Big Roach Pet

An Unscientific Report on le cucaracha

by Madame Oracle

It is my humble opinion that le cucaracha, also known as the common cockroach, is more creative than the average bug. In fact, I’d venture to say they may be the Andy Warhol of bugs. Yes, ants, bees, spiders, and termites build, but cockroaches infest! They adapt quickly and brilliantly to any circumstances present, proliferate, take over, in fact, conquer on a scale that would make Caesar or Alexander the Great look like silly boys unsuccessfully puttering about the playground of Life!

Okay, technically, roaches are insects rather than bugs, but that is a distinction I must leave to far more qualified persons: entomologists. Here I am using the vernacular, in which ‘bug’ is a pejorative for any creature who routinely annoys us in a minor way. I think we can all agree le cucaracha qualifies as a pest, hence, in lay terms – bug! Those of us who can find it somewhere in the less creeped-out regions of our powers of generalization to do so, refer to them as our little insectoid brothers and sisters.

My observations of cockroaches go way back to the dim reaches of early childhood and are of two types: close encounters of the creepy kind and fairytales. On the close encounters front, I could not help but notice roaches, rodents, rock doves, and humans seem to be a matched set. If you find one of us, you WILL find the others in close proximity! As for the roaches, I found them to be swift, lean, furtive, utterly strange, and definitely unwelcome at the dinner table. I think most of us would agree. As evidence I point out that there is not ONE fairytale in which a spoiled princess learns to love a bug attempting to sup from her plate, who, when kissed (full on the lips I might add) turns into a powerful male figure, enabling the girl to complete her own transformation into she who commands all and sundry effortlessly! Yes, it is clear we easily grok kissing frogs for purposes of social advancement, but a bug!! However, there is a modern fairytale in which a man awakes, finds he has become a very LARGE bug indeed, whereupon he is summarily rejected by all and sundry, including his mother!

So, there I was, creeped out and properly informed by conventional human story why to be a bug is a sad fate! But, like all good humans, I could not but wonder ‘why?’ Thus, I determined, through close observation, to understand a roach’s life!

Time travel with me a few years into my past. We arrive at a garage in southern Florida where a guinea pig has just died. Yes, it was my pet who leapt from my arms unexpectedly, crashed to the cement floor, broke its neck, and promptly expired. Sigh. After his untimely death, my dead friend’s bag of food was allowed to remain on the tool shelf in the garage. No, it wasn’t an experiment to check the local roach population level, but it just as well might have been. I had observed roaches from time to time after dusk making their swift, burly way across the garage floor. Roaches of this size are not furtive – they are outright cocky. Once, we even saw one in the house, but that was it! Little did we know we were living with a massive colony of giant, flying roaches only Hollywood could image. They did not miss the very interesting fact of the dead guinea pig’s food.

It was late at night. My parents were out with friends. My brother and I wanted a toy from the garage, but we knew there was likely to be one or two roaches on the garage floor. So, opening the door from the kitchen to the garage, we gingerly crept straight from the step right onto the car, climbed to the roof, pulled the chain to the garage light, and were instantly privileged to witness the extent of roach interest in dead guinea pig food!

There were roaches all over the walls, roaches all over the ceiling above our heads, the floor under the car, and, “interestingly,” about 10,000 boiling madly up like a geyser erupting from inside the bag of dead guinea pig food. The back of my brain was screaming RUUUUUNNNN NOOOWWWW! I struggled to restrain my legs jolted by that scream. Fortunately the front of my brain won the argument! I later witnessed these bad boys swarm! Indeed, after my father dispatched the guinea pig food to the trash upon hearing how many extra guests we had staying in the garage, he commenced spraying all cracks where garage floor met garage wall. The offended occupants streamed out frantically, covering him with their tough, chitinous bodies (I once successfully killed one using a ball-ping hammer). I don’t have any clue what happened next, because at that time I did run screaming. Dad later appeared for supper roach-free, so all did end well!

