Cockroaches: Smarter than You Think

by Homeless T

Ah, what fools these humans be.
2018 9-14. Detroit. Okay. You are one smart human being, appointed by Jehovah as vice-regent of His earthly holdings. Cockroaches are filthy, uncouth parasites on the domestic antisepsis of your divinely conferred patches of ground. Consequently, we stamp them out by the millions--by the billions. 

How dangerous are cockroaches, really? Do they breed disease, spoil your victuals, give you the heebie jeebies, or might they actually be a blessing--say, a divine instrument of karmic purgation for tiresome fussbudgets or transcendent individuals of tormented conscience, wishing to cleanse it before the end? I make this contrarian suggestion because I knew an 80-something seaman who spent his retirement years in a kingdom of roaches. 

Tippy Tom's tiny apartment was Metropolis to millions of roaches living outside their usual holes-in-the-walls. These bugs did not skitter away and hide but tolerated human presence. Elsewhere, these same bugs would have fled for their lives into cracks. But not at Tom's. My friend's only prohibition on the roaches was that they stay off his plate when he was eating. Even when they disobeyed this injunction, he would merely flick them off the plate. Otherwise, it was their apartment.

Those of us who knew the man on a deeper level worried about his lifestyle. His diet was terrible, he suffered bouts of depression that rendered him nearly comatose. He stayed inside for weeks on end. Most alarmingly, his apartment was a thriving playground for care-free cockroaches. It was the Big Apple for roaches, and as Tom would put it, "I ain't a-kiddin' you!"

I mean "Big Apple" as in New York City: millions of roaches rushing hither and yon, sometimes looking like distant hordes of buffalo stampeding the prairies, or cars jamming the expressway at rush hour, as observed from on high. These same bugs would never dare to show themselves at the apartment next door, where they may occasionally have visited for a snack, under the cloak of darkness. These creatures could differentiate between humans, or at least between human habitations.  If you could bear to spend some time among them for a while, they demonstrated interesting behaviors, some extraordinary.

 Postprandial Naptime 
At Tom's, you'd see thousands of them in plain sight at any given time, day or night. They's climb the walls, the furniture, and you, if you let them. I've shaken them out of my sleeve and pant legs after leaving, and Tom always carried some hidden away in his clothes. He claimed to despise them, yet I noticed that he had done nothing to get rid of them. I considered that he might be subjecting himself to some bizarre form of purgatory, or living hell, for he was a deep believer. Further, I wondered if they played a factor in his longevity. The bugs drove his little dog Tippy crazy, but there was nothing that yappy bitch could do about it.

Spiders killed off some of the roaches, but they didn't make a dent in their population overall. The bugs were such easy prey that the spiders' gossamer webs became like ropes, heavy with bugs, hanging from the ceiling weighted down by l00 or more dead bugs stuck in each--either trapped there or put into storage by overworked spiders. Those arachnids would probably have traded the whole lot of them for a few fresh, juicy flies.

Hey gang! Look who's here! It's Homer!

I have developed some hypotheses about roaches that many would consider crazy. However, I have spent many hours observing my subjects, so I will just come out and reveal the gist of them: cockroaches compare to humans intellectually and emotionally. They nurture their young to a degree. They know where they are safe, and they are curious. They can be cunning, dumb beyond belief, or simply high on life. They try to stay alive, but have no morbid fear of death.

I have seen cellophane-wrapped, unopened packages of "roach motels" filled with dead roaches that couldn't wait for somebody to open the pack and set out the traps. The roaches chewed through the glued cellophane seams of the unopened multi-packs and feasted themselves to death. It wasn't the advertised "roaches check in . . . but they don't check out." It was "roaches break in . . . ." None of their colleagues on the outside showed a bit of alarm. In the kitchen, dead roaches covered every surface--along with the gritty, gunpowder-like particles that constitute their dung.

On the other hand, I have observed educational escapades among them. I saw one full-grown roach giving nymphs (baby bugs) rides on her backs. Big mama roach would rear up like a tiny pony, running this way and that. You could almost hear the little nymphs squealing in delight.

They appeared to be having fun, but Mama was also teaching the young the lay of the apartment, and introducing them to their safe human host. This lesson in safety could somehow interface with another--this one a contradiction of the first--about the apartment next door, where they would get hammered and sprayed, to wit, killed. Roaches may not be geniuses, but neither are they the brainless things most people believe them to be. They have four billion years of evolution on their side. That's about 1,000 times Man's stay on Earth.

The most stunning display of cockroaches I ever saw was in the small freezer compartment of Tom Dwyer's refrigerator. The freezer door was long gone, and the refrigerator itself no longer closed completely (due to the build-up of squashed bugs along the plastic sealer strips). The freezer compartment appeared to be disgorging a glacier of crystal-clear ice in which many hundreds of cockroaches, frozen in their final movements, seemed to bespeak the cryptic playfulness of disinterested Nature. It was beautiful in a nauseating sort of way.

What had the bugs been doing? The cockroach equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest? Or did they just fall asleep in a nice cool place, and let themselves be over-iced? Or was their expedition into the freezer a family holiday of sorts?

I have seen albino roaches, newly shed of their outgrown exoskeleton. They emerge snow white but soon color over. I have seen two cockroaches poised on the nipple of an upright baby bottle, taking turns finishing off the drop on the top. Unfortunately, the latter scene took place at my apartment.

I have opinions on roaches that most would consider crazy, or at least unorthodox. The poet Blake writes that "all that lives is holy." I happen to believe this.  From microbes to man, it applies even to the humble roach.

Holding a Religious Service?