the MIRREN LEE

The 2012 Act Three Journey of an Actress/Coach/Writer.

Day 71 My Friend the Cockroach

Posted by themirrenlee on 11/03/2012

Archy the cockroach writing about Mehitabel the cat, as imagined by Don Marquis

My friend the cockroach.

Well, not really friend – more like childhood companion.

What we cannot prevent as children we either grow comfortable with, or develop phobias about. I grew comfortable with cockroaches.

I am reminded of this every time someone freaks out at the sight of one. They seem to induce apoplexy in most people, with screeches of, “Look, a cockroach, eeeeek! They’re disgusting, filthy, get rid of it – DO SOMETHING!”

I simply shrug and watch it scurry away.

They are less bothersome to me than dust. I’m allergic to dust.

My parents always had a good relationship with filth. They didn’t bother it, and it didn’t bother them. Besides the usual assortment of non humans that came and went in our household of 7 children – the cats, dogs, rabbits, goat, chickens, ducks, mice, guinea pigs, fish, etc. – we also played host to ants, fleas, lice, maggots, spiders, silverfish, wasps, bees and, of course, cockroaches. An equal opportunity hotel – all species welcome. Unfortunately, more checked in than checked out.

We didn’t start to specialize in cockroaches, though, until I was 14 and we moved to a house in Ontario, California. They kept to themselves at first, but that all changed with our first meal. There were 7 children, from 14-4 years old, and 2 parents wondering where we all came from. Being permanently bewildered, my father drank and my mother did crossword puzzles. And read. A lot.

One of her favorite books was “Archy and Mehitabel”, by Don Marquis. It was about a cockroach who typed the stories dictated to him by Mehitabel the cat. The subject is worth Googling because Don Marquis and his two most famous creations are quite fascinating. Archy first appeared in Don’s newspaper column in 1916, as a reincarnated free verse poet who took over Don’s typewriter at night, and could only type in lower case because he couldn’t manage the shift key. Marquis was satirizing two new hot cultural trends: spiritualism (seances were big) and free verse poetry.

My mother was an artist, a true Bohemian, a hippie before hippies were invented, a free spirited, fey soul who thought carrots screamed when pulled from the ground. It stopped her being a vegetarian. I know the questions that are springing up in your mind. Don’t go there, you’ll just hurt your head. One of her famous quotes when watching a person in her rear vision mirror while driving was, “I’m following the person behind me.”

So maybe you can understand why I think my mother found it hard to eradicate a cockroach population that reached the size of China’s: she didn’t want to kill Archy.

I guess if it weren't for Don Marquis and his 2 "friends", I might find cockroaches as scary and distasteful as most people do.

As I said, our first meal in the new house became their invitation. When 9 people have dinner, there are a lot of dirty dishes and food lying around afterwards. My parents had no rules, and no one was going to volunteer for kitchen duty, so they just sat there. I’m sure the cockroaches came out in the middle of the night, as cockroaches do, saw the mess and thought, “Wow, thanks. We’ll be glad to stay in this hotel.”

And stay they did. They also took a hint from my parents and bred a lot. We soon noticed them. Mainly because they stopped being nocturnal creatures, partying both day and night. When no one paid them any attention, they invited their friends from other countries. I say this because even though we saw some big ones at first, we were soon overrun by what I later learned is the German cockroach, smaller and faster than his large cousin, who we encountered a lot when we made our regular visits down the coast to Mexico. (They are so big there I woke up one night to a noise so loud I still swear they were moving the fridge.)

The Germans soon kicked out the Mexicans. And this time they kept the occupied territory. Then they got bold and arrogant. They ran across the kitchen floor, daring us to squash them; they took over the gas stove, only getting out of the way if there were actual flames; they established their capital under the refrigerator; they made the washing machine and dryer (yes, in the kitchen) their holiday spots; and best of all, every single cupboard in the kitchen became a cockroach suburb.

EVERYONE, even the 4 year old, learned the rhythm required to get into a kitchen cupboard. Open, stand back quickly from door to allow for cockroaches crawling across the inside of it to drop to floor instead of on arms, then reach in – carefully – to achieve objective. Of course, often we had to actually fight a cockroach for the objective, but we had all perfected our “brush off” techniques with so much practice, and so usually emerged victorious.

All of this became absolutely routine to us, and when a visitor remarked upon the cockroaches sharing our kitchen (they didn’t move to the bathrooms and beds until much later), we just said patronizingly, “They can’t hurt you.”

There was only one slightly odd thing that interrupted our detente with our house guests. That was when my mother would periodically forget about Archy and go temporarily insane with a lust for cockroach blood. Without warning, she would grab a can of bug spray, aim the nozzle at their capital under the fridge, and press. Then she would stand up, take her shoe off, and as the millions of bugs fled in terror at this unprovoked aerial attack, she would calmly start squashing them with a “Thump, crack,” as their backs broke under the onslaught. This from the woman who worried about screaming carrots.

Some of the kids would join in. I was too busy fighting nausea.

We would be left with a battlefield strewn with bloody, dismembered cockroach carcasses. A small mercy was that the kitchen floor was never mopped, so they kind of blended in with their background. A token attempt was made to sweep up the remains, but only halfheartedly as that felt too much like housework to everyone. Not fun, as opposed to wholesale carnage.

Bits of carcasses could be seen for weeks; it was like rebuilding Berlin. But rebuild they did, and came back stronger than ever. It’s said they’re the ultimate survivors. I believe it. If the Nazis had been cockroaches, we’d all be speaking German.

To this day, though, I can’t squash anything. I either try to reason with them, saying I’m not licensed for their species, or forcibly remove them into the street.

Years later, I asked my mother why my parents let our guests stay. She said that she’d “heard” it would be really expensive, and we’d have to evacuate the house for a couple of days while they put a tent around it so the toxic fumes didn’t escape. When they finally got around to actually consulting an exterminator, after we’d all moved out, it was fast, inexpensive, with no tent required.

Of course, I blame Don Marquis for it all. However, it did leave me with no fear or distaste whatsoever about cockroaches. But I don’t choose to live with them, because I like living alone, so if they won’t listen to reason and leave on their own, then I buy real “cockroach motels” (wish they’d been around earlier!). I pretend I’m not killing them, just giving them a place to meet before they set off together for a more hospitable country. As they say, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt”.

Wait until I tell you about the mice we shared a house with when I was a toddler. For that, we can probably blame Mickey.

I’m just reminiscin’ …

2 Responses to “Day 71 My Friend the Cockroach”

  1. You brought back fond memories with your post! My husband and I got together because we overheard each other say that Archy and Mehitabel was our favorite book, and that Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop came in second and third. It’s great to have a mother who reads!!

    • Isn’t that amazing?! I thought no one in the world remembered that book anymore! Yes, I will say that my mother instilled a great love of reading in me, across all genres. It is my among my greatest passions, as well as comforts. You also demonstrate that it can lead to love and courtship! 🙂

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