The Territorial Imperative

I rented half a duplex in Tampa, Florida after graduating. The cockroach infestation was included at no extra charge. At least they weren’t the euphemistically named ‘Palmetto bugs’ which are roaches with a bad case of gigantism.

Someone suggested I buy pet lizards, reputed to eat cockroaches. I could then have pets and the upkeep would be low. But I worried that should my pet lizards become too successful at decimating the roach population, I would then have to import more roaches, lest they starve.

Or if the lizards themselves became too intrusive, would I have to import a suite of armadillos or whatever their natural predator is to control the exploding lizard population. It promised to become much too complicated, so my roaches got a reprieve. Clever buggers.

Previous to that, I shared a house with several others, known to the neighborhood, simply as ‘2001’. There was no number on the house. My housemates had erected a tall black monolith around the mailbox and the United States Postal Service intuited the rest.

This house was reclaimed from the swamp. When moving in, an early project was removing the stand of bamboo growing up through the floorboards in the living room.

Another day, one of my housemates gingerly removed a pygmy rattlesnake from one of the closets. I would hate to be polishing my snakeskin boots only to get polished off myself.

But we didn’t have roaches.

I don’t know if there was a connection but we also didn’t have heat. Warmth is generally taken for granted in Florida, until it snows. It was more comfortable studying in my closed car than to huddle beneath a blanket in that dank house.

Many a chilly evening was spent happily passing a bottle of Jim Beam around the campfire built (a safe distance from the house) from scrap wood lately detached from the decrepit shed (known as ‘2001 Junior’), also on the property.

As marginal as it may sound, this was a huge step up from my one month sojourn sharing a mobile home. What a pit that was. Situated in a cow pasture, I was awakened every morning by a flock of turkey vultures energetically tap dancing on the tin roof above my room. It was a long month.

So, one night at the 2001 house, I entered my room planning to read until I got sleepy. I turned on the light and saw a female mouse spider attempting to scare me away with an aggressive territorial stance. This was no recluse. It was huge and aggressive.

Spiders give most people pause. But the Florida brown mouse spider can be truly daunting, though they are not thought to be dangerous. Greyish brown and hairy, it would barely fit in the bottom of the average coffee cup. With its legs stretched out, you would have trouble hiding it under a coffee filter. Think of a tarantula but not as cute or exotic.

So, it was on my bed doing its version of pounding its chest while laying claim to my bed. I was not in the mood, so I waved my arms and it retreated, out of reach, down the far side of the bed.

Silly me, I went about my business and forgot about it. I got into bed and started reading my book. I read until I came to the word ‘spider’.


Hmm. What happened to the spider?

As if on cue, it plopped down onto my book from the ceiling.  I convulsively threw the book and leaped from the bed with a shout. The spider’s timing could not have been better, making its point very effectively. Who knew spiders could read? (So that is where those indecipherable marginal notes came from.)

This was a true nemesis. I could almost hear the shout “Touche!” as she scurried Ninja like, under the bed to safety.

I made a concerted effort to locate and be done with her at last. A master of guerilla warfare, she had melted into the gloom without a trace.  How does one flush a determined spider from an undetermined location?

Was it really down to her or me? I knew she wanted me to dismantle my whole room in my search. But I also knew she was probably long gone. The house was about as weather tight as a cardboard box. Spider tracking was obviously not in my Mark Trail, survival kit.

Exhausted, I shut the light and went to sleep. I spent the night with no further disruptions.

However, the next morning, in the bathroom, I discovered something horrible. On opening the medicine chest I found the remains of two such spiders obviously having fought to the death over territory. It was a tableaux fitting the dark end of some Shakespearean tragedy.

One spider lay crumpled up on the top shelf. The other, badly wounded, had valiantly dragged herself to the bottom shelf. Too weak to exit, she had expired in the corner with several legs trailing behind her. It was a shocking sight.

Imagine blearily reaching in there one morning only to discover one of these things riding on your toothbrush! Yecchh!

I cringed at the memory of what I yelled that night, during my desperate search.  “Pick on someone your own size!” What had I wrought?

With the reverence appropriate to the sad occasion, I disposed of both carcasses, and my toothbrush. I was only happy they didn’t have opposable thumbs.

The Company You Keep

We all become aware of those unwritten rules, invisible lines that will never be crossed. Those cultural cues are indecipherable, but as real and impenetrable as a wall. They may feel like an unfair exclusion, but may also exist to protect.

Anyone who lived away from home while in college, especially off campus, surely had their encounters with vermin. No, I don’t mean housemates, but those denizens of the natural world which cling tenaciously to the fringes of human culture. Namely cockroaches.

To say this house was infested is like saying forests have trees. I was the host but the party never stopped, and I wasn’t invited. I may have paid the rent, but the house was theirs.

It is a truism that one gains deep knowledge of a topic only by submersing oneself. I go on record here that cockroaches are highly intelligent and may very well inherit the earth, meek or not. I read that they would survive a nuclear holocaust. Except that they lack motivation, I am surprised they didn’t beat us to inventing ‘the bomb’.  Thankfully, their methods of gaining territory are less ham-fisted than that, though no less effective.

You may scoff at the thought that roaches are intelligent. I agree, it would be a rare roach that did well on an SAT test. However, their ability to read minds is unparalleled in the human sphere. They tracked my every intention.