But, back to the top of the car amidst a frothing colony of demonstrably hungry bugs. I clamped a hand firmly over my brother’s mouth, just opening to freak, reached up with my free hand and switched off the light, which was clearly beginning to make the roaches nervous. Then I shoved Ed unceremoniously backwards into the house, at which point we both did run screaming witlessly about for an embarrassing length of time!

So, what can I say I had learned about roaches to this point?

They aren’t well-regarded by writers of fairytales. They are large or small. They are burly or furtive in direct proportion to their size. When they are large they are really, really tough, fly, will fuck with you if you fuck with them, and are raucously fond of dead guinea pig food!

But, this was not the end of my intimate contact with the roach; contact which allowed me to get a glimpse of the mysterious roach mind. Purely by chance, I was about to become closer with our little insectoid brothers and sisters than my complete lack of interest in the life of an entomologist might have promised!

I enrolled in a psych course at University. As part of the deal, I volunteered to work in their chimp lab. Yes, they had talking chimps – American Sign Language! I wanted to be around them. What I didn’t know when I volunteered was that the chimps were housed in an ancient wooden building from the World War II era. This unstable collection of tarpaper and dry 2×4s would burn down in all of four minutes should a fire start. This meant someone had to be in that building with those precious chimps around the clock! What I also did not know is that live chimp food is far more appealing to roaches of all sizes and varieties than dead guinea pig food ever will be!

Yes, the roaches were happy. However, their human companions were not.

That is because even though roaches (probably exceeding 20 million in all – and those were just the ones you could see), rodents (inside the walls and under the sinks), rock doves (outside under the eaves), and rogue sapiens (inside night and day) go hand in glove, we sapiens don’t necessarily like to have that fact advertised as blatantly as it was in that chimp lab!

What I discovered in that at once fascinating and repellant crucible of modern scientific experimentation was that roaches are intensely social, have us completely figured out, employ sophisticated strategic cunning, demonstrate the ability to sacrifice themselves for each other, and communicate complex ideas through something like language. Let me describe.

It was the 3 am shift (isn’t it always)! My colleague in travail and I were desperate for caffeine. This was in the days before cappuccino machines in every 7–11 on every corner. Yes, we may not have walked three miles to the lab through snow with holes in our shoes, but we did have to brew our own caffeine. Primitive, I know.

We found some coffee right away in the Lab Manager’s cubbyhole! SCORE! We rooted about in the cupboards under the sinks. The rodent population pooping on every surface and the numbers of roaches we did have to extract from our hair upon completion of our shifts shows how desperate we actually were. We finally found an ancient Mr. Coffee, the very holy grail of caffeine brewers in those days. There was much rejoicing. Yet, in the midst of our joy I was forced to sound a somber note. I knew from the location of our treasure’s discovery, that it was probably not only the holy grail, but a roach motel as well!

Fortunately, we were rogue sapiens (still are, I suppose), so we made good use of our vaunted ingenuity and technical prowess. We washed the Mr. Coffee vigorously inside and out, including using bleach. Indeed, the sink was full of dead and dying bodies. We then poured water into its reservoir and turned it on, hoping the heat thereby produced would force any remaining roaches from the sanctified interior of our majestic machine d’caffeine!

My colleague was sure we had prevailed. Some inkling tickling in the back of my roach-bebothered brain contested that notion. The machine steamed satisfyingly away, groaning and bubbling as old Mr. Coffee’s are wont to do. Nary a roach wafted a supernaturally sensitive antenna from those moaning interiors

at first.

Sure enough, a head appeared, then two more, then 36, then all of a sudden a cascade of roaches burst from beneath the Mr. Coffee and surged across the table toward my hapless friend, who was caught completely unaware!

I was ready though! I started smashing them wildly and at random with the flyswatter I always kept hanging from my belt. It was a necessary tool for life in the chimp lab!

