michigan cockroaches get slammed every year by a reliable winter. Nature helps kill them off. But in Dallas, in a moderate winter, cockroaches can breed year-round. It’s hard to keep ahead.

Second, our neighbors – an architect to the right and an investment banker to the left – were Texans, meaning that from birth, they’d known that the cockroach battle is a lifetime campaign to be waged constantly, with shock and awe. They did sensible things like repair holes in their house’s foundation and pay for regular pest-control treatments. (By the end of her time in our house, Mom had signed on with a pest-control firm. But by then our colony was decades old and not giving any ground.)

Picture this: You’re a hungry Smoky-brown on our street. You’re shut out at the architect’s and the investment banker’s. Where do you go? To the house where the welcome mat was always out.

Which brings me to the third reason we were infested. We were “slobs.” In PCO lingo, slobs are customers who won’t shoulder their responsibility in pest-control management. Michael Bohdan told me, “You can’t help a slob.”

A slob’s house is rife with “harborages.” In What’s Buggin’ You?, Bohdan says that the space under your stove can be a harborage if it’s full of “gunk, junk, crud and spuds.” Provide a harborage like that, and you can’t expect a PCO to show up and work miracles. Sometimes, a PCO will fire a slob account.

But in our defense, if you look at what PCOs want customers to do to show they’re an equal partner in cockroach management, I’m not sure even the architect and investment banker would pass muster:

  • Whenever you add a perishable food (say, a banana peel, coffee filter or steak bone) to the garbage pail, seal it in a bag. Or wrap it in aluminum foil.
  • With a towel, dry the drain after your shower.
  • Examine every piece of furniture regularly. Look for cockroach shelter in the wood, metal or cloth upholstery.
  • Except when there’s a live fire in the fireplace, keep your chimney top sealed.
  • Before storing clothes for the season, brush lint out of every seam. Hang the clothes in the sun for several hours before zipping them into tight containers.
  • Because cockroaches escape from a vacuum bag, tape the bag and pitch it immediately after one use.
  • Train your pets to eat and drink quickly. Put food and water bowls down only for a few minutes. Before storing the bowls, thoroughly clean and dry them.
  • Occasionally inspect all household decorations that a cockroach might eat.

What decorations are those? According to Bohdan, “Christmas dough ornaments, popcorn used as packaging material, stuffed animals – even table centerpieces made with dried flowers and seed pods.”

We had all that and more. Obviously, to prevail over our cockroaches, we needed to tear down the house. And when we started making arrangements for that, we realized how diabolically clever our colony had become. That’s when it staged what I call The Last Stand.

In the Air

After Mom’s memorial service, my Alaska sister Hollyns remained at Mom’s house for five weeks, taking the first stab at clearing it out. For the first two weeks, her 10 year-old son (nicknamed Birdy) stayed with her, until he had to get back to school.

As Hollyns and Birdy began moving items stacked and stored in every room, a visible dust began to hang in the air – dust, it turned out, laden with decades of cockroach remains.

After Birdy returned to Alaska, he developed respiratory distress, eventually landing in the ICU with severe asthma. According to his doctor, the asthma may have been triggered by exposure to the thick, cockroach-infused dust at Mom’s house in Dallas.

When I think of Birdy in the ICU, I think this: As we began to tear down their habitat after all those uncontested years of squatting, our resident cockroaches past and present launched an effort to take one of us down with them.

Birdy got out just in time.

Honored Foe 

A few weeks after Hollyns returned to Alaska, I went to Dallas to continue emptying the house. One night, standing in the front hallway, out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving across the red-brick floor.

It was an Oriental – an adult past its prime. It looked beat, like it had the weight of a research magnet on its back. It was dragging itself toward the front door, making no attempt to hide. To me, it looked like it knew the jig was up. No more Cheez Whiz, no more cat food. Any day now, this harborage would be rubble.

Watching the labored progress, I pictured Mom racing to stomp the Oriental with a bare heel. But I chose another path. Like Grant gifting Lee with a dignified surrender at Appomattox, I walked to the front door and held it open until the cockroach cleared the metal sill. I watched it start down the sidewalk toward the driveway.

A New Home

Later, I asked Michael Bohdan the obvious question. Where would our cockroaches end up after our house was torn down? Where was that Oriental heading?

Answer: A cockroach will go wherever it can get what it needs.

Say, the starter castle next door?

A starter castle, Bohdan said, would be fine.

 

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