They are synonymous with New York City. They are as old as dirt, literally. They can survive anywhere, were here long before us and will inherit the earth again once we finally do ourselves in. Some are so big and strong they can withstand a blow that would crush another creature. They can move with lightning speed, and change direction is less than a heartbeat. They can eat almost anything, including paper and cardboard; actually, they love paper. They move in droves or they move alone, it hardly seems to matter. They know no preference, million dollar mansion or lower east side Tenement, they can make a home anywhere. They outnumber the human population of New York City by the tens of billions.
The only thing they don’t like is light.
They are roaches. Cockroaches. The really huge ones we called Water Bugs, though I am sure they are some sort of beetle. They and the Rat ruled the city; probably still do. No one could totally eradicate them. Exterminators came and went, the roach remained.
Their presence had nothing to do with cleanliness; the roach didn’t discriminate; they inhabited every single store, apartment and office in the city, clean or not.
You have to respect such a marvel of evolution. Well, I guess you don’t have to. In fact, most New Yorkers spend a good part of their week trying to chase down these little fellers. And they would get some, but not all.
Once when I worked at the library in Greenwich Village I was given the task of going through boxes of donated books. They had come from an elderly lady who loved the library and wanted it to have her collection. She must have had them packed up for quite a while, as when the boxes were delivered, they looked worn, and a bit damp. I sat on a stool, with the first box on the floor in front of me, and reached to open it up. As I bent back the cardboard flaps, a wave of the most healthy, happy looking roaches I had ever seen swept out of the box, down to the floor, up my legs, my arms, everywhere. They had been feasting you see, on the paper of the books inside; dark and musty, it was the perfect environment for a few thousand bugs that didn’t want to be disturbed as they enjoyed their meal. Later I found some of the book covers intact, but most every page had been reduced to pulp. But that was later. At that moment I shot up, knocking the stool over and started to frantically shake my legs and arms, trying to dislodge the roaches. They had obviously been startled by the light when the box opened and did what any self-respecting roach would do: scramble this way and that; they knew light meant they were being seen and that usually ended badly for them. After a few minutes of trying to shake them off, I just gave up and ran out of that room, never to return. I ceded the ground; they had won. Yes, the roaches loved the library with its hundreds of shelves of book with all that delicious paper.
And they certainly loved our apartment on West Twelfth Street and the subsequent one on Seventeenth Street. Heck some of them probably made the move with us.
Almost every night, a drama of classic proportions would unfold in our little kitchen. Dad would go in for a drink of water, or a snack, snap on the overhead light and stand dumbfounded, as a hundred thousand beady little eyes stared back at him. In less than a second, the roaches, on the table, on the oven, on the countertops, the refrigerator, everywhere, would scatter. A moment later, none were to be seen. Back into the crevices, cracks and passageways, back into the darkness, back to safety and silence, to wait until the cursed light went out and they could get back to the serious business of eating any little crumb of food, crystal of salt, shred of paper, piece of cork or plastic, literally anything. Each night was the same, and each night Dad acted like it was the first time he was seeing such a thing
I would lay in bed listening to him stomp around the kitchen vainly trying to flatten them.
“Jesus, what the…? God damn bastards Get outta my house….God Damn….Bastards”
And on it went, long into the night, every night. The great battle of New Yorker against The Roach. But each night, like Custer, Dad was outnumbered, outflanked, and overwhelmed.
I could have told him, it was a futile fight; like I said, they owned the city; we were just co-habitants trying to stay alive just like they were.
New York has gotten way to costly to live in these days; I know of a guy that is paying thousands of dollars a month just to rent a one bedroom apartment, with one bath and a kitchenette.
And you know what? When that poor guy, paying all that rent, walks into his nice efficient kitchenette at two or three in the morning and snaps on the light….you know what he sees?