I was a college sophomore when I rented my first apartment, a roach-infested flat I shared with three older roommates. The Council of Elders, I called them. It was safe to assume the roaches had been there a long time, given the age of the building and its proximal location to the known nexus of the cockroach universe (Allston, MA). Then there was the X-factor, the untold grunge of our unknown fellow tenants; the screamy sex-ers in the apartment next door, and the kimchi enthusiasts living below. A roach’s apartment building is his castle, and they don’t respect the boundaries formed by walls and doors with multiple locks. They roam, baby. They roam. But by some mysterious barometer, the Council of Elders discerned a spike in our apartment’s roach-to-human ratio, coincident with my arrival. An inquisition began. I was accused of being messy with food.
Denise was the Council potentate, a 30-something actress, thin as a whisper, beautiful and fastidious. She once told me that she slept with her asshole clenched tight to keep the cockroaches from using her as a hotel, a comment I mistook for flirtation. Her boyfriend, who looked like a perfect roach hotel, made his living as a beetle-browed musical composer, and drank the rest of any opened bottle of wine he ever found. They ate like royalty, these two, and never offered me a bite. It was the unspoken rule of the apartment, delibly inscribed in invisible ink on the lease. Buy what you eat, eat what you buy. They never left a crumb behind.
Kate, the Council magistrate, was a set designer of indeterminate age; she might have been 25, but in my mind she was closer to 40. I thought of her like a mother, and studiously avoided her like I avoided my own. The glowing ash of her ever-present cigarette was counterweight to the red-hot fireball of hair that leapt from her head, and she thrust it at me like a sideways exclamation point whenever she found evidence of my dealings in the kitchen: “CRUMBS!” Handy with a welder’s torch, a tool belt slung around her hips, she flung hammers for sport. It was hard to tell her laugh from her cough. She never ate a thing, and so couldn’t be held responsible for the roaches.
Gabe, the Council flagellate, was an actor too, a chewer of scenery. He would lounge around the house naked, a white feather boa strategically placed, more for effect than modesty. Gabe was like the older brother dressed in drag I never had. He taught me how to make coffee when no maker was handy; “cowboy coffee,” he called it, boiling water and grounds together in a pot and drinking the unfiltered brew. The dregs would lodge in our teeth for days. He subsisted on a diet of fancy olives and sardines.
For $200 a month, the Council of Elders let me sleep in the pantry behind the kitchen. It wasn’t much; barely room enough for a futon mattress and a stack of milk crates to house my clothes and books. We were on the third floor, and I had a window. There was no door. Kate gave me a remnant from a theater curtain, which I hung for privacy. The roaches were unsympathetic.
My relationship with food was underdeveloped. I had gone from living at home, being fed by my mother – first at her breast, then later from her Moosewood Cookbook – to living in a college dorm, where the food was laid out cafeteria-style three times a day and no one complained when I inhaled four bowls of Fruit Loops and a rasher of bacon for breakfast. I was pampered and ill-prepared to forage for myself, as the contents of my grocery bags irrefutably proved.
At the supermarket, I went for durability over taste. Anything processed was bound to keep, and I needed to stretch my meager food dollars as far as I could. Expiration dates were anathema. Plus, I had a tooth for kiddie comfort foods, the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the Spaghetti-O’s, the hot dogs. Gabe sneered and taunted me for the pre-packaged, pressed meat cold cuts I purchased, waving the foil packets in my face: “You know what that is? It’s the lips, and the hooves, and balls! They drive over it with a steam roller to make it look like that.” The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
Worse, knowing this didn’t stop me from eating it. I was drawn to the convenience, and cowed by the idea of saddling up to a genuine deli counter, taking a number, asking for a half pound of roast beef sliced wafer thin. I was afraid of doing it wrong, sure to look like a fool before the sausage guy and all the other deli customers. My only concession to the penchant for processed foods was my all-natural peanut butter. It wasn’t that I went looking for fresh ground. Some smart marketer put the plastic tubs on a grocery store aisle end-cap. It was the first thing I saw, so I grabbed it.
Cockroaches appeared to favor these junk foods as well, perhaps because the preservatives fortified them against the pending apocalypse, or the exterminator, whichever came first. My slovenly habits of post-meal clean up certainly weren’t helping. I’d heard somewhere that “cleanliness” was next to “Godliness,” and since I was approximately eight degrees of separation away from “Godliness,” I didn’t feel a whole lot of compulsion to wield a sponge. SOS pads did funny things to my finger tips, made them look all sloughed and shredded. As a result, our kitchen had suddenly become the hottest cockroach speakeasy in town. In the dark you wouldn’t know it, but the instant you flipped on a light, BAM! A thousand tiny roaches would freeze for a moment, snap their heads in your direction, then one of them would mumble “shit,” and another one would yell out “RUN!” and they would scatter, leaving their cocktails and their hors d’oeuvres behind.
And so it came one morning that I stumbled from my pantry hovel, stomach growling like a junkyard dog, and thought to make myself a fancy, healthy breakfast: peanut butter on toast. All natural peanut butter on toast. My assigned cupboard was wall-mounted, way up high, in the corner by the sink. I reached up and grabbed the tub, pulled it down and, seeing what had become of it, dropped it in horror. “Denise! Kate! Gabe!! COME QUICK!” I shouted, and all three responded to the alarm, huddling around me.
Something, some unfathomable force of animal nature, had smashed the lid of my peanut butter container into plastic shards, done a kind of happy dance in the now exposed butter, and left behind a scattering of poo, like a signature, like a warning, like its own personal Mark of Zorro.
“Cockroaches?” I whispered, reverently.
“MICE!” the Council of Elders shot back in angry chorus. I was nearly evicted on the spot.
These pests clearly meant business. Their skills for survival were evolving, mutating, like a virus or a bacteria evolves to beat the world-class brains who arrogantly believed they could erase it. We were up against something far more powerful than sealed food containers and an immaculately clean kitchen could protect against.
What followed was a long period of reform. Under the Council’s tutelage and wary eyes, I was schooled in the art and science of disinfectants. Denise taught me to scrub beneath the stove top, down by the pilot light of each heating element; Kate introduced me to Lestoil. Gabe showed me how to dance with a mop.
It all seemed a bit futile to me, but I wasn’t positioned to argue. Buildings are meant to shield us from nature, but food is a powerful magnet. These four walls around us mount an effective defense against the larger of God’s scavenging creatures, the wolves and the bears and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they’re no match for the smaller ones. The meek shall inherit the kitchen. I was anxiously aware of that fact as I lay in my pantry at night, clenched in body and soul, awake to the sound of skittering feet just beyond the crumbling horsehair plaster.
There’s a pretty good chance that Sean Tabb resembles the guy your sister dated in college. He gets that a lot. There’s an almost equally good chance that he DID date your sister in college, and just doesn’t remember. He does his parenting, husbanding, living and writing from his home in Portland, Maine. Check out his website at http://punctuatedequilibriumblog.wordpress.com, or follow his drivel on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pithnvinegar.