I tossed some paper into the wastebasket basket under my desk, and was startled by a whiffft.
It was a small rust-colored flash that bolted from the basket to the floor, and zipped under the sofa.
Jesus Christ! I shouted silently.
A roach! A waterbug!
Yep — I skeeve.
Like nothing else.
You ever read “1984,” George Orwell’s masterpiece predictive of a totalitarian society that we seem to be approaching?
He wrote it in 1948 as a warning, reversing the last two digits of the year to create the title. It warned of mind and body control by the government.
In it, the Ministry of Love (all the concepts in the book are satirical) employs Room 101, a brainwashing and torture space to enforce compliance. The true horror — and effectiveness — of Room 101 is that the torture is tailored to each individual’s worst psychological fears.
In the case of Winston Smith, the novel’s doomed hero, it is rats.
Mine would be waterbugs, roaches, you name it. Bring one of those disgusting insects anywhere near me and my skin crawls.
It is a fear and a disgust that defy reason.
I know the damn things can’t bite me, or harm me in any way.
Doesn’t matter. Something about those wavy, seeking antennas, and those folded-up wings, just unhinges me.
Usually, they say, familiarity breeds contempt.
I have been living with them since childhood, and it hasn’t hardened me.
We lived in what was the “super’s apartment” in The Bronx tenement in which I spent the first 15 years of my life. Because the dripping water main for the tenement was located in a well beneath our vestibule, the apartment was often infested.
We battled them to a draw with Raid and other poisons, but the creepy crawlers were always around.
One night I got up from a deep sleep to find a giant bug on my pillow.
My scream awakened everyone in the apartment.
I had trouble going to sleep for days after that, and wouldn’t get into bed without a thorough inspection of all the sheets and blankets.
To this day, I can’t stand for the cover on the bed to be touching the floor. I call that a bug ladder.
If I ain’t over it by now, I never will be, although when I saw a second roach, this time in my bedroom, I tried to stomp it with my slippered foot.
No luck — he zipped under the armoire.
I called maintenance and put in an order for an exterminator, but in the meantime bought a can of Raid and sprayed it around the base of the armoire, just in case.
Two days later I found a dead roach on the floor, so it worked.
And then the exterminator did the rest of the apartment.
All’s been quiet since.
Writing about this has sparked a couple of memories.
When I was in junior high, my friend Jose Baez invited to a sleepover at his tenement, a few blocks away from mine.
We listened to rock and roll on the radio, played cards and went to sleep around 11, I guess.
My mattress was on the floor.
I awakened in the middle of the night to find it teeming with waterbugs.
I don’t know how I kept from screaming, but I dressed in a flash, slipped out of his apartment and walked home in the middle of the night.
At school, Jose asked me why I left so suddenly. I was too embarrassed, for him, to say his apartment was infested. How could he not know? I just said I couldn’t sleep.
Many decades later I was sharing a Jamaican villa with Jim Moran, my best friend.
Jim Moran in Jamaica at Dunn’s River Falls
We had come in from a night of carousing in nearby Montego Bay, drank some rum, and chatted, and then turned in.
I got into bed and looked at the wall over my head.
There was a palmetto bug, at least 4 inches long. (Palmetto bugs are roaches with better PR.)
Like a flash, I am out of my bed and standing next to Jim’s in the next bedroom.
“What’s up?” Moran asks.
‘Um. I need a favor.”
“There’s this monster bug in my bedroom. Would you kill it?”
“Why don’t you kill it?”
“I sleeve,” I say.
Moran harrumphs, picks up a magazine, walks into my bedroom and splatters the bug on the wall.
“He’s dead — you clean it up.”
And oh! That reminds me of the deal I had with a wife — whoever didn’t kill it had to clean it.
I hardly knew which was worse.
Hmm. Yes, I do. Cleaning it was worse.
So that’s how I learned to hunt them with slippers and newspapers.
Never became proficient, but did learn to put on a brave front.
But I still skeeve.
And what makes you skeeve? What is in your Room 101?