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It wasn’t easy to find an apartment in San Francisco. Of course, it wouldn’t be too hard if you’re newly rich, as were many of the “dot comers.” But when you’re a grad student like me, the prospects are pretty grim.

But a windfall, a $10,000 scholarship, gave me the economic boost I needed to move out of my shared apartment, and find a place of my own. The Tenderloin district is the area to look if you are on a limited income and want to live in the city, so I ended up moving three blocks away from my old apartment. My friends said it was a good deal—$800 for a studio apartment in a high-rise at the heart of the Tenderloin. No, I explained to them, $800 for a room is not a “good deal.” I thought back to my previous college days: $160 a month for my room in a co-op in Northampton. Now that was a good deal. Or $450 a month for the apartment I had just left—the last of the truly amazing housing bargains in San Francisco. My name is still on that lease, and if my ex-apartment mate ever decides to leave the city, I suppose I will just have to move back in—a deal like that only comes along once in a lifetime.

But for now, I scrape up my $800 a month for the privilege of living in the city I love. Five floors above the homeless people, on the corner peddling recycled clothing, books, and whatever else they can find discarded by those more fortunate than themselves; the prostitutes shivering on the street corner, compelled by their trade to dress most inappropriately for the San Francisco cold; the crack dealers and crack smokers; the people for whom the street is their living room, bedroom, and, distressingly, their bathroom. I warn my friends to hold their breath while approaching my building, since the structure’s corner has, by some method not understood by me, been designated the public urinal. It is also important to remind them to step over, and not into, any stray rivulets of suspicious fluid while traversing the sidewalk. But in the end, I don’t mind. After all, this is my neighborhood, and, for better or worse, my home.

When I first moved in, I was delighted to have a place to myself. I could keep the apartment how I wanted it, without someone else’s stuff cluttering up the space. I’m a minimalist by nature, and seeing the emptiness of my new apartment was infinitely soothing. Every night, I would come home from school, feeling light and free—no one waiting for me, expecting things from me. I could eat when and if I wanted to, go to bed at 9 p.m. or 2 a.m. with no one to consider but myself. Groceries didn’t disappear at an alarming rate, and I always knew just what to expect when I walked through my door.

I have to admit though, at first things seemed a little lonely. As much as I cherished my newfound freedom, being the sole occupant of my apartment was quite a departure from what I had grown accustomed to after all those years of sharing. But in truth, I didn’t live alone. In my building, a man comes by, once a month, to spray for cockroaches. I have never let him in. I have a strong aversion to killing. In my old apartment, when the occasional cockroach would appear, I would catch it in a cup and throw it out the back window, hoping that the poor little thing wouldn’t bother to come all the way back up to the third floor from the building’s tiny backyard. Perhaps it would find our neighbors’ kitchens below us more to its liking. When I first moved into my new apartment, I continued the practice. Although, I soon took to placing the errant roach on the balcony and shutting the sliding glass door tightly. My balcony overlooks the street, and the vision of an airborne cockroach hitting someone in the head was just too much for me.

This practice lasted for several months before something happened—something changed inside of me. Maybe it was the loneliness, maybe it was my generosity of spirit, maybe a combination of the two, but I stopped capturing the roaches. I decided to live in peace with them. I began to see them as my apartment-mates. We were living a symbiotic urban existence. It seemed like a good exchange—they got the occasional crumbs and whatever else cockroaches find to eat in a well-used kitchen, and I had companionship.

A time came when I almost looked forward to seeing them on the counter when I came home at night. My little friends, as I thought of them. There were never too many, maybe two or three a night. I would come in and turn on the light, and find them busily scouring my counter and sink for tidbits left behind in my morning haste. I would tap the counter lightly, all the while talking to them: “Go on now, it’s my turn to use the kitchen.  Go on and hide.” I would wait for them to scamper away, and then would go about making dinner.

One night I had an incredibly vivid dream. I dreamed that I had found a special cockroach and it was my pet. No, it was more than a pet. I felt a connection with this cockroach that most people feel with their dogs. It was my companion and I loved it deeply. I could effortlessly distinguish my cockroach from all others, and my heart would leap at the mere thought of my sweet little roach friend. But then, my dream turned ugly.

One night, I came home and something horrible had happened—my cockroach was missing! Had I forgotten to put the “don’t spray” sign on my door? Had the exterminator come in, while I was away? I wasn’t sure. I felt such a strong empathic connection with the roach that I could sense it was in distress. I began opening the drawers and cabinets, desperately searching for my beloved cockroach. I was crawling on my hands and knees, looking behind every piece of furniture, my heart pounding in my chest, my eyes blurry with tears.

Somehow, a passage that I never knew existed appeared between the walls of my apartment building (one of those things that happen so easily in dreams) and I found myself crawling through these spaces, searching and searching. I saw plenty of cockroaches, and even an occasional mouse, but none was my roach. Tears streamed down my face as I crawled, wondering how I could possibly manage to go on living without my beautiful companion.

Finally I found it, huddled between two pieces of discarded scrap wood, looking pale and shaken in a way only a cockroach can. My relief was tainted by the fear that something was dreadfully wrong, that maybe my little friend was sick, or worse, had been poisoned. There was just enough room in the crawl space for me to sit cross legged, and I began to sit vigil near my roach, waiting and pleading with the universe for its life.

