THE COCKROACH IS one of the most common creatures capable of inspiring fear and repulsion in a full-grown adult. Dirty, crafty and virtually indestructible as a species, there's something almost universally horrifying about catching one slinking across the kitchen floor. The American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) is the largest, most common roach in Arizona, growing up to two inches long. Most people in Tucson know them as sewer roaches--big, chocolate-colored monsters that lurk around plumbing or in piles of rotting wood. The males have wings and occasionally fly. They swim.
There's nothing more terrifying, as far as I'm concerned, than an encounter with a roach. A fat one frozen on the cutting board will start me hyperventilating. So I was relieved to learn that the 2,600 or so miles of sewer in Pima County are patrolled by the decidedly non-squeamish workers of Pima County Wastewater Vector Control, the government's official roach-exterminating militia. For the last two-and-a-half years, the brave workers of Pima County Wastewater have been spraying manholes and cleanouts yearly, on a rotating basis, during the warm months when roaches are most active. (Spraying began in 1988 with a different pesticide and a more haphazard approach.) "Vector," explains Laura Hagen Fairbanks, community relations specialist for Pima County Wastewater, "is just a fancy word for nasty little creatures."
Systematic spraying seems to have cut down on the fun of these nasty little creatures: In recent years, officials claim, complaints have dropped considerably, though no exact figures are available. There are plenty of roaches left, though if Vector Control had its way, they'd all go belly up. The department operates out of a small, industrial office festooned with plastic roaches, the unofficial mascot of the sewers. There are two answering machines for handling sewage complaints and fielding roach sightings of all kinds, though the American cockroach is the only species that inhabits Tucson's sewers and the only roach Vector Control kills. The county provides this service voluntarily; in fact, spraying manholes is one of the few tasks Pima County Wastewater performs that isn't mandated by law. "It's for our customers," comments Bob Decker, field operations supervisor, "and also, we do it for health and safety aspects. It's distracting for workers if they have to go down into a roach-infested manhole."
So how much is a dead roach worth? Vector Control is slated to cost the county more than $350,000 this year, which, according to John Schladweiler, deputy director of engineering, averages out to about the price of a can of Raid per house in the area. "Whenever we've polled our customers," Schladweiler says, "it's almost unanimous that they don't want to reduce the service."
You have my vote: Gas the little darlings. Roaches scare me. As a result, I believe anyone who kills them is heroic. It was, then, with mixed feelings that I set out on a cloudy morning to cruise manholes with several members of Vector Control. Nervous about creeping things, I put up my hair and wore heavy clothing. The roach-killers, on the other hand, looked relaxed. They work in pairs, wearing county-issued wrap around glasses, safety orange vests and respirators. These are guys. Of the around 40 sewer-maintenance workers, only one is female; according to Decker not many women apply for the job.
Using a small, hand-pumped can, the guys dangle a long wand into each eponymous manhole and squirt it with a product that sounds like a another bad Schwarzenegger movie: Killmaster II. According to the wastewater department, this stuff is a safe and potent pesticide that stays effective for a full year. Once manholes have been sprayed, they're marked with green paint; look for the date and the letter K.
The day I went roach hunting, I cringed beside a manhole while a member of the crew pried the top off with a pick-ax to reveal...a couple of dead roaches. Killmaster II is so effective, apparently, that we had trouble locating any live bugs at all. The section of sewer we examined had been sprayed several months before, but I was told that forgotten manholes--out of the way, buried ones that are just being rediscovered with more efficient computerized maps and records--were generally "ripe," which means, I guess, seething. "Sometimes there's a whole mess of them. They run all over," George Trevino, a sprayer, reports. "It's really horrible when they run up your leg."
Often, according to Decker, roach complaints increase immediately after an area is treated. "They run out of the sewer to try to get away from the poison," Decker says. If you find roaches in your house though, don't automatically assume they've crawled in through the pipes. Once they decide to leave the sewer, American cockroaches may take up residence indefinitely out-of-doors in rotting organic material. Beware of compost heaps and palm trees with dead fronds.
