Inside a local eatery on a recent night, I noticed a fat brown dot walking along the counter top. As it ducked in and around the napkin holder, hid in a crack near the menu rack then made a dash for a glass of ice water, it became clear that this was no ordinary critter. This was a cockroach, the most enduring of all mankind's associates.
Although my appetite was gone, the waitress wasn't even embarrassed. But she did become frustrated when she tried to kill it. With a roll of newspaper in hand, she took a mighty swat, then tossed the paper into a trash can. A few seconds later, here comes the roach, walking out of the newspaper roll, a little stunned but apparently as thirsty as ever as it made its way back to the bar.
Talk about cocky roaches.
More than 300 million years before Washington had restaurants, there was the beginning of something called the Carboniferious Period -- aka, "The Age of the Cockroach." On Wednesday, a group of scientists will gather for a "roach symposium" at the Mayflower Hotel here to proclaim that the jig is up for the most prolific of six-legged critters.
The American Cyanamid Co. has developed what it bills as a revolutionary new product called COMBAT, which looks like a renovated roach motel. Says Maria Miller, the company's product manager, "We have devised a proven bait tray delivery system with an insecticide-laced bait that roaches can't resist."
But my experiences say those little cucarachas are here to stay.
As a child, I used to put them in jars with bumblebees. I can now report that bees don't mess with cockroaches. I'd turn my bicycle upside down, tape the roach to the rear wheel and spin them around. The result: roaches like merry-go-rounds.
A simpler solution would have been to step on them, but I can't think of a grosser noise -- or a messier mess -- than that of a crunched roach.
I tried aerosol sprays -- and that only made then grow bigger and run faster; chlordane dust and DDT made them sprout wings. You could flush them down the toilet and come back the next day only to find them doing the American crawl.
Now there are no fewer than 2,000 species of cockroaches that can outrun halfbacks and fly from a kitchen to dining room in a single bound. In this city, we are under seige by the seasonal onslaught of the German cockroach (Blatella germaica), a pair of which can produce 100,000 offspring in a year.
The problem here became epidemic during the 1800s, according to researchers at the Smithsonian Institution, when a horde of recently imported German roaches ran from a restaurant hide-out and invaded the U.S. Capitol, and this city has literally been bugged ever since.
It doesn't matter if you keep a clean house. Roaches like clean homes -- the better to embarrass you in front of your guests. In fact, according to researchers, their digestive system is so efficient that a dozen roaches can survive for a week on the nutrients contained in the glue of a postage stamp. They also like fruit, dog food and beer, and are known to go for swims in opened bottles of Coca-Cola. They are also partial to marijuana.
Despite similarities in the taste buds of roaches and humans, the roach is still the nastiest, most disgusting creature around. In some parts of Texas, the Spanish cucaracha has been known to attack when startled, fly right into your food or hair.
It's amazing, really, given all the things we know how to kill, that we can't get rid of roaches. So while I still have my doubts about this new product called COMBAT, I'm for anything that deals with our real enemies -- and I hope, one day, brings the Carboniferous Age to an end.