When I woke up, I found my feelings for all cockroaches had expanded—for in my dream, I had loved one of them unconditionally.

But as time passed, the dream began to fade. After about a year of living here, I began to get tired of the roaches. There seemed to be a new breed of very small ones emerging, or maybe they were just young. Either way, these began to multiply. Before, I would never see more than three or four roaches. Now, it was a couple of regular-sized roaches, and twelve or so of the small ones. I didn’t have the same affinity for the smaller roaches, and I realized, I could no longer live in harmony with my pests.

I began the practice of rinsing those unlucky enough to be hanging out in my sink when I came home down the drain. I reasoned that if a roach could survive a nuclear holocaust, I certainly couldn’t do it much harm sending it down the drain. I imagined what it must be like for a cockroach—first the rushing water loosening its grip on the side of the sink, then the roller coaster ride all the way from my apartment to the sewer system, scrambling to find purchase on the wall of some filthy half-filled pipe and clinging there until getting its bearings, like a shipwrecked sailor finally washed ashore on a beautiful tropical island. Sewers must be a cockroach’s paradise—lots of water, food delivered daily, filth and stench galore. It seemed like the most humane thing to do, both for me and the roaches. Send them to roach heaven.

Eventually, things started getting out of hand, and I began to lose my perspective. It was the little roaches which finally began to wear me down. I found myself obsessing about coming home and finding my kitchen roach free. Every night, I would open the front door, filled with anticipation—maybe this would be the night I wouldn’t see a single roach. But it never happened. No matter how well I cleaned the kitchen before I left—food stored in the refrigerator or in tight containers, counters wiped down with bleach, all the dishes cleaned and put awaystill, they were there.

It was like a party for them. Every night my kitchen turned into some sort of cockroach discotheque. They especially seemed to love crawling around inside my silverware drawer and my dishwasher after I’d run it, dancing around on the clean dishes, and spent a good amount of time on my dish sponge. When I found one of the big ones dead, submerged in my jar of honey, something inside me snapped. I began to loathe them. I wanted them out. I would fantasize about allowing the exterminator in. But it was just fantasy. I wasn’t really to the point where I wanted them to die. The thought of hurting them made my stomach turn even more than their nocturnal gatherings and crawling on my clean dishes.

So I decided to take action. I found a product which claimed to repel roaches naturally based on orange oil, which, according to the label, can be safely used near food, kids, and pets. (I’m sure the advertising department never considered that there might just be someone out there that would think of a cockroach as a pet.) It seemed like the perfect solution. I could simply spray this stuff on my counters and the roaches would find my kitchen too distasteful, and would take up residence elsewhere.

Perhaps I expected too much. After spraying the counter, walls, and sink, eyes watering and lungs burning, the roaches still came. I was devastated. I had put all my hopes into this repellant—finally I could relax, the tight knot in my stomach would disappear, and I could go on with my life. Of course, I couldn’t really use my counters anymore—they were sticky with orange goo—but it seemed like such a small sacrifice for complete peace of mind. But it hadn’t worked. They still came, mocking my efforts with their blithe exploration of the very spray bottle that promised me salvation.

I began to dread coming home. I didn’t want to see them anymore, didn’t want to face them. I stayed at school later and later, avoiding the inevitable. I thought about asking my classmates if I could sleep on their couches, so I would never have to go back. The roaches could have my apartment; they had won. I only felt safe in my office at school—a dismal room in the basement of the physics building, right across from the men’s restroom, but gloriously roach free.

Then one night last week, when I went to put on my motorcycle jacket in preparation for the cold ride home, a cockroach fell to the floor and immediately scampered under my desk. A shiver ran down my spine. Not only had my office become infected, but I had actually transported that roach unknowingly somewhere in my jacket during the five-mile ride to school. My skin crawled at the thought. Now there was no sanctuary—things were out of control.

Today, I made a decision—going against everything I believe in, and everything I stand for—the roaches must die. I bought two roach motels: small cardboard boxes with openings on two sides and a sticky glue floor that emits a peculiar odor, which, the manufacturer promises, is irresistible to roaches. I have crossed the line. If the roaches want to party, they can do so in the motel.

But I don’t expect to rest easily with my decision. Already, my head is filled with silent roach screams as they endeavor to wrench their tiny legs free of the glue, lured by this intoxicating scent to their inevitable demise. Or perhaps tomorrow, when, with a morbid curiosity, I look inside one of the motels, all I will see is tiny legs sticking out of the glue, having been chewed off by a trapped roach desperate for life at all costs.

I’ll be helping them along to roach heaven, but no, I won’t rest easy.


Susan English is a born adventurer, a world traveler with an insatiable intellectual curiosity. She holds a master’s degree in physics, once lived on a sailboat in the San Francisco bay, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia, and spent five years on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she owned an off-grid, completely self-sufficient farm in the jungle. Now she is happy to be living with her partner in beautiful Medellin, Colombia, the city of eternal spring.

You can find more of Susan’s works, including a travel memoir and a feminist science fiction novel, on her Amazon author page:

Visit her website at


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