It's common for roaches to squeeze under doorways or to drop down through windows to escape heat or forage for food; sometimes, according to pest control professional Chris Aparisi of Truly Nolen, it only seems like they've come from the sewers. "People immediately think they've come up the sink, but usually it's from a window or a crack in the foundation. They just fall into the sink and can't get out."
Chances are there will always be a few roaches stranded in somebody's sink. Even the best efforts of Vector Control can only reduce the roach population, and then only in the sewers. (If you want to see roaches in the wild, try the fountain in front of the TCC Music Hall on a warm night.)
The American cockroach is above all a survivor. Wonderfully designed scavengers, they need only warmth, water and some kind of decaying matter to survive. Pests though they may seem, like all creatures they have an ecological purpose. They eat all sorts of revolting stuff (including human waste) and help break it down. According to Aparisi, "we'd be up to our necks in decaying organic material if cockroaches didn't eat it."
So roaches deserve respect, maybe even a little compassion. Rumor has it there's even a member of Vector Control who objects to killing roaches, on the grounds that all living things should be allowed to flourish.
On the other hand, cockroaches are notorious harbingers of filth and disease. The American cockroach leaves hard, cylindrical droppings in its wake that resemble fragments of pencil lead. Nothing is worse than a silverware drawer sprinkled with these, believe me. A full-blown infestation is also said to be accompanied by an odor, described in the literature only by the vague and terrifying adjective "roachy."
Though cockroaches themselves don't carry any specific disease, their association with filth and decay makes them suspect as carriers and just sort of generally disgusting. Even workers with Vector Control are gripped by this feeling. "When I first started working the manholes," Brian Crowninshield says, "it gave me an eerie feeling. I'd turn over a lid and there'd be a bunch of them crawling around down there; it was eerie."
I'm not sure how to account for this pervasive sense of revulsion. Roaches aren't dangerous, and though they frequent the same kind of seedy dives houseflies do, they seem infinitely more vile. I even found a book that claimed the presence of cockroaches may cause psychological harm to some people. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre sheds some murky light on the subject when he writes of a category he calls "the slimy."
The slimy, says Sartre, is a horrible state of existence where things have no fixed edges but flow into one another: "The slimy is a soft clinging, there is a sly...complicity of all its leach-like parts followed by a flattening out that is emptied of the individual, sucked in on all sides by the substance."
It seems to me that Sartre could easily be talking about cockroaches, and he intimates that the trouble with discovering one roach is that it signals the presence of more roaches--a sticky, clinging, roachy-smelling whole. That, coupled with their Olympian ability to sprint and cling to most surfaces, including skin, can disrupt one's sense of boundaries and wholeness. In other words, they're fast and feculent and inspire the fear that they will slither all over you.
The Vector Control workers concur: The worst thing, it seems, is to have a roach next to your skin. "When you go in manholes infested with roaches," Brian Crowninshield reports, "you tie rubber bands around the bottom of your pants leg to keep them out."
Though none crawled up my leg, I finally did get to see some roaches. Back at Wastewater's field operations office, I watched a videotape of the sewer. Pima County Wastewater uses special video gear to document the condition of much of the sewer system. A flexible cable equipped with a camera and light is snaked underground to check even the narrowest pipes. It was there, in a videotape of an eight-inch pipe, that I saw shoals of roaches, apparently startled by the camera, scattering in unison like schools of fish. A few single ones crouched near stalactites of grease, eating. "When you pour grease down the drains," warns Laura Hagen Fairbanks, "you're feeding the roaches."
I have to confess, after a morning of roach-hunting, I was pleased to see them. As long as they were safely on TV, I thought they were kind of cute.
And it could be worse. Decker says they recently received a complaint from someone who said they had a six-foot alligator in their drain. "We checked it out," Decker says, "but we didn't find anything."
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