One of the great upsides to departing New York City is the withdrawing from one’s relationship with The Big Apple’s most pervasive vermin; the cockroach. They are damn near unavoidable. At least I think they are. I suppose it is possible that a select few of the pukingly rich who reside in multi-million dollar brownstones on East 79th street and have staff workers ensconced in maintaining immaculate conditions with the occasional support of high-priced exterminators are able to skirt the all too common critters. But they are a great rarity. For the rest of the country’s most densely populated city, cockroaches are an innate piece of the experience.
In my decade of big city life, I lived in four separate residences. All were fairly maintained buildings and the cleanliness state of each was perhaps something short of pristine- but most definitely decent to good. And all four had cockroaches. Not tons of them. Or at least not tons of them strolling by in full view of the humans. That’s the thing about cockroaches. Where there is one, there are more. Many, many more. Under the foundation, in the walls- laying endless eggs, infinitely increasing the herd. As it happens, cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. These chemical trails transmit bacteria on surfaces. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. They are repulsive for most anyone. For an Obsessive-Compulsive cat like myself, they are a living nightmare.
I never got used to them. I would be washing the dishes or making a sandwich and one of them would come gallivanting down the wall sending me into shivery spasms. I’d quickly dash to the coffee table seeking a magazine I might roll up and utilize for a death-blow. My wife is a “provoke them to crawl onto a movable flat surface and release them back into the wild” type of girl. God bless her heart. But that’s not me. I kill bugs. I briskly and happily kill bugs. So, assuming that my rapid-fire dash in search of deadly reading material outpaced the roach’s ability to disappear from sight, I’d flatten the little bastard, clean the leavings, and continue on with the task at hand. But the experience would always linger. On the back-end of the killing, I would find my skin crawling at the notion that dozens more were, even as I stood there, skittering hither and nigh within a few feet of me. Generally, I would, at least for a moment, lose myself in visuals from the final chapter in the 1982 film version of Creepshow where E.G. Marshall, living alone in a wealthy bug-proof penthouse, is overrun and killed during a power outage by thousands and thousands of dastardly roaches.
Therefore, while there were endless reasons why the move from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the western suburbs of Illinois was sort of like a bad acid trip, leaving the cockroaches behind was not of them. I suppose it is possible that there are some roaches living somewhere in The Land of Lincoln, though I have yet to see one in eight years and don’t know anyone here who has run into any either, so, I don’t know, do the math. Either way, I continue to have gratitude at the prospect of being cockroach free. So that’s what I have to share about that. And, interestingly, this is not a post about cockroaches.
So it’s October of 2004. We have just moved into our house in Wheaton after a year in a condo one town over in Glen Ellyn. The new house is deep in the suburbs at the end of a dead-end, with fairly deep woods a stones throw away and a marsh down the street. Over the course of our first week after moving in, we have seen multiple deer as well as a fox and a whole host of cute bunnies. It’s all very comforting as I most certainly enjoy the visual stimuli of God’s creatures as long as they are not making their way down my kitchen wall.
One night, Lorri and I are snuggled up on the couch enjoying some late night java and an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, when something went bump. Actually, it was less a bump then it was an elongated sprint. Straight above our heads something unmistakably dashed from one side of the attic to the other. And whatever it was, it was a fuck load bigger than a bread basket. It sounded like a husky nine-year old. It was totally surreal. It was so quick, and over so abruptly, it was almost as if I’d imagined it. But I had not imagined it. Especially because I was not the only one that heard it.
Michael: You heard that, right?
Lorri: Uh, yes. Of course I heard it. What was it?
Michael: Beats the shit out of me. Do you think Sydney climbed up into the attic?
Lorri: Honey, she’s fourteen months old and sleeps in a crib. Is that a serious question?
Michael: No, I guess not. But what the hell was that noise? It was terrifying.
And then it happened again. All of a sudden, whatever the hell was up there decided that its original spot had been somehow more satisfying and zipped back with as much noise and alacrity with which it had moved previously.
