Saturday, November 08, 2008

Of Palmetto Bugs and Cockroaches

I'm pretty sure that the difference between Florida and New York can be summed up by one simple observation. This is that in Florida, if you're not careful, you might step on a palmetto bug, while in New York, if you see one of these creatures skittering across the floor of your apartment, you are more likely to call it a HUGE (maybe while adding a not-very-polite adjective that, although it sounds like it, doesn't really have anything to do with maternal sex practices) cockroach. A palmetto bug! What the hell is that? It sounds like some cute little must-have stuffed critter that parents are going to be fighting over at toy stores across the country come Black Friday. Or perhaps some bright, color-coordinated, bulbous and antenna-ed air freshener that sits on top of the toilet tank. It even sounds like it could be some Floridian drink specialty. It does not sound like it could be a cockroach the size of Michael Jordan's sneaker. And only in Florida would they try to cover up the fact that it's a cockroach the size of Michael Jordan's sneaker by giving it an innocent-sounding (pretty, even) name.

I'll never forget my first year in college when one of my hall mates, who was pre-med, was telling me how they'd dissected a pig in her biology class, and they would soon be dissecting cockroaches. Cockroaches? I wondered what kind of shrinking potions they were all going to be taking in order to be able to dissect something so tiny. You see, up until that point, the only cockroaches I'd ever seen were no bigger than your average wasp. They were nasty little things with long antennas. They were sometimes quite long, but never wider than about a quarter inch. I couldn't imagine sloppy, inexperienced undergrads getting any dissecting tools inside such a creature without crushing it completely. Certainly a student who happened to breathe too hard on it might disembowel it and have no idea that his subject's intestines had gone flying through the air and landed on the back of the student in front of him. The whole undertaking sounded icky to me. I was glad I wasn't pre-med (not that the thought to be so would ever have occurred to me) and made a mental note not to take biology (a decision for which I have been kicking myself ever since).

That was my first year in college. By the end of my last year in college, my cockroach shema (for those of you familiar with Jean Piaget's theory) had expanded greatly. I suddenly understood how my former hall mate had been able to dissect a cockroach. This is because I now had a house mate who was from Tampa, FL. His family lived on the water, and they graciously invited some of my other house mates and me to come down for spring break and stay in their guest house, which (if my memory serves me right. We're talking over 20 years ago now) was out back, down a ways from the main house and sat almost right on the water's edge.

One evening, the family had invited us up from the guest house to have a cookout with them on their back veranda (that sounds pretentious, but by now, you must have realized that we weren't exactly staying with The Little Match Girl. There's really nothing it can be called but a "veranda"). We were all having a grand time, eating hotdogs and hamburgers and drinking beer, etc., when I happened to make the mistake of glancing into the dog's food bowl that was sitting on the brick floor by the glass doors that led into the house. There, feasting on the dog's food, were three of the biggest (adjective that has nothing to do with maternal sexual practices) cockroaches I'd ever seen in my life. I lost my appetite. I sat back in my chair, lifting my feet and curling them up under me, lest one of those creatures decide to come crawling up my legs. I pretended to be interested in everyone's conversation, but all I was really doing was keeping an eye on that bowl, waiting for the beasts to come scampering over its edge. I was quite sure they would lift it above their heads, balancing it on all six of their thick antennas, and fly off with it back to their dens, where they'd have leftovers tomorrow without having to leave the comfort of their home.

After dinner, our other friends headed back down to the guest house, and my house mate coerced me into staying at the main house to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, which I had not yet seen. Do I even need to tell you that it was a treacherous trip back down to the guest house late that night? Or that I spent a sleepless night vacillating between who was most likely to get me: the three huge cockroaches or Freddy Krueger? I think I ultimately decided Freddy was going to be flying in on them in some dream of mine and that I'd better not fall asleep.

For years after that, my cockroach schema included cockroaches, and then those huge things found in Florida that I eventually found out everyone called palmetto bugs. I even eventually found out that they weren't local to Florida. Although I'd never seen them there, other Southern states (even my own home state of North Carolina) hosted these mutant cockroaches referred to as palmetto bugs. However, it wasn't until Bob was in seminary that I discovered New York City plays host to these monsters.

The first year Bob was in seminary, we had a laundry facility in the basement of the dorm where our apartment was. It was a beautiful spring day. It was finally warm. The minute days like that start surfacing, I'm in the habit of kicking off my shoes and going barefoot everywhere. Thus, I had decided to do a load of laundry and was walking barefoot down the back stairs to the laundry room, thinking about ghosts as I always did on those stairs, because the building so lent itself to such thoughts. Just as I reached the landing, I looked down to see something skittering across the floor in front of me. I'm sure I did a double-take, barely believing my eyes, but I am just as sure that right before it disappeared in a crack in the wall, it revealed itself to be a HUGE (not-very-polite adjective) cockroach. I skittered, just as quickly, back upstairs to put some shoes on, and no one ever saw me wandering around the seminary barefoot again.

