Josna Rege

150. The Phenomenon

In 1960s, 1970s, Childhood, India, Stories, United States on June 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Note the telling similarity to a Rorschach image. (Illustration: Leonard Baskin)

“Phenomenon” sounded better than “Cockroach”: no doubt that was part of it. Even while tackling the problem head-on, one’s mind slid away from the real thing in all its disgusting materiality; the hard, shiny carapace, the long, endlessly searching antennae, the swift, purposeful forward movement, all gave the impression of a sentient and malevolent tank, intent on its evil purpose (whatever that was; it didn’t do to look too closely into it). And in this case the Phenomenon was an infestation: not one tank, but an army of them, and an army that clearly had the positional advantage—at least, at the outset.

I don’t have a fear of insects in general, aside from this particular insect. Even uttering its name draws forth a shudder. My repulsion is so great that its source must lie buried deep in my unconscious, perhaps not even my own unconscious but my mother’s.  Arriving in India for the first time with an infant daughter, laying her delicate, lovingly handmade baby clothes in freshly lined drawers, and opening them one day to find that a colony of cockroaches had established themselves there, flying out to greet her. When she found her baby daughter actually playing with these creatures, her horror knew no bounds, and it was this horror that I inherited, when, in my own childhood I reached out to retrieve a book from our best glass-fronted bookcase in Kharagpur only to find a nest of newborn, still-translucent cockroaches scattering in all directions; or when I had to get up in the night in Ratnagiri and run the gauntlet of a host of these armored arthropods lining the walls of the narrow corridor in close formation.

My mother flung herself into a tireless campaign to keep them at bay. Eradication was out of the question, so it was an endless struggle. Last thing every night, I remember, Mum poured boiling water down the drains in the kitchen, in hopes of preventing—or at least, deterring—them from swarming up out of them as soon as the lights were turned out.  Deter them she did. Alas, when it was my turn, I was not as diligent.

The varieties that prevail in the Eastern megalopolis of the United States are smaller but no less of a menace. There, tough urban varieties combine into even stronger strains, with rapid-fire reflexes and resistant to pesticides. When we lived at White Pond in Concord in the late 1970s, a particularly virulent hybrid of New York City and Somerville, Massachusetts roaches were inadvertently imported into the cottage, hidden in the corrugations of the cardboard boxes used to pack Eve’s and my books. The new mega-breed that emerged was of an order that the pristine town of Concord, home of rustic Thoreau and transcendental Emerson, had neither seen nor even contemplated. The population explosion in the cottage, where no such creature had ever been seen before, was like that of an automobile going from a standstill to 100 miles per hour in less than twenty seconds. We were trying to lead a simple life on the shores of White Pond, using only natural materials and organically grown foods, doing as little harm to the Earth as possible. Naturally then, when first one, then five, then legions of these creatures seemed to spring forth overnight, we were taken by surprise and were unwilling to fight back with chemical pesticides. We hesitated, and our hesitation was our undoing; the super-strain saw their opportunity and swiftly seized  the upper hand. In no time at all before they were in charge and we were on the run. It came to the point where they would not even wait until dark or until we had gone out: they would simply sachay out insolently in plain sight.

One day, when our friend Michael was visiting from New Mexico, the tide turned. I can pinpoint the exact moment. As I was ironing in the spare room that day I felt a prickling feeling at the back of my neck as if I were being watched. Indeed I was: I turned round to find a large cockroach looking me boldly in the eye as if challenging me to act. From that moment on it was war as, rapidly and with ruthless efficiency, we conducted our research and designed and implemented the Phenomenon Prevention Program, or PPP. Within a matter of hours of the start of the campaign we had regained the advantage and had the enemy on the run. Where just a few hours earlier they simply stepped fearlessly into the open, they now peered out from under cover of a picture frame, and looked cautiously in all directions before making a break across open ground to the next place of safety. But with the PPP, there was no safe place; although we were slow to get started, once aroused we pursued the program to the bitter end.

Here’s how I described the campaign some 20 years ago:

We began to systematically break up their strongholds, cut off their food and water supplies, remove vital bridges along their travel routes, and wipe out as many as possible.

Why “Phenomenon”, you might ask? Again, quoting the younger me:

We called them Phenomena because they had come to symbolize much more, they were “everything you know is wrong”, they were they were problems which were externalized through fear rather than those which are recognized and dealt with. They thrived on fear and tension; their central nervous systems sent any input of nervous energy straight to the muscle bundles in their legs and made them scurry.

