It was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life. Ever!
One time I actually sat down and ranked my bottom 10. They included a hellacious bout with Montezuma’s revenge, a bullet ant sting to my left big toe and falling off the world’s highest active volcano. Those somehow all pale in comparison. No, this one was definitely the worst.
I lived in a studio apartment on Magazine Street. It had one large room, a kitchenette and a bathroom the size of an armoire. There was a spiral staircase that led to a loft just wide enough to squeeze in a single mattress on an old iron frame from the Ursuline Convent. There was a window next to the bed that faced the adjacent building and a much-needed but extremely annoying security light.
I had just returned from a two and a half year stint in the Peace Corps and was suffering from an acute case of reentry shock. I had stubbornly convinced myself that I would someday soon return to my Luddite life in Ecuador, so I refused to succumb to the lure of modern amenities. I didn’t want to get soft. As a result, I didn’t use AC or heat and I didn’t have a phone or TV. (And, as a result, I wasn’t in a relationship.*) My NOLA apartment was basically a glorified tent.
It was a typical balmy August night in the Crescent City. The temperature outside was an almost tolerable 85 degrees. In my Dutch oven tent, though, it was a good 10 degrees higher. And, in my upstairs rotisserie, it had to be pushing a hundred. I lay in bed wearing nothing but sweat. I was trying to read a book, Dante’s Inferno, I believe, but it kept slipping from my perspiration-soaked hands. There was small electric fan pointed at my head. Its narrow shaft of wind created a tiny desert on my face, a desert surrounded by the vast oasis of my greenhouse apartment. I had begun to yawn, so I dropped the book, pretended to turn out the light from the window, and closed my eyes.
At that exact moment, a palmetto bug** the size of a small Andean condor, flittering on the summer night thermals radiating off the hot asphalt below and gunning for the security light in the alley, flew in through my open bedroom window. It immediately got caught in the fan’s crossfire wind and was hurled toward the black hole of my final yawn.
I distinctly remember the sound. It was as if a large plastic ball had been sucked down a storm drain in a flash flood. It made a sudden and violent “Thwoop!”
I tried to scream, but my vocal chords were clogged. Like a cat desperately trying to cough up an enormous hairball, I gasped and choked. But the more I did, the deeper it went. The creature had little grappling hooks on its spindly legs. Obviously designed for scampering up walls and across ceilings, they were now clawing at the tender lining of my mouth and throat.
As I pushed out, the insect dug in.
Gasping for breath, and without a witness to perform the Heimlich maneuver, I came to the painful realization that extraction was not an option. There was only one direction to go.*** I clinched my eyes shut, grabbed the headboard of the nuns’ bed and swallowed – and swallowed …
In retrospect, I actually feel for the roach. He was probably just enjoying a lovely summer night in the city, sailing about minding his own business. I’m sure he had big plans: dining on picnic leftovers at The Fly, hanging with the Formosan krewe beneath some cool street lamp, or perhaps catching a set by the cucarachas on Frenchmen Street? Instead, he got sucked into a New Orleans horror story written by Franz Kafka and directed by David Cronenberg. It was a frightening (and fatal) experience for him as well.
Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and cockroach survivor.
* When I met my future wife, she of course had (and used) air-conditioning. It was only a matter of summer nights before I became addicted to her and her sacred air!
** Periplaneta americana, the American cockroach, is not a palmetto bug, but it sure sounds better to have eaten the latter.
*** It’s important to point out that this happened long before Zack Lemann from the Audubon Insectarium cooked bugs for Jay Leno on the Tonight show and made eating insects somewhat fashionable.