I saw many of those cockroaches over the next few years in New York (even one, once, in our apartment. Not a happy moment). Like the rats that ran around on the street or dug around in the trashcans, I soon came to accept them. I didn't bother them, and they didn't bother me. But I never once heard anyone refer to them as anything other than cockroaches. Cockroaches the size of Michael Jordan's sneakers. You can find palmetto bugs in Florida (but don't drink too many of them. They sneak up on you and leave you with a fearful hangover the next day).


Charlotte said...

Your lovely brother will confirm that cockroaches in South Africa are enormous! Upcountry in Johannesburg there's a hideous creature even bigger than a cockroach called a Parktown Prawn - also a cute name for a thing that's the insect equivalent of Rambo. It's big, pink and emits a foul smell.

litlove said...

On one of the very first occasions I met my husband, it so happened that a fat cockroach ran out from the corner of his room. Instantly, he leaped to his feet and stamped on it. I was hugely impressed and without a doubt it encouraged me to date him. So I agree that cockroaches are oddly significant.Loved the post, very Emily.

Anonymous said...

Ewww! On our Halloween ghost walk the fortune teller had a bowl of madagascar roaches. They are as big as my cell phone light brown in color and have segmented shells. They weren't gross scary roaches but they were roaches all the same. I hate the giant centipedes we get in the house here in summer, a huge palmetto bug/roach would freak me out!

Anne Camille said...

I felt that I hadn't had a complete picture of NYC until I saw a rat in the subway. He winked at me, as if acknowleging that I was now an honorary New Yorker. He had just finished kick-boxing one of those palmetto bugs and tossing it up onto the platform, where it landed legs up, near my feet. After a few minutes the bug flipped over and headed for the C train. I love Columbus Circle.

ZoesMom said...

Oh yeah, they called them palmetto bugs in Dallas too. They are scary, icky, ugly. I remember fighting them and living in fear until finally gave up and just decided they had their territory and timeslots and I had mine. If I turned on the light in the kitchen in the middle of the night then I deserved to see them and if they chose to crawl across my bathroom floor in the middle of the morning then they deserved my shoe.

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, a Parktown Prawn? Who names these things?

Litlove, oh yes, that sort of heroic behavior would most likely earn a man who wanted it a date with me.

Stef, I don't like centipedes, either. Something about all those legs...

ZM, yes, best to always avoid the kitchen in the middle of the night.

Cam, that is an absolute New York moment. You've definitely been accepted and could pack your bags and move there anyday... (Bob once, accidentally drop-kicked a rat down some stairs in River Side Park as it went racing in front of him, and he couldn't avoid it).

Susan said...

You feel about them as I feel about spiders. Though I have to confess, if I saw three big spiders in a dog's bowl, I wouldn't only lift my feet up. I'd point them out and either I'd leave the party or the spiders would have too....that sounds pretentious. I'm thinking of the big hairy tarantulas sometimes found in Florida - indeed, one time on the city bus a boy had one in a fish bowl without a lid, and I spent the entire trip watching the spider to make sure it didn't get out of the bowl and crawl towards me. that was a hellish trip, right up there with discovering there exists the Venezualan Bird Eating tarantula, that actually jumps (the natives say fly but my mind balks at this) and is the size of a dinner plate. yep, that's when Venezuala got crossed off my list of places I must see!!!
I am glad to say, that with age, I've finally become able to let the little ones (and they are bitty, I admit) live in the same house with me. But never the big ones.
Love this post!!!

Emily Barton said...

Susan, spiders, for some reason, I don't mind. I find them interesting in their determination to keep re-building their webs, and of course, they get rid of flies, which are very annoying creatures. However, I don't think I'd be too keen on a bird-eating tarantula, especially if it can "fly."

honeypiehorse said...

Arizona also has respectable cockroaches. I went to boarding school in Scottsdale and still remember the scrabbling noises behind my posters. I got into the practice of swatting my Duran Duran poster with a shoe every few days. Taking the posters down at the end of the year was pretty gross but I got used to it. Now I'm terrified of spiders but can kill a roach with a shoe without batting an eyelash.

Emily Barton said...

Honeypiehorse, you brave, brave soul. I'd have been writing letters home: "Cockroaches the size of dogs. Get me out of here!!" (Not that my parents would have listened, of course.) Then again, at least you had a well-developed cockroach schema before you ever hit college.