In the end, we had removed everything we could but for one thing: heat. We had learned that although the Phenomena preferred temperatures between 68 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit (20 and 29 degrees Celsius), their eggs could survive in temperatures as low as 20° F for up to 10 days. Having come so far, it was impossible to contemplate not carrying the program to its conclusion, so when we learned that a cold snap was forecast, we drained the water pipes, shut off the electricity (they loved to recharge their batteries in the warm current of the electric clock), lined all the edges of the floors and counters with boric acid, and left for California. Three weeks later we returned to a blissful (if Arctic) Phenomenon-free existence, and I am happy to report that not a single specimen—nay, not even a shadow of an antenna—ever darkened our doors again. But never again did we relax our vigilance: we had learned our lesson and I hope never to have to undergo such an ordeal again.

Immediately following that successful campaign we began a period of our lives when we engaged actively in the movement against nuclear power and weapons. I wonder how much of the subconscious motivation for this next struggle came from the widespread belief that the only creature that was resistant enough to radiation to survive a nuclear war was the cockroach?

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Oh this is marvelous! In the first paragraph you’ve encapsulated the essence of that vile, supposed insect. The first time I ever saw one–in my roaring twenties in Florida–I knew through and through that cockroaches are truly “everything you know is wrong.” The first time I did battle with one–when I’d taken aim with a can of Raid and it flew straight for my jugular–it was akin to the scene in The Devil’s Advocate where Mary Ann Lomax is shopping with John Milton’s sex kittens and she looks at them in the changing room and sees their skin melt away to reveal the demons they really are. Brilliant military strategy in the Battle of White Pond, I must say! And at present, I suppose involvement in the anti-nuclear movement is as fine a forward-looking vengeance strategy as any!


    • That scene you describe has now seared itself into my brain. I don’t know if I’ve seen that film–or maybe I once watched it partway through. Perhaps it’s just as well, from the sound of it. And thanks–I certainly had to get in gear for that campaign–which proves that I can if the motivation is strong enough! Thanks for reading and coming by to comment–especially during this hectic month.


      • It was my great pleasure, Josna. It is indeed a hell of a month (at least I’m not traveling with intent as you are!), but I have a reckless lack of rules, depending on which angle of sight and mind an observer may be watching from, and I’ll stop everything to bask in a worthy thing. Seeing things from your point of view via your writing style is definitely bask-worthy!


  2. I’m glad I’ve just read this in the morning, so I have the whole day to get them out of my mind before dream-time! But I’m extremely impressed with your eradication technique and its attention to detail. Turning the electricity off was genius. I never would have thought of it.

    I don’t think I ever saw a cockroach until I moved to Boston in my early twenties. Blech. Happily, it’s been years since I’ve had to deal with them, but I well remember switching on a light and seeing the little horrors scurry away. They really are repulsive, aren’t they? I wonder if you’re right about the nuclear imagery connection. The only other bug I hate as much are silverfish. They also make my skin crawl, but they’ve never infested the kitchen cabinets, and I was always able to simply crush them in the bathtub (sorry).


    • Sorry to have introduced nightmare material to your consciousness! Good idea to focus instead on our successful and scientific eradication methods. Lucky you to have been cockroach-free for the first two decades of your life. Silverfish do evoke a shudder, perhaps because of their translucence and the way they shimmy? Perhaps the translucence is disturbing because it suggests their love of dark, dank places?
      By the way, there’s a Russian folktale about the fool who didn’t know what people meant when they said that something made their flesh crawl. He tried everything that might give him the experience, but to no avail. Finally his wife had an idea: she put a bunch of live fish in his bed and when he got in, he sure found out what it felt like!


  3. Hi Jojo,

    Here I am at work waiting for some data (huge) to load into my folder, and as promised I am catching up on your wonderful stories/reminiscences and am chuckling at my own “roach” story. Many decades ago, when I was a poor college student living in the Fenway area of Boston (Hemingway Street to be specific), the only apartment I could afford was with two other poverty stricken students in what they called a railroad flat in the basement and rear of a very large complex. The apartment was carved out of the cellar and was a kind of after thought for the owner so he could squeeze out the last bit of money from indigent students. Well, the style of a railroad flat is such that to get from one room to another you had to go through every room like railroad cars. The “front” door led to the kitchen, the kitchen led to the first bedroom, to the second bedroom, to the third bedroom, etc. until you came to the “back” door, all in the same plain. Well one day the fumigation company came to fumigate all the “real” apartments in the four story building. So all the roaches decided to relocate to our kitchen. I opened the cabinets one day to literally hundreds of the buggers. We called the landlord and demanded he fix the problem. His answer “NO!” if I do that they will just infect the “real” apartments. We of course were incensed and said we would withhold our measly rent money until he relented. In the meantime we bought rolls and rolls of duct tape and sealed of the kitchen from the rest of the apartment. After a week and no mitigation, we had to seal off the next bedroom, a week later, we sealed of the next bedroom, etc., etc. till we three were all living at other places and never returned to that roach motel again.


