Stop Me If You Have heard This One
After a little foray into the realms of glory and the streets of gold late last week, I thought that I might loosen up my thought process by telling one of the many stories I have about the garage apartment I had in college. I was positive that I had written this story before, but I ran a check on all of my blogs for the word “cockroach” and came up empty. This story can’t be told without the use of the word “cockroach”, so perhaps I have told it so many times I just think that I wrote it.
I know that I have written something about my old garage apartment, which was located on Harold Street in the Montrose section of Houston. I lived there with my roommate and great friend Gary Smith for two years. During that time I was pre-law in college and Gary was pre-med. The odds against us both completing our courses of study and attaining those professions were astronomically high. Higher for me than Gary. He had been a top student in High School and President of the Student Council. I had finished deep in the third quarter of my graduating class. But the truth of the matter was, I had my doubts that Gary would make it either. I tended to rub off on people.
The apartment where we lived was over a garage which stood (precariously) behind a two story duplex. The bottom floor of the duplex was rented at a discount to a gay hairdresser named Larry who was a friend of the Landlord ,also named Larry. Larry acted as Larry’s agent for all things involving the apartment ,including collecting the $85 a month rent. Gay Larry, which we will only call him to distinguish him from Landlord Larry, had a standard reply to every complaint. “He won’t fix it”. And Gay Larry was right, Landlord Larry never fixed anything. The lower floor of the duplex was taken by an elderly couple named Dallas and Lucille Mann. Dallas was a one legged security guard who worked all night. Lucille was a waitress at “Phil’s”, our favorite greasy spoon. Lucille sort of liked us, Gay Larry tolerated us and Dallas hated us with every fiber of his being because we liked to play loud rock in the daytime when he was trying to sleep. He would sometimes pull into the garage directly under our bedroom upon returning from work at about 5:00 a.m..He did with his radio blaring in order to extract a certain measure of revenge against us. In this I would say he was successful.
My roommate Gary was taking an American History class which he had not been able to place out of (I had). This was a bad thing because it had a tremendous amount of reading and kept him from studying the things he really needed to excel in, such as Biology and Chemistry. Early in the semester he got bogged down in a famous book called “the Puritan Dilemma” by a well known historian named Edmund Morgan. I read the book years later and while I made it through, I can vouch that it would have been just about unreadable for a college student, or anyone else, at any time of life, who still had anything better to do with his time.
Gary had started the book on numerous occasions (it was not very long) but always had lost interest when I proposed a game of pool or ping pong or pinball or dinner or really just about anything. The next night he would be back at his desk (Gary read while squatting on a chair in front of his desk) trying again and I would interrupt him again. I later learned that I was what is known as an enabler. One night in late October or early November, just as it was getting a little cooler ,I was lying on our couch studying and Gary had assumed the position with his book. After a respectable amount of time, I heard Gary begin to mutter about the hero of the book, a particularly tight assed Puritan by the name of John Winthrop. Gary had developed a particular loathing for Winthrop and seemed to almost hold him personally accountable for the assignment of the book. “Oh he was just so pious.” I heard him say. “just so pious”. This lead me to start chuckling and trying to decide what Gary and I would do that evening so that he could avoid the assignment. As I was beginning to muse over that, I turned around to look at Gary and narrowly missed being hit in the face by a flying copy of the “Puritan Dilemma”. The book flew past the couch into the kitchen/dinning area where it missed its intended target, a cockroach.
Let me digress. Our apartment was about fifty years old. It was surrounded by trees and brush and directly over a garage which was full of rotting timbers and had probably not been cleaned since the Hoover administration. I am not saying that Gary and I were slobs, but our particular method of cleaning up the dishes never varied, once a week, as regular as clockwork. For the other six days we were surrounded by plates and pans of dried out food and crumbs all over the floor. The bathroom ? I’ll get to the bathroom later. It was the kind of place that used to fool 18th century scientists into thinking that there was such a thing as spontaneous generation. The place was lousy with cockroaches. The garage underneath was the cockroach capitol of Houston, Texas. It is amazing how low and disgusting a state college boys can survive in if they have enough alcohol and hallucinogenic.
The cockroach, being such a common site in our household, did not inspire the revulsion that you often see in homes with more modern ideas of hygiene, To me, the cockroach was like the glare that came through the window every morning. It irritated you, but you adjusted, you certainly never thought of doing anything about it. That is why it was so surprising that night when Gary screamed out that he’d had it with cockroaches and that we were going to take care of every cockroach in the place, or words to that effect, the term “fucking” was thrown in as an adjective approximately every third word or so. What Gary had in mind was the total eradication of the cockroach from the apartment (as Churchill once said “sooner hold back the avalanche”) and he meant to do it that night.