My colleague, leapt up, cleared his lap of roaches, then snatched up a newspaper, rolled it expertly, and joined me in the fray. Soon all the roaches were either smashed or had escaped. Now, just for your own edification, this is not a good thing. Escaped roaches reproduce themselves at the rate of 19,000 per day….or so it seemed. Accurate or not, that was plugged into my freak-o-meter as I watched the machine continue to bubble….for awhile…finally. we sighed, feeling victory at hand. The Mr. Coffee was ours – reclaimed! Soon the holy Caffeine would be surging through our veins, or so we thought, and this is how I know roaches are cunning, capable of reacting strategically, do sacrifice themselves for each other, and must communicate through some form of language.

One poked its head out, listened, then made a dash for it.

I smashed it!

Six more popped their heads out. They ejected themselves at random intervals and in different trajectories across the table.

We smashed them!

Forty-two more hurled themselves into the maw of fate, again, leaping forth at random, racing here and about, attempting to confuse us.

We smashed them!

Then, for a long while…nothing! For one shining moment we thought, maybe…just maybe we had got them all!

Sadly, another roach head popped out, but instead of just gunning it for freedom, it waited, waved its antennae. It hesitated. I lunged for it, madness gleaming in my almost-caffeinated eyes.

Of course, it disappeared back into the safety of its motel!

“Damn-it,” my colleague yelled, madness overtaking him too! “We’ve already killed more roaches than could fill that thing!”

“They must be like Dr. Who,” I blurted, “able to alter subspace in such a way that a thimble can hold a a million of them!”

He looked up at me, the madness fading slightly from his eyes, “Come back to reality!” he sighed.

“No fucking way,” I almost shouted, indicating the living wallpaper around us.

“Right,” he said, understanding completely.

“How many could be left in there?” he asked. “Maybe we should just make the coffee and hope there are no roach legs in it!”

We looked at each other, the stench of live and dead roaches permeating our nostrils…yes, they do have a very pungent and distinct smell!

“No fucking way,” I said.

“Right,” he replied, looking away in despair.

I poured more water into the now empty Mr. Coffee reservoir. It steamed and chugged away, almost cheerfully, I thought.

The roaches implemented their final ploy then, almost as if they had met and devised it in the uppermost chambers of the frothing machine d’caffeine.

First, three poked their tiny be-antennaed heads out of the side of the Mr. Coffee. They were facing us. We stared each other down.

Two ran out straight toward us. We immediately smashed them. At that very second about sixteen thousand more raced out the back and over the edge of the table, plummeted to the floor, then scattered under the cabinets.

My friend and I could only stare, dumbfounded. It was almost as if one of them had said, “Mabel, Fred and I will draw them off while you escape with the children out the back!”

We sat down, humbled, defeated.

We let the machine steam for a good hour, but, no more roaches.

Finally, we brewed the coffee, and, as 5:00am rolled around, sucked it down, fearing no leg or brain of roach that might be floating there. After all, our ancestors believed eating your enemies transfers their native abilities directly into you! Well, I didn’t really mind absorbing some what I had just witnessed! As a matter of fact, they’ll probably make it to Mars before we do. Hell, they are probably already there, having stowed aboard one of the Mariners. Just for your edification, they do eat adhesives as voraciously as they eat dead guinea pig food!

Yes, we’ll land on Mars someday and be met by their progeny, now seventy feet in length, who we’ll follow to the subterranean caves of water we have always thought were there. We’ll marvel at the algae upon which our now, very large and sophisticated insectoid brothers and sisters, have subsisted for generations! Well, you do the math! Even if only 36 survived the initial landing, remember they each make 19,000 of themselves in the span of one day. One of their generations lives and dies in two weeks! If they get to Mars twenty years before we do, and they have no natural predators, how many roaches would that be?

c. 2003 M.Oracle

See also: Peter Lorre Entomologist!