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DESPITE POPULAR OPINION, I have never disliked cockroaches.
As a child I took solace in the dirt patch in our suburban Chicago backyard that we called “The Garden,” though for the majority of my youth it was an uncultivated plot, overrun with dandelions. My mother tells a story of the day I brought inside an American cockroach, cupped in my tiny palm, for her to see—the largest “beetle” I’d ever caught. She had never been more horrified, she likes to say, but feigned enthusiasm for the creature so I wouldn’t be afraid.
I can readily recall a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I stood in my jelly sandals, age twelve, before a Madagascar hissing cockroach’s enclosure. I had an overwhelming sense of truth and smallness when I saw the animal and read the placard, which noted the 300-million-year-old lineage of the cockroach. I sensed that here was an alien relic of some ancient world, a messenger bearing news of our mysterious beginnings.
Many years later, one winter night in college, my housemate knocked frantically at my door and beckoned me into her bedroom, where a cockroach had made camp beneath her bed. “You’re the only person I know who will do this,” she pleaded. By this, she meant to willingly encounter a cockroach. It was the first and only cockroach I ever killed, and it was more difficult than I imagined.
Even now, I feel something bordering on tenderness when I see a cockroach. Last week I spotted an impressively long one while taking out my garbage and imagined it as a new mother carrying her ootheca: inside, her eggs poised like the commas of a story yet to be written.
My introduction to cockroaches came through early stories of my mother and father, who both grew up in infested homes. They spun these yarns to my brother, sister, and me in response to our frequent whines about chores. There were stories of my mother, who as a girl in a three-room apartment in Astoria, Queens, would set mousetraps for the insects—Some had antennas like sewing needles; others were the size of my thumb. And there were stories of my father, who as a boy in a four-room house in Fort Wayne, Indiana, planned roach raids in the middle of the night with his elder brother. They’d flick on the kitchen light armed with newspaper batons and vigilante cries from familiar Western shows on television, killing as many roaches as they could. Their stories always involved vain attempts to scare the infestations away. But the infestations always returned, like bad histories.
When my parents told us these tales, they would often laugh, though nothing they ever said was funny to me. Their eyes betrayed a blackness that hung like a curtain beyond the cockroaches, beyond the words themselves—a shadow of other, more human disturbances. It was as if they were looking back on their lives through a shaded rearview mirror, their laughter born not from humor, but from relief.
Their cockroach stories were both cautionary tales and moralizing pleas. Keep your room clean or else, they warned on one hand. Be grateful you live in a home that is clean and safe, they pleaded on the other. Whether the cockroaches heard or respected my parents’ warnings I cannot say, but they never once made their presence known at our house.
Our house stood on an oak-lined street dampened by lawn sprinklers in the summertime, where neighbors hunched over the hydrangeas in their yards and the only disturbance was occasional street traffic. Our house was nearly a hundred years old, with twelve rooms, none of which ever housed a cockroach. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d moved away to college that I began to live in apartments where cockroaches also dwelled. But by then, I didn’t mind them. My parents, I knew, had survived far worse infestations.
Why do we hate cockroaches?
They don’t deserve our distaste. They don’t carry deadly diseases. They don’t—can’t, mostly— cause us physical harm. And their presence, which we associate with filth, is in fact impressively indiscriminate: they can endure arctic cold and tropical heat, and consist on a diet of, among other things, soap and book bindings. Cockroaches are good citizens, gentle, remarkable animals—one of the world’s most resilient. They can survive in almost any odds.
The lowest class of animal, cockroaches illustrate our discriminant and superficial nature. For biased and often illogical reasons, we favor some animals and detest others; the same is true of our feelings toward people. Even the word cockroach sounds grotesque and seems to combine the most unsavory English syllables. I prefer the Spanish cucaracha, which sounds percussive, a dance on the tongue that echoes the staccato, pitter-patter jive of the insects’ gait.
I find it somewhat ironic that my parents—born into generational poverty, both resilient survivors in their own right—would so fear and detest the cockroach. Though they perceive the animal as a symbol of their childhood dysfunction, it is, I think, not a bad symbol of my parents. They too have endured, despite odds; they too are scribes of survival’s cipher.