    • Wow–great story, Vincent. It gives a whole new meaning to the term Roach Motel! I can well imagine that railroad apartment with you poor students crammed into the basement, besieged by the horrible hordes scuttling for their lives from the fumigated apartments of the “real” tenants. Ugh and triple Ugh–to the roach of a landlord as much as to the roaches themselves. I’m glad you guys fought back, even if it was ultimately a losing battle. I’m thankful you survived to tell the tale!


  4. All I can say to this is that I totally share your disgust and even fear (there I actually admitted it!) of those horrible creatures. I have often thought I could face them fearlessly if they didn’t have those awful constantly waving antenna, but the thought just almost makes me want to run and throw up at the same time! Uggggh!!


    • I try (not very hard, I admit) to feel compassion; but honestly, it is hard to do so. Perhaps I can try to re-perceive them. It worked to some extent with stink bugs, which seemed to turn up ever where I looked last winter. My friend Ruth suggested that I start calling them “Grandfather,” and whaddya know? When I did, I suddenly felt good-humored toward them. Instead of screaming when one turned up on my computer keyboard or on my bedside table, I simply started saying, “Come on, Grandfather,” scooping them into a cup and emptying it out of doors. But who am I kidding? There’s no chance that I will undergo that kind of attitude adjustment toward the Phenomenon.


  5. Defect? From our hero?
    Jo, I hope (or maybe dread) that you remember our kitchen back in the day of landlords and cheap fake wood paneling. All along the gap between the walls and the ceiling was always a fringe of wriggling antennae – really! – waiting for the lights to go out. Masses of them would scramble helter skelter from the countertop when we flicked the switch for a midnight snack.
    We tried everything, including chemicals (what a mistake). Only gutting all the kitchens in the building for a complete rehab eradicated the Phenomenon.
    I remember apologizing to Dan at one of our first Christmas Eve parties when we walked in on a lively phenomenal party on the counter. He scoffed, “These guys? I grew up with them,” and swatted one bare handed.
    During that time we went to see Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. At one point Dr. Science (“I have a master’s degree…in science!”) took questions from the audience: “If a giant meteor could wipe out the dinosaurs, could a little one wipe out the cockroaches?” The questioner was from Dorchester. Dr. Science really didn’t need to answer that one.


    • Ann (fellow survivor of drastic PPP), that is a truly terrifying image, of a “fringe of wriggling antennae.” I read in the book, Creatures of Darkness, by Esther Baskin (whose husband, Leonard Baskin, did the Rorshasch roach illustration) that those antennae have about 80 joints!
      Dan’s was no empty boast–Andrew has told me tales of their childhood in NYC. When they came home of an evening Ted would have them all take their stations before he switched on the light—and then they would get to work in twelve-handed unison. But bare-handed? Ugh. I wonder if Ted would allow then to swat the phenomena with back issues of his precious New York Times?
      What was the Dr. Science’s answer? I think that it would take more than a meteor to wipe out the cockroaches. x J


  6. phooh, what courage to spell it out. it brings back a similar campaign, a hunting down for months of the last ones, a final showdown and my satisfaction of having our place to ourselves again, and loads of shame for my destruction impulses. if there is one thing in my life that can bring me real low, it’s the phenomenon, and for years i could not even go near my battle with them, let alone write anything down. too superstitious and afraid of revenge, i guess. you did it, tough. bine


    • Courage is charitable word to use, bine, but I’m afraid stupidity may be more like it. First of all I never thought of danger of the Revenge of the Phenomenon, which now haunts me, and second, even more worrying, is that the faithful readership of Tell Me Another will defect en masse in disgust and dismay. x J


  7. Amazing story, remind me to tell you (or perhaps NOT tell you) of the “phenomenon” that live in St. KItts. 🙂


    • Aaaaaa! (If they’re anything like the ones in India (or New Mexico, for that matter), I can well imagine (or rather, avoid imagining). . .


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