It was a nostalgic Mary Tyler Moore kind of moment as I turned to survey the suddenly vacant Manhattan apartment I’d inhabited for the last fifteen years. The faint Hebrew chatter of the moving men was still echoing down the hallway towards the freight elevator, and emotions were welling up in my heart. But then I noticed a dark brown stain on the hardwood floor. I stepped forward for a closer look . . . and then, a moment later, lurched back. It wasn’t a stain. It was a dead roach. It was, I immediately realized, the perfect bookend to my stay in midtown.
As I opened all the windows to let in fresh air, and to let out the haze of roach spray, another chapter in the struggle between man and the elements in Manhattan had come to an end. I knew I was a city boy for life.
Fifteen years earlier, January 1992, I had moved from a relatively spacious one bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens to the relatively cramped studio at Herald Square. The idea was to shorten the commute to work. It was a hassle-free move; I didn’t have much furniture to begin with, so it took a couple of softball buddies and me just one trip in a rented U-Haul to get the job done.
Those first several days in Manhattan are a blur now; I vaguely recall filling the refrigerator with frozen foods, buying the first microwave oven I’d ever owned, stocking up household supplies from the half dozen Duane Reade stores within three square blocks of my house, acquiring a new phone line and number, setting up appointments with the cable TV guy, opening an account with Con Edison, sleeping on a beaten up mattress on the hardwood floor.
After a week, I threw myself a housewarming party--which is where the story really begins. For among the towel sets, coffee mugs and prehensile oven mitts with which my friends warmed my new apartment came a single anonymous gift:
A can of roach spray.
Someone had wrapped it in a liquor box and slipped it amid the pile of presents. No one would own up to the deed afterwards. I didn't think much of it at the time, just a gag gift, an inside joke about city living that had nothing to do with me because I kept a clean house.
Still, I was drawn back to the gift once everyone had left. This was not your run-of-the-mill can of insect spray, no cartoon roaches in derby hats playing poker. This was deep blue and serious, a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline below the logo: Special City Formula II. I scoffed at this. After all, I'd grown up in the boroughs: had confronted the gangland roaches of Brooklyn, the war-torn vermin of the South Bronx, the Tong beetles of Little Korea that seeped in and out of hefty bags behind restaurants on Roosevelt Avenue. Nevertheless, as I spoke the words out loud, I felt slightly uneasy: "Special City Formula II." How had "Formula I" gone awry? The reverse side of the can was striped with minuscule print underneath the italic title: Precautionary Statements--Hazards To Humans And Domestic Animals. The hundred or so words consisted of reasons and occasions not to use the spray. Its use, the label implied, would set in motion a sequence of events that fell somewhere between extreme unpleasantness and Mutual Assured Destruction.
Still, as I say, I kept a clean house. Oh, sure, I had seen a couple of roaches that first week before the housewarming. They appeared in tandem as I tended the Three Stooges wounds I’d acquired putting together "partial assembly required" furniture. Probably came in with the furniture cartons, I figured. Besides, they were such wee things; they had the look of accidental tourists, scurrying futilely across vast expanses of bare white wall towards a sudden shroud of Kleenex.
I stored my new can of roach spray beneath the bathroom sink, never expecting to use it.
Then came that Tuesday night.
The Tuesday night following the housewarming, I was awakened just after midnight by a rustling sound. It was barely loud enough to stir me, and I probably would not have gotten out of my new bed except that I couldn't figure out the source. Naturally, the thought of a roach crossed my mind. But I ruled it out; the sound was too substantial. Things were being moved in my closet.
So I got out of bed and walked, barefoot, toward the closet. The room was gray under the darkness. Suddenly the sound stopped; I stopped. Then it started up again . . . except now I thought I knew what it was: I'd received a basket of fragrant scarab soaps at the party, but since I'm not a fragrant scarab soap kind of guy, I had afterwards tossed the whole business onto a high shelf in the closet. One of the soaps must have come loose and begun to slide down the plastic garment bags hanging below. I threw open the closet doors, and sure enough a scarab soap-sized object dropped to the floor between my feet.
Then it scampered across my left foot and into the bathroom.
Instantly, I passed from half-asleep to awake-enough-to-coordinate-the-combined-air-and-sea-invasion-of-Normandy. I switched on the bathroom light, and there, between the toilet and the tub, he was. He made no effort to hide. There was no place he could have hidden. He was the biggest thing I'd ever seen on six legs. He was like something out of the La Brea Tar Pits, or, better yet, like something out of an old black and white animated short, where he might grab a megaphone and begin to sing like Rudy Vallee. Still, within that first instant, disbelief got the better of terror. I spoke aloud: "Oh, come on!"
That was when terror set in.
This was more than a roach. This was a Presence. This was a great brown sneer disguised as a bug. If Kafka's Gregor Samsa had actually awakened on the beach the morning he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect, this thing would have kicked sand in his face. I started to tremble and then, slowly, backed out of the bathroom.
A trickle of sweat slipped down my spine. My heart jumped in my throat. I leaned against the wall and caught my breath. I glanced across the apartment to a distant closet. Where I kept my softball bat.
But then I remembered the roach spray--the deep blue can underneath the bathroom sink.
So I leaned around the edge of the wall and peered back into the bathroom. The roach hadn't moved. That annoyed me. There was an arrogance about it, about the fact that he hadn't moved an inch even though he knew I'd seen him. The natural order of things demanded that he seek cover--even if there was none. He should have at least made the effort. Anger steeled my nerves. Without stepping into the bathroom, and also without taking my eye off the roach, I leaned inside and pulled open the cabinet beneath the sink. The cabinet door creaked loudly, but the roach did not flinch. He only continued to observe me with a certain haughty indifference. He did not seem fazed even by the sight of the deep blue can. Now this worried me: If what I was about to do did not kill him, it was certainly going to piss him off. But as I aimed the nozzle in his direction, I had a better idea. Since I did not want him to flee the bathroom after I started to spray (and I surely was not going to get in his way if he bolted), I decided to saturate the floor at the threshold of the bathroom. That way, at least, he would be inclined to run in the opposite direction, where he would hit the side of the bathtub--a dead end. Finally, with great trepidation, I began to spray into the floor at my feet. The fumes were dazzling. Every time I glanced back up at the roach, he seemed to change colors. Brown to blue to deep red. Actually, the deep red became him. He looked like a cinnamon scarab soap. But then my senses cleared, and I trained the nozzle on him.
The first stream of poison sent him staggering backwards. He reeled in circles, several of his legs gone limp, a kind of Dagnabbit! reaction. But then miraculously, nightmarishly, he recovered. He seemed now to rear up on his hind quarters in rage. In the next half minute, I emptied half of the can on him; he glistened with the stuff, yet continued to careen into the wall of the bathtub, a dull thud sounding with each impact; it was as if he wanted to dash himself to death rather than just roll over and die. Finally, though, the chemicals took their toll. He began to list back and forth, and I knew the end was near. He made his way towards me. His last stand. He collected himself and stood motionless once again. There was, in truth, a nobility about him. He was asking for death, not like a beggar, but like an adversary, a noble warrior overcome by superior force. So I gave him the toxic gift. One last squirt, and it was over.