Attempts at dispatching them with a rolled up newspaper were consistently stymied. I would stealthily approach one, apparently oblivious, or indifferent to my presence. At the barest thought of attacking, it would scurry off, in a direction not foreseen. I would anticipate each zig, but his ability to read subtle shifts in air pressure allowed him to zag and repeatedly evade multiple swats. Did I only imagine laughter echoing as it escaped behind the fridge?

Whack-a-Roach would have failed as an arcade game. No one would ever win.

Several times I cornered one, only to see it leap off the counter and glide as an air foil to escape. Pure genius!

Their instinct for survival was astounding. I began to suspect that I was not at the top of the food chain after all. But that these creatures had secretly inverted it and they were merely toying with their prey. It was unnerving to consider that these disgusting insects might actually be the crown of creation. Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” reads very differently in light of this.

Maybe it was the frigid winter, or the isolation. I resigned myself to peaceful co-existence but that was not enough. All a game, they found pleasure in frustrating my efforts toward a truce.

This became manifestly obvious when I entered the kitchen late one night and had the audacity to turn on the light. They lacked the decency to scatter at my approach.

They didn’t even interrupt their poker game. I would have thought their resentful murmuring was just gambler’s trash talk, moving the bet forward. But the dark, inscrutable glances directed toward me told a very different story.

I was not welcome there. I was the intruder. They would outlast me. I was the transient, the other. I knew they would never admit me into their little club, no matter how much I might crave acceptance.

Soon after, I moved out.

I never was invited to join in one of their poker games. In retrospect, I feel I am fortunate that they didn’t consider me a worthy opponent. The stakes were too high. Too easy to read, they knew all of my tells. I didn’t even qualify as a lowly mark. I would have been fleeced.

They did me a favor. You’re known by the company you keep.

Mandatory Moon Bathing in Minnesota

No one in my family has ever been a nudist. Coming to dinner in shorts and a sweatshirt was considered “inappropriate dress for dinner.” Ties were not required for dining but wearing one would not have resulted in being sent back to my room to change.

In my parent’s home, if you didn’t have clothes on, you must be alone and showering. What other possible reason would justify nakedness? It wasn’t that I was excessively shy, or modest. It just seemed that those parts were called ‘private’ for a reason.

Nude swimming or skinny dipping is one approach to a complete sense of freedom. To float, unencumbered by gravity or clothing is a great natural high. My brother called it “moon bathing” presumably because he did it at night.

I once went skinny dipping in one of Florida’s bottomless limestone sink holes. It was a liberating experience until a school of minnows started nibbling on me, en masse. That was eerie. I have an idea how celebrities feel surrounded by paparazzi. I always preferred swimming pools after growing up in the Land of Ten Thousand Leech Infested Lakes.

One curious thing about Minnesota (among many…), maybe it is the heavily Scandinavian population, but swimming in the nude was not only expected behavior, it was mandated in various public settings. It may derive from their penchant for rolling around in the snow after taking a sauna (one cultural tradition I could never grasp). (Lutefisk was another.)

It is the mandate that I thought strange. Why contort that feeling of absolute freedom by confining it within a requirement? I don’t need my freedom to be regulated, thank you.

The Athletic Club in downtown Minneapolis was the first place I encountered this mandate. The swim times at the Olympic sized pool were segregated by sex. Males were required to swim without suits. That is, swimming suits for males were not optional, but forbidden.

Females were required to swim with suits. No convincing explanation for this distinction was ever offered.

But to a ten year old boy, the idea of being required to swim nude, with a large group of strangers seemed odd to me. I did not join this club.

Outside of Minnesota, anyone I told about mandatory nude swimming, reacted in disbelief. Friends now describe anyone radically under dressed as ‘dressing Minnesota style.’

When I attended Junior High School in suburban Minneapolis the administration announced that a swimming pool would be built to enhance our physical education classes. Near the end of my 9th grade year my gym class got a tour of the new pool facilities.

It would be a fine pool, Olympic sized, lanes for racing, acres of tile, everything a pool should be. Then our coach led us down stairs, past the locker rooms, and proudly showed us the sub-surface observation ports; three large round, watertight, windows for the ‘observation’ of swimmers. These ports took up a whole wall, the width of the pool. You could see all the way to Albequerque.

When the coach informed us that male swimmers would not be allowed to wear swimming trunks in the pool this ‘enhancement of physical education’ took on a different tone. The lame reason for this rule was ‘to avoid the clogging of the filters with all the lint that boys’ swimming suits produce.’ Really?

It made no sense to me. After all, who wants to ‘observe’ a bunch of nude, pubescent boys swimming around? And sub-surface? I couldn’t imagine.

Our coach, a giant who worked as a prison guard during summer break was not someone to argue with.

Girls, long haired but presumably lint free, were required to wear swimming suits. Alternate days were set for girls’ and boys’ swim sessions. No peeking was allowed, at least by students.

A new schedule, for a new pool. Alternating days. So much to remember. It was an easy mistake to make.

Late for class and anxious about everything eighth graders are anxious about, one boy (not me) ran to his first day of swimming class. Too late, he realized that, though he was late for swimming class, he was a day early. He made it to class but found himself surrounded by girls! And he was naked as a blooming orchid.

I can imagine his legs pumping, Wiley Coyote style, to beat a hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, he slipped on a wet spot, hit his head on the tile and knocked himself unconscious. Six strong girls carried him, covered with a towel to the nurse’s office where he soon recovered all but his dignity.

Word travels faster than a slip on the tile. By day’s end, he was famous throughout the school.