Cockroaches, despite their image as vile, nasty creatures who literally creep up from the sewers, are forever washing themselves. They ingest the filth their bodies accrue while scavenging, and this includes pesticides. In 1983, David Grant—a scientist—journeyed into what the Poughkeepsie Journal calls the heart of cockroach civilization: San Jose’s homes and apartments. It was here that Grant gave roaches the first-ever successful test doses of Gencor.
Grant was the employee of Carl Djerassi, a famed chemist who led a team to create the first-ever birth control pill for humans. Djerassi’s team was also responsible for Gencor: the world’s first cockroach contraceptive. As juveniles, cockroaches secrete a hormone that stops them from breeding. In the hormone’s absence, they mate nonstop. In its brief lifetime, a female cockroach can sire 400,000 nymphs. Gencor is a synthetic version of the hormone that freezes young roaches’ urges to knock each other up.
Despite this celebrated moment of scientific innovation in early Silicon Valley, the insects among us still multiply. Some scurried past my Keds on the sidewalk last night.
[ . . . ]
On YouTube, I squirm my way through a series of videos on cockroach courtship. In one, amorous creatures scramble to escape the beams of a pen light. I cannot tell where the film has been shot, but it has a seedy, bootleg quality: like amateur porn but for insects. I imagine the action in a corner of a tool shed or an unfinished basement. In this dark, unknown region, one cockroach skitters, wings raised and spread, exposing a slender ribbed body. I read on a pest-control site that this stance is known as the calling position: the cockroach expands its genital chambers, releasing a pheromone. In a National Geographic video, I watch—truly up close—the mating bugs’ pulsating abdomens: rear ends attached. I learn that the female takes one massive cum shot in her lifetime that enables her to birth seven broods. The adults, I find, eat twenty percent of their young. The remaining eighty percent scuttle onward: assuming the calling position, shooting their cum loads, birthing their egg cases of broods. The egg cases, I note, look just like rotting Tic Tacs.
[ . . . ]
It seemed they swarmed everywhere in my South Ninth Street apartment: real ones and figments of them. Their antennae waved under cutlery in our silverware tray; they wedged between batteries—cigar-shaped—in the junk drawer. Flicking on lights produced skittering. I saw ghosts of them out of my eyes’ corners, waiting with clenched jaws for jump scares. My then-partner, in a panic, once chased one down our hall with a can of compressed air, only to find the bug was immune to the spray when he doused it.
In the division of labor in our coupledom, it was he who murdered our cockroaches. On nights when he manned a booth at an airport parking lot, I kept vigil with the lights on, his dress shoe beside me as weaponry. And yet, despite preparing myself mentally and physically, fear and vegetarianism won out. I never succeeded at smashing one.
The cockroaches in our quarters were juicy—winged date fruit—and my Uncle Pancho, an exterminator, assured me that, with cockroaches, it’s the bigger the better. If you see a baby one, that’s when you know there are swarms of them.
That particular apartment was marked 666, and at times it felt like a curse. When strange mites crawled up through the carpet in our bedroom, I trapped one in a Tupperware for Uncle Pancho to identify. Dry rot termites he pronounced, and our landlord just told us to vacuum them. Once, my cat arched her back and a white vermicelli-like pinworm curled out from her butthole.
[ . . . ]
Uncle Pancho is my mother’s brother: a broad, foul-mouthed Portuguese-American man with a shaved head and passions for Black Sabbath, Jessica Alba, football, and straight-to-video Steven Seagal movies. Born in the mid-1950s to a soon-to-be widow, he has lived in what’s now Silicon Valley for his entire life. He loves dirty jokes and will tell them to an audience of anyone: the kinds where the Easter bunny screws chickens, or where limbless suitors ring doorbells with their genitals. Every year, he names the Thanksgiving turkey after a different buxom starlet. On Facebook, which he never uses, he calls himself Frank-A-Dank. Even at sixty, a grandfather three times over, you can find him at Garibaldi Plaza on karaoke night, belting out Love Stinks between shots of tequila.
[ . . . ]
In 2013, I find myself living alone in a turreted North Fourth Street apartment complex. It’s called El Castillo but feels more like a dungeon. When after several days without hot water, I complain to the landlord about the state of my shower, he says please be aware that we are currently renting our studios for [$300 dollars more per month than you’re currently paying]. If you are not happy with your apartment please give us a 30 day notice before you vacate. We are also willing to consider allowing you to vacate with less than 30 days notice.