Lorri: Oh my God!
Michael: I know. What do we do?
Lorri: Well it’s got to be an animal of some kind. There must be a local company that handles this kind of stuff.
Michael: So what? Do I look up “companies who take care of enormous creatures running laps in your attic” on Google?
Lorri: I’ll call Judy in the morning. She’ll know.
Judy is our neighbor. And she did know. Her theory was that it was a raccoon. I had my doubts. If it was a raccoon, it was a raccoon the size of a small bear. Judy gave us the number of Suburban Wildlife Control. The next day, a guy named Dave pulled up in a van bearing the company logo. I figured good old Dave would dispel the ridiculous notion that our gargantuan stowaway could possibly be a raccoon.
Dave: It’s a raccoon.
Michael: Can’t be.
Dave: It is. It’s a raccoon.
Michael: How big do raccoons get?
Dave: Pretty damned big.
Michael: Jesus. How the hell did it get in there?
Dave: Look up there. You see where the aluminum siding is pulled back, at the corner of the roof there?
Michael: How did that happen?
Dave: The raccoon.
Michael: The raccoon pulled back the siding. Are you kidding me? What is it, a black ops raccoon?
Dave: They’re pretty clever animals.
Michael: And could something that big get in that little hole?
Dave: They’re nimble, too.
I accepted Dave’s theories and asked him how we get the thing out of there. He pulled a ladder and a rather huge cage out of the back of the van. He climbed up to where the hole was, set the snap mechanism on the cage and plugged it right up to the opening. Then he climbed back down and guided the ladder back into the truck. As he reached in and started up the ignition, I asked:
Michael: Where are you going?
Dave: I got other appointments.
Michael: But you’re not done here.
Dave: I am.
Michael: No, you’re not.
Michael: Dave, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but the fact that you don’t have a raccoon in the back of that truck seems to be compelling evidence that you have not completed you’re task here.
Dave: There’s nothing else to do but wait.
Dave: For the coon to come out.
Michael: And when will that be?
Dave: I don’t know.
Michael: Dave (I am now speaking through tightly gritted teeth), are you telling me that you can’t go in and get the thing, you have no idea when it will come out, and basically all you can provide is a big ass cage? What the hell am I paying you for?!
Dave: Look, sooner or later, it’s going to need to come out to look for food. When it does, the cage will automatically lock it in. When that happens, you call me and I will come pick it up. Okay?
Michael (defeated): Okay.
That night there was more running. And let me tell you, knowing what was up there was doing nothing to make the experience of hearing it less unnerving. In addition to the mad sprints from pillar to post, it seemed to be doing more in the way of shifting and scratching. I lay in bed listening to it, fantasizing that it would somehow make its way into the house and I would wake up with it crouching over me with its teeth bared and claws unsheathed. Chilling.
In the morning, I threw on my robe and sneakers and went outside straightaway. I cast my eyes skyward and found my vision enveloped by nothing but clouds visible through the scrim of an entirely empty cage.
Fairly frustrated, I walked back into the house to go about taking on the responsibilities of the day. Lorri was at work. I had just set Sydney up in front of the television with an episode of The Backyardigans when the screaming started. High pitched screaming. It was coming from just above me. It was ear shattering. Until that moment, it seemed unfathomable that I could ever long for the galloping, but this was otherworldly. I immediately called Dave:
Dave: Dave here.
Michael: Dave, it’s Michael from Wheaton.
Dave: Oh, hey. You got a raccoon for me?
Michael: No, Dave. I do not have a raccoon for you. I have ear piercing squeals coming from my ceiling.
Dave: Your raccoon had babies.
Michael: Are you shitting me?!
Dave: Nope. That explains what she’s doing in there. Nesting. Actually, this is good.
Michael: How, Dave? How is this good?
Dave: She’s got to feed those babies. She’s not going to wait much longer to emerge.
Michael: And what about the babies?
Dave: They might come out with her. But probably not.
Michael: So, what then?
Dave: They’ll just die.