First he went to the kitchen and brought back plastic containers that his mother used to send us chili and spaghetti sauce and Brunswick stew (Gary’s mother provided the only variance from our normal dinner of beans, pot pies, grilled cheese or cookies). He also brought with him a large plastic spoon and a spatula. He then retreated to the bedroom and emerged with his large plastic camping flashlight. He handed me a container and a spoon and muttered, “let’s go”. I followed Gary outside and down the stairs, finally into the garage. Upon entering the garage he lit his flashlight, aiming it at the floor near the side wall. Hundreds of cockroaches scampered for darkness as Gary yelled “get ‘em”. Now bear in mind, this is about 11:00 p.m. and most of the neighborhood is asleep. We scampered around the garage using our kitchen implements to push or “herd” cockroaches into the plastic containers. The “Great Cockroach Roundup” as it came to be known yielded dozens and dozens of cockroaches, meaning that the apartment was probably only populated now by 100,000 or so. Looking back on it, it was like taking a spoonful of sand out of the Sahara Desert, but we were happy with the haul.
Up the stairs we went ,trying to figure out just how to intern the roaches. We finally hit upon the plan of disassembling our cement block book shelf and setting up a little temporary Guantanamo where the little buggers could stew for awhile. After all the excitement we went to bed.
Now one of the problems with cockroaches is that they are pretty adept at slipping out of tight spots. By morning, the more intelligent cockroaches had made a clean break and were even now somewhere in the house, plotting their revenge. At some points in time, even Gary and I went to class, and we decided that this would be one of them. We left the last dozen or so rather hapless roaches behind the stone walls, which in this case a prison made.
I had a job in college that kept me from getting home until about 7:00 every night. When I came in that night I looked down into the cockroach Alcatraz, or the “rock” as we liked to call it, and cockroaches saw I none. The house was mostly dark, with an eerie light showing from our bedroom. As I walked toward the light, I heard strange noises which sounded like the underwater talking that you hear toward the end of “Yellow Submarine” right before Ringo begins to “live the life of ease”. “Captain, Captain” I clearly heard, followed by other nautical terms. I walked thought the unlit bedroom toward the dim light of the bathroom where I beheld a sight I never expect to see again, primarily because I had never expected to see it in the first place. Floating battleships, some of them on fire were circling the bathtub, cockroaches were running around the decks of the ships looking for ways out while fire continued to rain from the sky.
Perhaps I better explain. Gary and I used to go to a toy store around the block, back in the days when there were independent toy stores. I had purchased one of those inflatable clowns that you punch and then it rocks back up for you to punch again. Very useful tool, wish I had one now. Gary used to buy model ships. He was a lot more patent and dexterous than I was (still is). Gary had put two or three of these model together and we had floated them in the bathtub before. The fire came from a thing called a “zing” or a “zoot” or something like that. This was a series of plastic sheets, like the type they used to wrap shirts in or still seal food in (saran wrap). The sheets would be tied together and pinned to the ceiling where they would tangle down over the tub. When you lit them, the flame burned upwards causing the plastic to melt drops off fire to fly down. The really neat part of it was that they made a sound , “zooot”. All in all it was a quite satisfying thing to watch when the lights were out and you had a head fill of mushrooms. Played hell on the tub though. There were only certain places in our tub that you could stand during a shower . whereby you could avoid burned plastic sticking to the tub. Baths, of course, were out of the question.
Gary had set this scene up and thrown the last remaining cockroaches onto ships. The cockroaches were trying to avoid the fire, but did not want to jump in the water. It was a very realistic view of what it would be like to be on a ship that had taken a torpedo and blown up. Realistic, if ships were a foot long and were manned by cockroach sailors that is. I stood fascinated. The flames “zooting down” smoke coming from the burnt plastic ship decks, and the scurry of cockroaches. The only thing missing was Bernstein’s “Victory at Sea” score. As the ships began to melt, cockroaches began to climb from one ship to another. They eventually made it to the side of the tub and out the bathroom to freedom. The two ships burned out with the loss of no hands. It was a seafaring miracle.
There are reasons why the cockroach was here before we crawled out of the primal ooze. The same reason that they will be here when our race is nothing but a collection of dusty old statutes and decaying buildings. The cockroach is our genetic superior. The cockroach can adapt to anything. We can watch and marvel at how he does it, but have no chance of repeating his success. I will never forgot the lesson I learned that night. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Often it is to the adaptable and the cunning. In any fight, I’d put my money on the cockroach.