Terrifying Tales From the Cockroach Files
Hell Gate readers share their most harrowing encounters with NYC's most enduring pest.
6:53 PM EDT on May 27, 2022
Earlier this month, we asked for your best New York City cockroach stories, and we are happy (grossed out?) to report that Hell Gate readers did not let us down.
These tales are not for the faint of heart:
It was 1988. Amsterdam Ave between 83rd and 84th was still funky back then. I was in a one bedroom apartment that I shared with an opera singer. I had the tiny back bedroom, slept on a futon mattress, on the floor.
One night, asleep in the early morning hours, I was gently prodded to semiconsciousness by a rumbling, scraping sound. I ignored it for as long as I could. Was it construction work outside, at such an odd hour? But I also heard the city buses stopping and starting outside too.
It slowly became clear that the irregular crunching was coming from inside my head.
I bolted up, ran to the tiny bathroom, turned on the lights, looked in the mirror, and saw the back legs of a cockroach protruding from my right ear. In one quick and panicked reflex I formed my thumb and index into a tweezer, and pulled the struggling roach from my head, dropped it into the sink, and pounded it with my fist. As I let the water run, I doused my ear with hydrogen peroxide, and scoured it repeatedly with wadded up pieces of toilet paper.
Disgusted and relieved, my youthful urge to sleep returned, and I went back to my room, lay down.
Apart from this roach incident, I actually slept great that night.
—Erik Della Penna
Two years ago we experienced a sewer line backup in the basement bathroom of our Central Brooklyn home. The plumber opted to run a camera scope through our system to check for roots in our sewer main line. This made sense as we do have a tree out front. I was able to capture a clip of his camera's footage as it passed from our sewer trap to the city sewer line. This clip still haunts my nightmares. Our plumber told us this is totally normal in NYC and to just be glad we don't have rats in there.
I did get some satisfaction imagining of the plumber's snake turning that coven of roaches into a fine brown mist a few moments later. But I imagine they are back and wonder if it was my fault for flushing live ones I caught down the drain instead of squashing them first. Hopefully the cap full of bleach that the plumber recommended we flush every few weeks keeps the system inhospitable (fingers crossed).
Four years ago, when we were just getting to know our little roomies, is when the event we don't talk about occurred. For Christmas we had splurged on a top-of-the-line $100 stainless steel coffee maker. This coffee maker promised to make the perfect cup of coffee on a timer. If you set it in the evening, you could wake up to a steaming hot cup of Joe with no morning wait! It doesn't take a genius to realize that water on the countertop overnight isn't smart with a roach problem.
One fateful morning we came downstairs to enjoy our hot automatic coffee. We sat and read our email and Twitter and sipped our coffee at the kitchen table, then went about our day. When it came time to close up shop for work, we washed our mugs and went to unload the coffee filter.
Cockroaches have a somewhat unique method of reproducing. When the eggs are fertilized they are housed in a sack or ootheca which is dragged along by the mother until being dropped shortly before hatching. Coincidentally, the German Cockroach ootheca is similar in size color and shape to a coffee bean. But it was no coffee bean in our coffee filter. The mother had fled, abandoning her little ones to be steamed like a pot of crayfish. Their tiny milky white corpses had floated and settled over the top of the grinds, like dead fish on a beach after a receding tide. It remains unclear if the timing had been just right, or if the boiling hot shower had initiated some emergency premature hatching. I'll never forget the image of the coffee grounds littered with a hundred or so dead roach nymphs. We never once discussed it, and probably never will. But we did switch to a French press.
THE CUP GAME
Even the exterminator couldn’t figure out where all the roaches were coming from. For a couple of months two summers ago, I’d encounter them in my home every other day, setting up shop in the hallway and effectively pushing me out of the other half of my home like a tyrannical roommate claiming anything north of the kitchen-bathroom parallel.
This was still during the height of COVID in New York City, and the exterminator could only come every two to three weeks. So I stepped in and desperately tried to reclaim my home from the bugs. I’d set out traps, look for remedies online, and aggressively cleaned every surface of my apartment and covered any drains I thought they might be coming from, to no avail. The roaches still found a way.
Some years ago, I’d read online that stepping on cockroaches to kill them was possibly the worst thing you could do because they’d still make it out alive, lay their eggs, and attract more roaches (the internet disputes this myth). Terribly afraid of more of them haunting me, I decided that the best alternative was to suffocate them… by trapping them under a glass until they died.
I’d trap one or two under a glass, and retire to sleep, hoping that I could just vacuum up their carcass the next day. Nope! The roaches were emboldened by the challenge, thriving on the limited air and sometimes staying alive for days at a time, taunting me. At its peak, I had four or five roaches trapped under glasses around my apartment. I grew worried that were I to lift the glass up in any way, the irate cockroach would free its associates and attack me.
Soon, that fear became more tangible. I woke up one morning and saw one of the glasses tipped over, no roach in sight. Wearily, I made myself coffee and sat at the table to drink it and plan my exit. That’s when I heard it. First, a pitter patter of steps on the kitchen floors, followed by a swoooosh sound of something moving really fast. Surely, I thought, that cannot be the cockroach. I turned, and laid eyes on a roach the size of a mouse, rushing towards me.
I don’t live there anymore, the roaches won.
A WILLIAMSBURG TWO-BEDROOM FOR $950?
I had a really bad water bug infestation in my old Williamsburg apartment in the summer of 2013. I first became aware of the problem when I awoke one night with a start, jumping out of bed, heart pounding, because I felt like someone had just tousled my hair, like a retiring little league coach on his way out of the dugout after the season’s last game.
I turned on the light and at first saw nothing on the sheets or mattress. Maybe it was all just a bad sports dream? But then I nudged the pillowcase and oh holy mother of Xenu a gigantic mutant roach with laser beams shooting out from its eyes scrambled out, vanishing down the side of the bed to lay eggs throughout the apartment before I could call 911.
Except it wasn’t a roach! I later learned from my building's superintendent that it was just a water bug, not a roach! I’ve often found that people responsible for paying for pest control tend to refer to them decorously as water bugs, which sounds somehow vaguely less disgusting.
I had heard the same thing from a waitress one morning at the East Village restaurant Old Devil Moon (RIP those cornmeal pancakes), when I pointed in horror to a Hummer of a cockroach cruising up the wall behind my brunch companion's shoulder. "Oh, just a waterbug," I remember her saying as she swatted it to the floor with a towel, with the unspoken message being that only the worst kind of squeamish hayseed who just fell off the turnip truck would say another word about it.
I believe there is some difference between a water bug and a cockroach, technically, but who knows? I'm certainly not going to Google either of those words and subject myself to the graphic images that surface. At any rate, the "water bug" situation in Williamsburg quickly worsened as the month went on, with more sightings in other parts of the apartment. I don’t think the roaches made any further attempts to bed down with me, but they popped up in the kitchen and tiny bathroom with greater frequency, scuttling in and out of kitchen cabinets, until one bleak day when I opened up a box of cereal only to uncork a geyser of roaches, streaming up and out of the box like they were fleeing a speakeasy raid, bleary-eyed in the harsh light of day.
Eventually the super started sending exterminators on a weekly basis to spray all the apartments in the building with some sort of carcinogenic poison, and the roaches withdrew, sending scouts into the kitchen only a few times a year. On the plus side, the rent stayed cheap ($950 for a two bedroom on South 4th and Bedford, yes you read that right and I’m sorry you now know that), and I was able to cling to the apartment for years until a worthier fucking adversary finally took over the apartment. Yes, as any longtime New Yorker will tell you, there is a pest far worse than roaches.
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