It is there that I spy my next batch of San Jose cockroaches. The first one I see is crawling on gunk in my trash bin. By the time I muster the courage to lift up the lid again and murder it, the creature has vanished. He’s long gone, Uncle Pancho assures me when I call him. They’re like transformers. They can flatten to the width of a quarter.
[ . . . ]
Your uncle says you only call him when you have cockroach drama, my mom tells me.
[ . . . ]
In San Jose poet Beverly Silva’s 1983 poem The Roaches Came from Everywhere, she described the insects invading the downtown apartment she then shared with her daughter. Too poor to fumigate or move, the pair joined forces to wipe out the bugs, despite knowing they always return. My method was attack. Silva writes. With spray can & poison / i’d hit and run. / Joy preferred to crush them / with an old butter knife. It is this detail—Joy’s old butter knife—that sinks itself in my mind. For days I blanch at the image of Joy’s guts-covered weaponry whenever I smear any spreads. The blade is narrow; the teeth are baby teeth; the rounded tip is unfit for stabbings. Having personally failed at crushing a roach with a much heavier object, I bow down to Joy and her dirty work, her willingness to keep battling although swift vermin outnumber her.
[ . . . ]
The most frequent question I receive when I tell friends of this essay is why? One loved one—disgusted—evacuates the kitchen when I read my own writing out loud to edit it. Friends change the subject when I regale them with wild details on long car rides, like the recent discovery that, in the absence of mates, cockroaches can have virgin births, like Mary the Mother of God. When I post a passage I write about cockroaches mating on Instagram, I promptly delete it, wondering if sexual aggression in nature requires a content warning, or if I could be banned for referencing cockroach cum on social media. Over happy hour at a swanky Palo Alto steakhouse, a new friend tells me she finds cockroaches triggering.
I’ll admit that I personally feel icky while writing this, but also a form of delight. People, for all their shrinking, like gross-outs.
In elementary school, girls returned from a slumber party that I wasn’t invited to, shrieking of finding a cooked cockroach on a pizza slice. Cockroaches live in their oven!
My father animates himself with the tale of an apartment he rented in his twenties. Entering in darkness he flicked on the lights, and saw bug bodies burst out towards dim corners like fireworks. Woooosh, he pronounces, as he makes an eruption-like hand gesture in mid-air, fingertips scattering.
Once, I woke in the middle of the night to a tickling in my hair and found a live cockroach in my pillowcase. When I moved out of my studio six months later, I discovered a lone cockroach belly-side-up in my bed frame’s shadows. In my head they are the same armored intruder, but in my heart I know I had multiple.
The flip side of all of these stories is shame. I still know the name of the girl whose family had roaches in their oven, but I wouldn’t dare put it in print. I am friends with her brother on Facebook.
This shame is senseless in a region where roaches crawl everywhere. I have seen “water bugs” on walls in the Edenvale suburbs: both in garages and a spacious room it’s owners call the old master blaster. I have a memory of my Catholic middle school’s washroom: a friend stamps the antennaed creatures with her Converse All Stars, like Whack-A-Mole but with feet. I have photographed an expired collegiate cockroach in the shadows of the sand-colored archways of a famed university that most contend is world leading. When I post the image on Instagram, I am afraid to geotag its location, because the famed university cuts me my paycheck, and I don’t want to find myself destitute for spotting its grand reputation.
[ . . . ]
I want to make Silicon Valley cockroaches a metaphor for resilient San Jose residents resisting displacement, but it doesn’t ring true. People, no matter how sturdy, do not come with armor like shells. They can’t reproduce themselves rapidly. They can’t flatten to the width of the quarter, fleeing to corners that murderers’ knives never reach.
[ . . . ]
I love the phrase Silicon Valley cockroaches because of its stark contrast to the antiseptic image the region exudes. It’s a little like a spaceship has landed, remarked Steve Jobs of his 2011 vision for a new Apple campus. Today the monstrosity nears completion, a circle-shaped palace of fake hills, white tile, pristine walls of glass, and surfaces that look like poured silver. It cost a sickening five billion dollars to construct. When a Wired journalist compares the layout to a piano roll playing a Philip Glass composition, I feel rage. I want cockroaches to gush through the structure, reproducing at harrowing rates, eating its veneer, and transforming it into a Babes in Toyland song. One thing I admire about cockroaches: they make still things unhinged.
I am alarmed at my horror and revulsion at the spectacle of Silicon Valley. My desire to have empathy instructs me to never wish hexes on anyone. And yet, I feel an entitlement in a battle I’m destined to lose on my own. I need nature to help me revolt. Like a sea of numb waves can erode a cliff, a sea of numb insects could wear down Silicon Valley.