My German cockroach infestation, almost too good a pandemic allegory, forced me to confront the question of how much I could bear from New York City.
He broke up with me two years later, for the second and final time, in a drab Holiday Inn near Barclays Center, where for $30 I had offered to watch a visiting friend’s dog while she attended a Broadway show. I went home alone to my dark, square apartment, lease under my name for exactly three days, and surveyed the scene. No dresser, no bed, just a used Ikea mattress on the floor that my now ex-boyfriend had helped me pick up in a U-Haul from Williamsburg the day before. Nothing on the walls, no food in the fridge. No job, no boyfriend. No reason to be there. I ate a scoop of peanut butter and half a can of chickpeas. I took a cold shower, and then screamed and emptied a bottle of Raid on the fat cockroach that emerged from the drain.
Unable to fall asleep, I called a friend halfway across the country and sobbed for minutes while she waited patiently on the other end. She told me with conviction that it would be perfectly normal and acceptable to go home to my parents in Seattle, to get my bearings for a while. I said I needed to learn how to see myself even when he wasn’t there. I told her I felt like I probably should go home, but I definitely wasn’t fucking going to.
We, as a species, are pretty hard-wired to hate cockroaches. And we have, for a long time: The Ancient Greeks and Romans, who loved nothing more than commenting on and compiling information about the world around them, provide more than enough evidence for this. Aristophanes said they smelled bad; Euenus lamented that they ate the vellum pages of his books. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder complains about the “black beetles” whose nature it is “to seek dark corners, and to avoid the light,” lamenting that they appear often in bathhouses and positing that they are actually produced by the steam.
More recently, Anne Sexton compared them to Lucifer—one of God’s creatures, but definitely the worst one: “Yet I know you are only the common angel / turned into, by way of enchantment, the ugliest.” Charles Bukowski described them as ungrateful freeloaders: “I watched / him dying / with a subtle pleasure / because I paid rent / and he didn’t.” Lucille Clifton felt herself wanting to obliterate them, and it felt good: “i didn’t ask their names. they had no names worth knowing.”
Our disdain for cockroaches can explain, in part, why we so often use their name for our own evil ends. We have long slung the word “cockroach” against fellow humans—against immigrants, minorities, those whom powerful people want to paint as not being good for anything. See the definition of siu keung in Cantonese, used by pro-Beijing police in Hong Kong to describe protesters, or inyenzi in Kinyarwanda, an epithet frequently flung against Tutsis in the early 1990s.
The characteristics we revile about cockroaches are never true of these groups, but some of them are true of the insects: They hide in places we can’t see, living communally in crowded spaces. They come in without asking. They take and they take, sustained by the very things we need for our own survival: food, water, heat, shelter. They multiply. They crunch. They take no issue with things we are taught to avoid: rotting organic matter, roadkill, feces.
We, as a species, are pretty hard-wired to hate cockroaches.
But many of the stereotypes are unearned. They don’t actually carry disease, no matter how creepy they look, and it’s not even necessarily true that their presence results from dirtiness. They are enterprising creatures, hitching rides into even the cleanest homes in shopping bags or delivery packages, slipping through walls and up pipes. They often learn to avoid poison, and can even develop immunity to it. As anyone who has fought their own infestation can tell you, it sometimes feels like there is nothing we can do to stop them. All we can do is try our best, resort to chemicals, and reconcile ourselves to the fact that, someday, they might be back.
After the breakup, I began conceiving New York as something upon which to build myself. Being heartbroken in New York was the most romantic American challenge, and accepting it made me feel big. “New Yorker” seemed a badge of honor that I desperately wanted to wear.
Certainly, the initial decision to stay felt like a triumph. Those first years are often framed as a gauntlet of sorts—as though the city were something that must be overcome in order to see oneself more clearly. But something about really loving a place softens you, such that you no longer imagine yourself as the steely protagonist, pushing forward toward victory. Instead, the city passes through you, like a breeze through a curtain, and bits of it build up in your crevices and hollow spaces. New York is not a plot point in a life; quite the reverse.
I remember those first moments of feeling absorbed by the city: Walking down Eastern Parkway that first October, looking up at the arcade of billowing elms, changing leaves glowing bright yellow. Fried clams and piña coladas on City Island, overlooking Pelham Bay. My neighbors and I helping each other carry our grocery carts up the stairs. My favorite bartender complimenting my haircut. Breaking up with someone else and, walking home in the swirling Brooklyn snow, realizing that breakups can be a good thing. Looking back at the skyline as I cross the Manhattan Bridge, each time thinking, I can’t believe I’m allowed to live here.
I had one of those moments while touring my current apartment, a renovated three-bedroom on the sixth floor. It had a prewar character that my previous apartment had lacked, with old-timey radiator covers and elegant arches dividing the rooms. I felt home. Distracted by the high ceilings and the glossy parquet floors, I had not noticed its obvious flaws.
New York is not a plot point in a life.
There were deep cracks where the hardwood met the walls that nobody had bothered to fill in. Rather than sanding down lumps of paint or leftover tape on the plaster walls, somebody had just painted over them, and places where the paint was peeling revealed a solid quarter-inch palimpsest uninterrupted since the ’60s. The showerhead did not face lengthwise down the bathtub, instead affixed to the wall perpendicular, a baffling design flaw that drew remarks from every single guest we had over. The kitchen shared a wall with the communal trash chute, and the marble backsplash behind the counter was held in place by rusty, precarious-looking screws. But it was spacious and warm. And it was mine, and it was one of millions.
