The man with a can for the roach with attitude: Zoe Heller in America

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The Independent Culture
IT IS the mad, bad season in New York. Every day, the city boils and bubbles beneath a glaring white sky. The traffic grinds to gridlock. The citizens redden and swell and erupt. On steamy subway platforms, fights of astonishing viciousness break out over stepped-on toes. Along the avenues, cab drivers peel themselves wetly from their burning plastic seats, to slug it out with one another in bloody sidewalk brawls.

Late last night, as I lay in bed, glazed with sweat, batting the soupy air with a paperback, two homeless men began arguing in the street outside my window. The dispute, about the rightful ownership of some empty soda cans, rapidly developed into a surreal exchange of violent threats. 'I'm gonna take a screwdriver,' one of the men kept repeating, 'and I'm gonna stick it in ya freakin' neck, till blood comes out ya freakin' eyes.'

It was 2.30am by the time I finally fell asleep, and, consequently, I was still in bed at

8 o'clock this morning when the cockroach exterminator arrived on his monthly rounds. I am always pleased to hear him tramping up the stairs, rapping on apartment doors with his cheery cry of 'Bug man]' But today I was more than usually thrilled. I live on the second floor of a redbrick 'walk-up' (no lift) on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Like all New York apartments, it is the site of an ongoing war of attrition between humanity and the bug kingdom - and just recently the bug kingdom has been winning.

Two weeks ago, I came back home late at night to find a fat, brown, winged cockroach in the middle of my bathroom floor. The extreme nausea that cockroaches produce in me can be traced to a traumatic episode in 1984, when several bored men, at a railway station in southern India, decided that it would be good sport to throw cockroaches at my travelling companion and me. These improvised missiles, the size of Dinky Toys, were the sort of Uber-roaches that will inherit the earth after a nuclear holocaust. Not only did they make a horrible cracking sound when they hit us, but they left sticky brown secretions on our clothes. One of them - I can hardly bear to write it - landed on my hair.

Ten years on, I can just about control my hysteria when I see a cockroach, as long as it does the decent thing and scuttles away fast. But this cockroach in the bathroom wasn't a scuttler. After pausing a moment and coolly registering my presence, it actually sauntered towards me, like a host welcoming a nervous guest into his cocktail party. Naturally, I shrieked and ran back into the kitchen. Here I found another cockroach pacing the perimeter of my kitchen sink. This one was vast - two centimetres long, at least - and he moved, I noticed, with exactly the same languid, Noel Coward gait as his friend in the bathroom.

There is something about standing on a chair in your kitchen at 3am, screaming at bugs, that makes you feel a bit sad and hopeless about your life. After a while, I pulled myself together and ran across the street to the 24-hour Korean grocery. The ferocious misanthrope who runs the place was stomping about as usual barking injunctions at her customers in angry pidgin: 'What you doing with that muffin back there?' 'Leave coriander alone]' She greeted my arrival by pincering her nose with her thumb and forefinger and pointing at some unfortunate character in the tinned soup section. 'Pwah]' she said loudly. 'That man so smelly.'

In truth, he was rather smelly, but I had other things on my mind. I had roaches to murder. All I could find to help me, however, was a giant aerosol can of Raid. This promised to kill roaches, but only by causing them to race out from their nests and perform their death throes along your skirting-boards. To finish off the hardier roaches, the instructions said, you had to spray Raid directly at them. I had been feeling tired and emotional when I entered the grocery, but when I read this, tears began pricking at my eyes. Don't the manufacturers of these products know anything about bug-hating psychology? I wanted the roaches gone - I didn't want to hang around squirting stuff at them and watching them writhe.

In the end, I had to wait until the next morning to go to a larger supermarket for some Combat. This is a series of black boxes containing the bug equivalent of the myxomatosis virus. Once the roaches have touched the boxes, they return home feeling slightly under the weather, infect all their brutish little relatives and then keel over. The Combat packet has an inspirational illustration of a queen cockroach with squiggly lines radiating off her, to indicate her death agony. This cheered me immensely, and for about a day after I laid down the boxes I felt safe again.

But the roaches didn't go. If anything, their numbers appeared to increase. Perhaps these were smart cockroaches who had figured out that the boxes were bad ju-ju. They seemed,

in any case, to have intuited my fear, and

with each day that passed they became more arrogant - trooping across my kitchen floor in broad daylight, holding colloquia at

the base of my stove, dancing tarantellas on

my answering machine. It was clearly only

a matter of time before I came home to find

a whole bunch of them sitting cross-legged around the television, drinking my beer. ('Hey, c'mon in Zoe - we were just watching the Knicks game . . .')

Then, this morning, just when I was losing hope, the bug man came. Calloo] Callay] 'Don't worry girlfriend,' he said, as he strode manfully through the apartment with his little canister of poison. 'These roaches are already packing their bags.' Tonight, New York seems a kinder, sweeter place. Outside in the street, three men are singing a capella. The temperature has dropped a little. The weather report promises rain. And for the first time in two weeks, I am moving boldly about my kitchen in bare feet.-

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