“The Cockroach Papers” by Richard Schweid

They're revolting, they're fascinating, they're brilliantly engineered and every one of those vile little bugs is different.

Topics: Books,

"The Cockroach Papers" by Richard Schweid

Before I read “The Cockroach Papers,” I had an irrational and unfounded disgust for roaches. But Richard Schweid’s book set me straight. Knowing what I now know about the digestive, reproductive, circulatory and neurological systems of these remarkably designed insects, I can say with certainty that my disgust is as rational and well-founded as it gets.

I used to think that roaches were indiscriminate eaters who would devour anything in their paths. Now I know the whole story — which is that although they prefer cinnamon buns above all other foods, they will make do with paper, bookbinding glue, wallpaper paste, leather, wool and milk that has dried around babies’ mouths. For this last delicacy they usually wait until the child is sleeping — a tactic they also use when they are hungry for human toenails, fingernails, eyelashes and skin. Of course, a dead person is even easier to feast on than a sleeping one, which is why the New York City Police Department employs a full-time entomologist to determine whether wounds seen in autopsies were caused by violence or by ravenous roaches.

I also had a vague notion that roaches carry disease. I am now quite clear on that account. Roaches have been found to carry polio, hepatitis, salmonella, streptococcus, shigella, hookworms, tapeworms, dysentery-causing amoebi, leprosy and bubonic plague. Even a squeaky-clean cockroach can make you sick (or kill you) if you happen to be allergic: Roaches are the prime culprits in the inner-city asthma epidemic that takes the lives of hundreds of children each year.

As an avatar of urban dread, the only rival to the cockroach is the Norwegian rat, and polls show that more people fear roaches. I do, too, even though I’ve faced both rats and roaches in my kitchen and a rat is by far the more formidable enemy. But rats generally travel alone. Roaches come in swarms. Killing the roach you see on the countertop does nothing to the legions of others who are hiding in the cabinets or streaming in from under the sink or waiting behind the walls. Rats are brilliant strategists, but roaches are an invisible army, and what you can’t see is always more terrifying that what you can.



Schweid explores both the reasonable and the unreasonable fears that roaches inspire. He seems to have met every scientist who studies the order Blattaria, which takes in the 10,000 or so known species of cockroach. At Vanderbilt University, he meets a researcher named Terry Page, who is trying to locate the insect’s biological clock, the part of its body that controls circadian rhythms. Looking at a roach under a microscope, Page remarks, “After you’ve done this as many times as I have you realize that each cockroach has its own individual face. Each one is slightly different.”

“So saying,” Schweid writes, “he used a single-edge razor blade and tweezers to make a slice down the middle of the roach’s forehead and peel the flaps of skin back from it,” exposing “a pearl-gray blob of brain.”

Scientists who make a living doing this sort of thing are invariably filled with respect for how cleverly cockroaches are engineered. The common domestic roach, for example, can survive without water for two weeks. It doesn’t waste a drop. “Rectal pads, located almost at the end of the animal’s excretory system, squeeze water from the mass to be excreted just before elimination,” Schweid writes. “This liquid gets recycled to places like the fat body, and the insect’s only excretion will consist of dry solids.” Whether you like “The Cockroach Papers” will depend a great deal on your tolerance for reading about things like fat bodies and rectal pads. I couldn’t put it down myself.

Not that Schweid hasn’t made some peculiar choices. He quotes extensively from works of fiction in which roaches are mentioned but doesn’t always get around to weaving them into his narrative. Even more incongruous are his long first-person accounts of his travels in the third world. He spends six pages on glue-sniffing kids who prowl the streets of Managua; there’s not a roach in sight until the last sentence, when the kids’ leader confesses that he once accidentally bit into a roach that had crawled into something he was eating.

I never thought I’d complain that a book contained material that didn’t have anything to do with cockroaches, but Schweid writes about these insects so respectfully that his digressions are surprisingly unwelcome. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. Most of the time he gives the cockroach a long cold look and keeps looking when most of us would turn away, until a subject that seemed disgusting becomes fascinating. Now I have nothing but admiration for cockroaches. Which is why I’ve taken to sleeping in gloves and boots.

Pete Wells writes for Food & Wine, New York, Time Out New York and other magazines. He lives in Brooklyn.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>