A meditation on cockroaches (also mice)

Prompted by this, which was forwarded by ScaryClown.

At the age of 21 I moved to Toronto to marry hubby #1, and since I was moving into a forties-vintage three-story walkup, I also moved in with cockroaches for the first time.

Good gracious, but what a poke in the eye that was for a nice middle class gurl from London, Ont.  I was horrified, disgusted, freaked out.  We moved, and thankfully the roaches didn’t come with us. It was just as well.  I remember that the infestation in that building was so bad, that there were roaches, masses of them, in the back of the building, wandering around in the summertime, something I have never seen anywhere else.  So things remained until I left Phil and moved yet again to be with Paul; there were no roaches there although I recall the house on Springhurst to be a sty, being entirely occupied by bachelors of various ages.  I am sure there are houses occupied by 4 bachelors in which the bathrooms are not places which induce repulsion and nausea, but in 50 fine years I have never seen one.  After two weeks I moved out to my own apartment. I recollect Paul was surprised, as we had New Relationship Energy like I have never experienced before or since, but I have always wanted and needed to have my own space.  Our complex was on the Lakeshore (picture shown earlier on this blog).  There were no cockroaches in that first building, but when Paul and I took up housekeeping in the building by the lake, we sure had cockroaches there. We lived in five apartments in that complex during the eight years we lived there, and had cockroaches in all but one.

Over time I got used to having them.  I never liked it; I did get used to it.  I remember having guests over for a beer.  Without actually being aware of it, I got up – without pausing from nursing Katie – killed a cockroach with my bare hand, washed my hand and sat back down again.  I was informed by one of my guests afterwards that it was the single most badass thing he’d ever seen a woman do.

And over time I learned to appreciate them.  The first proper motion studies of cockroaches occurred; that was when I learned that cockroaches become bipedal when they put the speed on.  To help you visualize this, picture a cockroach racing along, its body supported by airflow, the top four legs off the ground and tucked in, all to reduce drag, while the large back legs pump like mad.  The angle is between 20 and 23 degrees.  Any less and the other legs drag; any more and the top speed is reduced because too much of the underside of the critter facing forward makes too much drag.

A couple of family stories.   Paul and I got into a friendly dispute about whether a cockroach would be smart enough to swim for it or not if we dumped him in the toilet.  We put a little toilet tissue in so he had something to keep his widdy head above water while he thought about it.  We gave him five minutes.  After five minutes, we ceremoniously flushed.  I said, sighing, to Paul, that we had just spent five minutes of our lives watching a cockroach floating in a toilet, and without missing a beat, he said, “Beats watching tv.”

Another time I was cooking in the apartment Katie was born in, and a big mothering roach fell out of the cupboard directly into a sizzling hot cast iron pan.  The roach set a new record for speed, running around the rim of the pan at a simply stupendous rate of knots.  Then she died, and I watched in horror as all the legs on one side spasmed and she pitched over on her back.  That was when I learned why it was, anytime that I found a ‘good’ roach by which of course I mean a dead one, that it was always on its back.  In their death spasm, one side kicks and boom, they are dead on their backs.

I learned to appreciate how hardy and persistent and fecund they were.  I never could get used to the smell, and in fact, their frass (doesn’t insect shit have a lovely name?  I always wanted to use Mr. Frass as the name of a landlord in a story) was a major factor in Katie’s breathing troubles as a tyke.  When inner city kids are tested for allergies, something like 40% of them will be allergic to cockroach shit.  Katie had asthma until we got rid of the roaches for good.  But that wasn’t for a while.

When we finally moved out of the one bedroom in the back building – the kids were of a size that we knew we were not going to be able to do the family bed thing much longer – we ended up in the Hog Heaven of Roaches. Unbeknownst to us, there was a mentally ill woman living across the hall from our downstairs neighbour.  We had no beef with her, she baby sat our kids and showed us many kindnesses.  But the wacko across the hall was another story.  Her apartment stank – every time she opened the door the eyewatering stench of decaying food and piles of dirty clothes would come out into the hallway, and it was one sickening smell.

One day, the landlord told the wacko woman – who had a full time job, who knows how – that she had to clean up her place or face eviction.  She hired three little first generation Portuguese guys to clean it out.  I only know this part of the story because the babysitter’s hubby was Portuguese and was able to interpret.

They took out FORTY BAGS OF TRASH.  Including forty empty forty-ounce bottles of various kinds of alcohol. They counted everything because they couldn’t believe what they were dealing with.  When they went in, there was a pathway one person wide between the toilet, the bed, the kitchen sink and the chair in front of the tv.  The entire rest of the floor of the apartment was covered, to waist height, in various kinds of decaying trash.

Well, the woman came home from work and informed the gents that it was great that they had taken out the garbage, but they hadn’t cleaned the apartment.  At which point, hubby across the hall came home from work and heard what the gents said, in Portuguese, none of which was polite, and all of which consisted of a heartfelt demand for instant cash and an equally instantaneous departure from a place they hoped never to see or smell again.  She paid them (there being an interested witness or two in the hallway) and that’s when our week of hell began.

Picture, if you will, an apartment so filthy that it had 40 bags of trash in it.

Picture, if you will, an apartment building that had a pre-existing infestation of roaches and mice even before the alkie wackjob took up residency therein.

Picture, if you will, that the aforementioned pests had happily occupied the Land o’ Plenty Food, and now (sad face) had no place to live.  So they moved…. Into the apartments of everyone close by.

In the next week I caught one mouse with my bare hands, two mice in my boots, and Bounce got the other two.  That same week the cockroach population density went from tedious to horror movie.

We went out and got “Chinese chalk”.  It was sold in most corner groceries in Toronto in those days.  I have no idea what was in it, but it made cockroaches go completely insane.  And then die.  By the hundreds, and hundreds.  The first time we laid down the chalk about a hundred cockroaches ran out onto the ceiling, and then did a Busby Berkeley number which consisted of them running in circles, twitching madly the whole time, and then raining down from the ceiling.  You may think I’m making this shit up, but I have three witnesses.  We spent hours killing every one that was moving.  The dead bugs on the floors of the apartment the next morning filled an entire dustpan, and there were more to come.  It truly was a week from hell.

Then we moved to Montreal, and son of a bitch, not only did we move the bastard American cockroaches with us, there was yet another species (some Asian species, shorter, darker and somewhat less common) in the building when we moved in.  We never had the same levels of infestation in Montreal, but once again we had them in the house, and Katie was allergic.

Then we moved for five weeks to Toronto, and the house we lived in there had roaches too (we spotted a baby within minutes of signing the lease).

Paul got his marching orders to get out to Vancouver.  We packed everything we owned into a box three by three by two and half meters – motorcycle and sidecar and all – and in October, our belongings went by train through the mountains, where every last son of a bitch, and every egg casing, DIED because it froze.

And thus ended my relationship with roaches.  I may have to live with them again, but if I can avoid it, I will.

Published by


Born when atmospheric carbon was 316 PPM. Settled on MST country since 1997. Parent, grandparent.

Leave a Reply