Moonlight Exterminator

by

07/12/2007

Fulton St & St Felix St, Brooklyn, NY 11217

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Fort Greene

It’s all taken on a certain familiarity. I unlock the door, turn on the light, drop my bag at the foot of the bed, and move towards the kitchen. With a flick of the light, there is the scurry of roaches and waterbugs across the tile and under the counter. Like clockwork, I begin to yell obscenities, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, you little shit!” This monologue ensues nearly each evening and I wonder whether the neighbors think I have a child or a husband that I abuse. “I go to work, come home, and there you are — fuck!” I dive for the buggers with paper towel, a magazine, whatever is at quick-draw’s reach. Generally having missed most of them, I move on to the heavy artillery: professional Raid spray. Like a 50’s girl fixing her beehive, I commonly empty half a can per night. This really makes it difficult to breathe in my apartment, a simple studio unit, but after a while you don’t really notice it so much. Still, I try to remember to crack a window.

Disgusted by cooking in a kitchen with roaches, I frequently opt to order out. In Brooklyn, everything comes via bicycle or car delivery: prepared food, groceries, pet supplies, wine (when ordered by the case), pot, and other sinful distractions. In fact, after September 11th, Brooklynite potheads rejoiced when marijuana bicycle delivery boys couldn’t make it past security on the Brooklyn Bridge to meet their eager Manhattanite customers. I actually had a friend in Manhattan ask if they could use my address – the nerve! Who needs Manahattan anyway, that’s what I say, though I hear it’s exceedingly well exterminated.

Chinese food arrives, I pay the guy, and he coughs at the bug spray cloud in my apartment. As he leaves, he tucks paper menus under all of my neighbors’ doors. My neighbors will all know that I ordered cheap Chinese food, again.

I’ve taken a few bites, and I spot a couple of flies buzzing around by the light. “Fuckin’ shit!” They must have snuck in through the unscreened, slightly cracked window that was venting the Raid spray. Light attracts bugs. So, I turn the light off, and give the room one more spritz of Raid. I sigh, and finish my Kung Pao Chicken, while deeply inhaling bug poison. It’s really hard to eat with chopsticks in the dark.

My building’s exterminator comes once a month to do the common areas, and you can sign up in the lobby if you want him to visit your unit – at no extra cost. This list is very revealing; it tells you which of your neighbors have roaches, and more importantly, which are choosing to take action. I usually sign up at the last minute so that people don’t see my name on the list for weeks in advance. This particular month, I sign up the night before extermination day, and I see my neighbor’s unit also on the list. They are a couple living in a studio apartment. I mean, that must get really dirty. Imagine the trash that they must produce. Surely their roaches are the root of my problems.

The exterminator arrives usually at 8 am on Saturdays. If I’ve been out late the night before I wear a presentable pair of shorts and a t-shirt to bed, and simply let him wake me. The bell rings. “Exterminator, doll.” In my dreamlike state I greet this guy who slicks back thick gray hair and looks like he eats dinner in one of those diners with an awning that says “chops, seafood, steaks” in cursive writing. As if summoned to a crime scene, he enters wearing gloves and not wanting to touch anything, so I open and close doors for him, as we’re accustomed.

I can only imagine the highly toxic bug chemicals at this lucky guy’s disposal. Although I know it makes me a hypocrite, all of my tree-hugger environmentalist sensibilities are out the window when it comes to extermination. I am definitely open to bringing in the big guns. Hell, what about a nuclear solution? Actually, that wouldn’t work either. A documentary on New York public television once traced a day in the life of a Manhattan exterminator. He showed viewers what roach eggs look like, and the various extermination strategies he employs. He also delved into the evolution of roaches, and their surprising resilience. Furthermore, he cited a study in which roaches are predicted to survive us all should things come to a nuclear annihilation. For days I was haunted by the thought of roaches ruling the earth. I concluded that their heyday would only last so long without us there to eat take-out, create smelly garbage, and leave dirty dishes in the sink.