In late April of 2020, in the city worst hit by a fast-moving and unpredictable pandemic, I found myself on the floor at 2:00 a.m., slumped against the slice of wall between the counter and the kitchen island. I had scooted both my fridge and my oven away from the wall to clean underneath. The cockroaches were still appearing, as though summoned to my kitchen by some unknowable malevolent force, and I felt I had exhausted all other options. I got down on all fours to caulk between the floor and the baseboard, and to scrub away at the gray, greasy square of filth that had been left undisturbed since before I had moved in. I carefully placed coin-sized swirls of fipronil gel in the corners and the cracks in the grout between the tiles, then sprinkled deltamethrin in an even layer over the floor, hoping this—finally this—would do it.
I was exhausted from the moving of heavy appliances—but also by the innate bodily distress caused by weeks of watching the City of New York slip into a coma before my eyes. This was before the curve had flattened, before the weeks of fireworks upon fireworks. This was on a day that 800 people died. Or maybe that was the day before. Or after. I was exhausted and on my knees as Saturday night slipped into Sunday, but the normal sounds of a weekend night—overlapping laughter down below on the sidewalk, the break of a bottle or a backfiring car, my downstairs neighbor’s usual party, my getting-ready music before heading out—were unsettlingly absent, as they had been for weeks.
I hadn’t left Crown Heights and its immediate environs in forty-four days—hadn’t gotten desperate enough to make the eight-mile round trip walk to the East River, just to lay my eyes on water and Manhattan and hear the ambient noises of the street. At this moment, I was afraid; not so much that I would be undone by the virus itself, but by the way it had undone New York.
Now, I was on my floor, peering intently into the clear plastic chamber of my vacuum cleaner, presumably meant to show you how much nasty shit you’ve sucked up and therefore how well it is doing its job, and scanning for movement. Lately, I had been beginning and ending my days by distributing poison somewhat maniacally around my kitchen. I craved some indication that my reign of terror was working. Finally: a fingernail sized insect, trying to make its way up the slippery walls. It had darted out as I was pushing the fridge back in place, and I had immediately set on it with the hose of my vacuum. The insect had been whipped through tubes and over filters into a morass of hair and dust and other insect bodies. Somehow it was still lucid enough to know the way out. But the walls were too smooth; it would never make it.
Cockroaches are everything we hate about New York, and everything we love. They skim off the top. They are scrappy. They are brazen. They outwit. They smell like a trash-water puddle on a hot July day. They are shitty landlords. They cheat you. They cheat on you. They hang out in dark corners. They are always thinking about themselves. They are always thinking about each other. They make do. They are one of millions. When they find the right environment, they nest, and they expand.
Only a handful of cockroach species are really a major factor in New York City, two of which many of us know all too well. One of them is the American cockroach, which is probably the most recognizable: it’s the big one. It is the one that makes you scream when it skitters out from under your sink, the one that makes a slight high-pitched screaming noise when you hit it with the sleepy allethrin death cloud of Raid. Also known as a waterbug, it tends to stick to wet areas and, mercifully, appears in most people’s apartments as a solitary visitor, sometimes with a friend. The other one is the small one.
Cockroaches are everything we hate about New York, and everything we love.
A German cockroach infestation is almost too good a pandemic allegory. An adult German cockroach with a healthy sex life will reproduce about once a month, each time bringing life to 35 eggs containing little babies, called nymphs. A nest can start with just one insect, a pregnant passenger on some foreign object, and quickly become an exponential curve. They cannot be eliminated without precision and patience, and the task can occupy a person wholly for weeks and months. Left undisturbed, each cockroach can live for at least a year. Left undisturbed, the colony will outlive us all.
There are reasons we say cockroaches will inherit the earth. They can tolerate a dozen times more radiation exposure than humans can, and often hibernate in the extreme cold. They can survive an hour without oxygen and a month without food. If you pop off a cockroach’s head, it might remain alert, moving its mouthparts and waving its antennae for several hours.
In early April, when New Yorkers were freshly grieving so many losses, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “Come Back, New York, All Is Forgiven.” It’s an unabashedly sentimental piece, and one I read and read again despite myself. Roger Cohen writes: “I forgive you. I forgive you now and forever.” He forgives the Mets for losing, the jackhammers for jackhammering, Penn Station for existing. “Even the rats,” he forgives. “And I’ll throw in the roaches.” He writes, “I forgive you everything without exception if you will only promise to reappear.”
When the pandemic was officially declared as such, I had to confront the question of how much I could bear from New York City. It quickly became the epicenter of the US outbreak. I was wrenched by the news of makeshift morgues and bodies sitting in trucks. Maps and charts were made illustrating a mass exodus of the rich—a fast-forwarded white flight. People continued to die in such numbers that they became numbers only, so unfathomable was the toll. Most of them did not look like me; most people I knew did not know any of them. Crises have the tendency to expose who the system deems disposable. People were starting to ask whether New York itself was, too.
I had been obsessing over my own private contagion for weeks, plagued by wandering thoughts about cockroaches filling my socks or infiltrating sandwiches that I was about to bite into. I tried to cure myself of them, but I didn’t know how. You can’t simply scrub away a pandemic. Every moving shadow, every trick of the light looked like a cockroach. Every day in New York looked like a failure and a death. I began to ask myself, Do you love New York, even now? Do you believe New York exists even when you cannot see it?
I called a friend halfway across the country. I felt like crying, but I didn’t. She told me with conviction that it would be perfectly normal and acceptable to leave the city for a while, or forever. I said I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see myself now that New York was not there. But in naming my fear, I realized I was wrong. New York was still here. And so was I. I told her other people were leaving, but I was already home.