Dave: And what?
Michael: And what?! And what do I do about the dead fucking babies in my roof.
Michael: Goodbye Dave.
I couldn’t take the noises and it was clearly upsetting Syd. I decided to take her over to The Children’s Museum in an effort to buy a few hours away from the mama and her newborns.
When we got home, the screaming had not ceased. It was louder. More hysterical. And there was another significant change. The shrieks were no longer coming from above. They were right in front of us. In the wall. And there was more. Every few moments, you could hear the screams rising north. A few inches at a time, but distinctly on the rise. And then they would plunge back down with a sickening thump followed by ever more unearthly howling.
I didn’t need Dave to explain this one. It was horrifyingly obvious. The babies had slipped through the planks in the attic floor down into the walls. And mama was reaching down and attempting to lift them back up. She’d get a hold of one of them and pull them part of the way up before losing her grip and dropping them. And then she’d try again. And then she’d drop them again. It was agony.
This went on for another two days. A long, long two days.
Finally, came the morning. The blessed morning which found me outside in my robe and sneakers staring at an enormous raccoon sitting idly in the locked cage. She looked kind of pitiful sitting there. I felt a little bad for her. Though not so bad that I didn’t race straight for the phone and ring up my old friend Dave.
Forty minutes, give him points for punctuality, rolls up Big Dave in his critter mobile. He hops out, tosses me a casual greeting, opens the back door of his van and pulls out the ladder. Only this time, the back of the van is not empty. It is stacked with nine cages, three high, three deep. Eight are filled with creatures. Of the eight, seven are raccoons and one is a possum (Or an opossum. It’s a bit confusing. Some contend that a possum and an opossum are the same animal. Apparently, this is incorrect. Fact is, we don’t have any true possums here in North America. What we call possums here in the states are actually opossums which many refer to as “possums” as a kind of shorthand. Real possums are found in New Guinea, Australia (including Tasmania), Sulawesi (Indonesia) and a few other small islands in the Pacific region. Either way, they are the most repugnant looking beasts the good lord ever saw fit to create. Yuck!) The ninth cage was clearly reserved for my big fat friend sitting patiently on my roof. Dave shimmied up the ladder, grabbed up mama big ass, descended to ground level, transferred her from roof cage to van cage, threw roof cage into the front passenger seat and began to write-up my bill.
Michael: So, uh, what’s going to happen her now?
Dave: We kill her.
Michael: What? You do not.
Dave: Sure do.
Michael: Kill her how?
Dave: We freeze them.
Michael: What? How?
Dave: We have a system. Sort of a deep freeze machine. We toss them in and they die instantly. It’s painless. Then we dispose of the carcasses.
Michael: But I don’t want you to kill her.
Dave: Not really up to you, friend.
Michael: I don’t understand. Why can’t you just release her back into the woods?
Dave: One, because raccoons are, governmentally, considered rodents or pests, and are therefore to be exterminated when caught. Two, if I released this raccoon back into the wild, she’d be back in your roof, probably with friends, in a matter of days.
Michael: And what about the babies?
Dave: Have you heard them recently?
Michael: Not really.
Dave: They’re probably all dead by now.
Michael: And let me guess, there’s nothing you can do about the dead raccoon babies lying in my walls.
Dave: Well, I can cut holes in your walls and go in and get them. But it’s messy and it’s expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it. They were newborns so, unless they start to smell, which they probably won’t, I’d just leave them there.
Michael: Christ. Okay Dave, what do I owe you?
So that was that. Dave drove off to the gallows and me and my checkbook loped back inside looking very forward to a full night’s sleep to the gentle soundtrack of an empty attic.
The relief, though, was undercut by the notion that the woods were chock full of hundred and hundreds of fellow raccoons, opossums and a whole host of other such creatures just waiting to take up residence in my attic. How long could it possibly be before another one peels back some siding and begins running laps and pumping out screeching infants? The thought was minimally paralyzing.
Maybe those cockroaches were not so bad after all.