My exterminator looks me straight in the eyes and inquires how it’s been since his last visit. He wants me to tell the truth. As if unloading my problems to a therapist, I recount frequent escapades with Raid and roach motels. He listens patiently, and then diagnoses my problem, “It’s the water that drives them.” He continues, “You need to dry the entire sink area after you use it.” This was not what I wanted to hear. Keeping a dry sink may be well and good, but then why have running water? Why not simply pour bottled water into whatever I’m cooking and learn to clean with hand sanitizer? What can I say? I’m old-fashioned; I get the sink wet. And so my problems continue, according to my exterminator. Looking to pass the blame, I casually ask how bad the situation is in neighboring units, whether that could be contributing to my problem. He refuses to take the bait, and gives me his best poker face. Clearly, he knows better than to break the confidence of neighbors. My building has 200 apartments, and he’d like to keep us as a client. The last thing he plans to do is spark a civil war. He wishes me well, grabs his contraptions, and moves on to the next unit.

I’m alone again, and it’s coffee time. I turn on the water to rinse out yesterday’s mug, and a mug from earlier in the week with moldy coffee chunks floating in it. How does coffee create mold so quickly? As water splashes around the sink, I try to regain some perspective on the situation. After all, this apartment is a million times better than the previous one. Back on Nassau Avenue, I had a certain mice infestation that nearly drove me to a real therapist, not just an exterminator who acts like one. That exterminator said I had to find the “holes”. How is it that exterminators always send us on a mission impossible? Where are the exterminators for lazy working girls who don’t want to get anywhere near the actual problem? A husband would be convenient, but I was left to deal with matters myself instead.

As recommended, I procured the necessary implements at the hardware store: steel wool, old-fashioned mouse traps, and some modern chemicals that were supposed to make the vermin thirsty, thereby driving them outside. Like purchasing condoms, there’s something very embarrassing about buying this stuff. People definitely know what you’re up to. In this case, they know I have a mouse or rat problem. In the city there is no way it’s for your garage or some sort of garden shed either. We’re talking about our apartments: where we bathe, sleep and prepare food. I was tempted to clarify to the clerk that it was really just a few very small mice, but decided I’d rather just get out of there as quickly as possible. Back home, I set out with steel wool in hand and began to inspect the place from top to bottom, moving appliances, and plugging every nook and cranny. I felt like I could have flooded the place, and it wouldn’t have leaked a drop. But the mice were already in, so the remaining ones had to be found and removed. In the meanwhile I chose to sleep at night with a blanket stuffed into the crack at the bottom of my door. This at least allowed me to pretend that mice wouldn’t crawl on me while I slept.

I continued to find food that the mice had gotten into, such as my box of cereal. Sometimes I would see them scurry when I came home. Friends and coworkers would tell me things like, “You know, they say there are ten for every one you actually see.” Thanks! I tried the glue traps, spring traps, and the poison, but in the end, got the most action from the cup and saucer method. I mapped their most common paths, and learned to wait. It was like fishing for city folk. Empty spaghetti sauce jar in hand, I knelt, silently in position and waited. The first one came after only about 20 minutes of stillness. It poked its little head out and made a run for it, but I was faster. I cupped it in the blink of an eye, surprising and startling myself. Where did I ever find the skill or courage to catch a mouse by hand? It must be that “power of adrenaline” stuff that brave mothers who save their children from fires talk about. But now what happens? There is a live mouse under this jar that I’m holding. I imagine my hand slipping and the mouse jumping out and biting my hand, after which I get rabies.

Quickly, I decide to improvise with the jar lid and slip it underneath, forcing the mouse further into the jar and eventually turning it over to seal it. I sit and stare at the mouse in my sauce jar. It’s sort of cute, even though I hate it for invading my apartment and ripping into food. Once again, I found myself stuck, “Now what?” I slipped on my shoes and took it outside to the corner trash can. I left and wondered if someone would let it out before it suffocated. Over the next several days I caught a few more mice the same way, until gradually, they seemed to be finally gone. Maybe they somehow communicated to each other that there’s a crazy lady who is going to trap you with a jar that still smells like basil and olives. I often think to myself that home extermination is a whole realm not really adequately covered by the home improvement magazines. What works, what doesn’t, what would Martha Stewart do with the carcasses?

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