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Six-Legged Freak

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That said, you can definitively declare one thing: Exterminators are better at getting rid of roaches than they’ve ever been, even in the gnarliest situations. Schumann recalls one of the worst cases he ever dealt with, and resolved: “It was in the Bronx, in a high-rise. We kept sending back the technicians, and nothing worked—the homeowner kept complaining. Finally I said we’ve gotta check above and below and on either side. Turns out that the neighbor upstairs was a hoarder. That person had some issues and had never complained about the bugs. We had to figure out how to treat that apartment without moving any of that person’s stuff. We ended up taking big lengths of plastic pipe and drilling holes all along them and putting the bait inside. Then we’d slide the pipe in among the person’s belongings, and the roaches would crawl in through the holes and eat the bait. It took about six months, but we got it done.”

There’ll always be more of them somewhere, though. A German cockroach can live for about a year and will reproduce every three to four weeks, despite some sex practices that most species would find off-putting at best. (Broadly speaking, the male grabs the female with a genital hook, tows her in, then adds more grapples, locking them together for an hour till he’s done—though male roaches that are breeding for the first time can finish in as little as nine minutes.) Moreover, they are fantastically well adapted to living among humans. They can survive on almost no food: The fat stores in an American cockroach’s body can support it for over a month without a meal. Ware’s lab once dissected a roach that had cotton fibers in its stomach, meaning it had nibbled on someone’s clothes to stay alive. If they get really hungry, they will eat their dead. If they get even hungrier than that, they will eat one another, babies first. They also can go for days without water, and even a little bit will attract them. “I used to have a lab in a very dry building,” Ware says, “and I’d leave my teacup on my desk after washing it out at night, with a few drops of water inside. When I’d come in the morning, it would be full of cockroaches.”

The battle against cockroaches, in short, ebbs and flows. We create a new treatment, it knocks them back hard, and then natural selection kicks in and they creep forward. Then we hit back again, and they crawl back. One small human advantage: Unless they hitch a ride aboard an airplane or ship, roaches do not move around so easily. A DNA analysis at Rockefeller University last year isolated four subgroups of the American cockroach distinct to particular neighborhoods of New York. They had, it turns out, different geographical origins, and because they stick to their own turf, their genes had been not entirely commingled. Even decades after they arrived in New York, Upper East Side roaches are slightly different from Upper West Side roaches and Roosevelt Island roaches.

There has never really been a time when roaches had good PR. That’s not true for most pests. Mice and even rats are depicted variously as pets, Disney characters, and vermin. Many people dislike snakes, but you’ll also see guys walking around Central Park with pet boa constrictors wrapped around their shoulders and kids reaching in to touch. Bees sting and can cause terrible allergic reactions, yet we see children’s books about them.

In literature, too, cockroaches almost uniformly stand in for disgust and horror. Franz Kafka knew that roaches are a nearly universal gross-out, which is probably why he metamorphosed Gregor Samsa into a giant one. Though, as scholars will tell you, that’s a translator’s flourish: Kafka’s Ur-text has the protagonist turn into an ungeheueres Ungeziefer, or “monstrous vermin.” Maybe it’s a roach, maybe not.

There has been just one successful attempt to offer the world a lovable cockroach. (Apart from a few children’s books, none of which has reached canonical status.) When the writer Don Marquis wanted to create a working-class artist-hero for his six-days-a-week column in the old Evening Sun, he came up with Archy, a cockroach turned poet who would (Marquis explained) hop around on the keys of the columnist’s office typewriter at night, composing free verse on a blank sheet of paper his boss would leave in the machine. He worked entirely in lowercase letters, because he wasn’t heavy enough to press the shift key. The poems were wry and satirical, and often funny: there is always / something to be thankful / for you would not / think that a cockroach / had much ground / for optimism / but as the fishing season / opens up i grow / more and more / cheerful at the thought / that nobody ever got / the notion of using / cockroaches for bait.


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