For a few years during and after World War I, Archy and his feline torturer, Mehitabel, were honest-to-god New York celebrities. (One of their fans was E. B. White, and it is just possible that Archy is the literary great-uncle to Charlotte and her web.) The poems even inspired a Broadway musical, Shinbone Alley, improbably co-written by a young Mel Brooks in 1957. It’s sort of like Cats, but with a guy dressed as a bug instead of Grizabella. It lasted six weeks.
But most people cannot find anything cute about cockroaches, and that is a question that intrigues Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He does research on disgust in all its forms, and in particular the ways in which people are repulsed by smells or textures or foods. Why are roaches so much ickier than, say, ants? “They’re big: Cockroaches are among the biggest insects we see,” he says after a pause to consider. “They’re seen as disease vectors—they’re thought of as filthy—because they eat everything. Like rats, which are also prototypical disgusting animals, they eat garbage. Also, rats have this other property: They scurry around quickly. They appear and they whip across your path, just as cockroaches do. There’s something about the creature, in the fact that it surprises you.” They also like the dark. In short, they check almost every box on the repulsiveness roster. The only quality that’s missing, he points out, is visible squishiness. “They’re dry, which is odd. Soft and mushy things are more disgusting than dry things.
“You know,” Rozin continues, “I’m studying eating insects—getting people to eat insects, a very healthy food and a very cheap food. But nobody’s thinking about using cockroaches as the exemplars. I think most people would be quite upset if any bug fell in their drink, but that doesn’t mean they’d be equally upset.” In one study he conducted, people were offered a cookie that had visibly been in contact with (they were explicitly told) a sterilized cockroach. They still wouldn’t eat the cookie: “It’s the cockroachness itself that is upsetting,” explains Rozin. Has he ever eaten a roach? “No. I would try it, but I’ve never been offered an edible cockroach. Though they’re sold in the markets in Thailand.”
Naturally, where most people are disgusted, a few people enjoy gleeful reveling in that disgust. Hence the popularity, such as it is, of blattarian pets. Typically, they’re exotic tropical species, large and less scuttly than the ordinary pests. (Some individuals raise those as well, but usually as feed for pet iguanas and the like.) The Madagascar hissing cockroach, about three inches long, is enduringly popular, in part because it makes a startling fss-fss-fss sound if you shake it from your hand and it falls to the ground. The Australian giant burrowing cockroach is the world’s heaviest, nearly the size of a cell phone and heavier than a silver dollar. Other, less terrifying species have their fans. The late Harvard entomologist Louis Roth, a blattarian enthusiast if there ever was one, kept in his files a copy of a 1960 paper called “Japanese Cockroaches As Household Pest.” After his death, a colleague, Christine Nalepa, noticed that Roth had firmly scratched out one letter, turning Pest into Pet.
On the High Line a summer ago, Schumann and his team did what they could to stop P. japonica in mid-scurry. There has been enough trouble with invasive species in the past few years—the Asian longhorn beetle has required the destruction of thousands of trees in New York, and millions of dollars have been spent (so far successfully) trying to keep it out of Manhattan and away from Central Park. Though it may not be quite as destructive as that bark-eating beetle, P. japonica is able to colonize new spaces that others can’t because of its cold resistance. You really don’t want a roach infestation in, say, your car.
Since the roaches were found outdoors, Schumann’s technicians couldn’t use the gel baits they’d deploy in your apartment; instead, pyrethrin, in a granular form that looks like the salt you’d sprinkle on an icy sidewalk, went into the plantings. “It worked pretty well,” he says. “We’ll know better in the spring, because they slow down when the temperature drops.”
His technicians may have caught them all; they may not have. It only takes one—or, really, two, genitally hooked together—to establish a species on a new continent forever.