The other day I was walking and saw a large Palmetto bug, turned over, its many legs waving feebly in the air — and immediately my mind flashed back to the summer of 1979 and a truly crappy apartment in east Cleveland.
I was working for the Cleveland bureau of the Wall Street Journal as a summer intern. I was paid $200 a week, so I had to find an apartment I could afford on that salary. I found one in a large, brick, multi-story apartment building across the street from the municipal sewage plant in east Cleveland. I remember the age of the place — it was probably built in the ’20s, and hadn’t had much upkeep since — its dimness and general shabbiness, and the paper-thin walls that allowed you to hear couples fighting (and sometimes doing other things) in the adjoining units. But mostly, I remember the cockroaches.
The building was infested with them, past the point of no return. During the dark hours, if you turned on the kitchen light the cheap linoleum floor was alive with cockroaches — hundreds of the squirming bugs, some the size of small cats, all high-tailing it for the dark areas under the cabinets and into the walls once the light flashed on. It was telling that the cockroaches could dart in every direction and quickly find some passageway into the walls. It made me realize that the walls must have been teeming and boiling with cockroaches, which wasn’t exactly the most comfortable feeling.
At first I tried to crush, or trap, or spray the cockroaches, but it quickly became clear that I was wasting my time. The job was just too overwhelming, like trying to bail out a sinking cruise liner with a thimble. So I adopted a guarded “live and let live” approach, gave the cockroaches plenty of time to scatter when I entered the darkened kitchen, and tried to forget that the filthy bugs — or their other compatriots in the insect world — were probably crawling all over me while I slept. Even scalding showers never let me feel truly clean.
I was very glad when my internship ended and I moved out of that apartment. I think I may have burned all of the clothes I wore when I was there.