From the Notebook: La Cucaracha

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Mihm showed off his apartment in West Harlem, a place where kids played basketball in the middle of the street and a guy sold pairs of jeans spread out on the sidewalk and almost every conversation was carried out in Spanish.

“If feels like the real New York,” Mihm said, shortly before showing me his authentic fifth-floor fire escape, which loomed skeletally over a dark alleyway.

Mihm lives with his girlfriend, Sol, and they are exactly the kinds of bright-hearted actors who have lived in these one-bedroom garrets for a hundred years. A James Dean poster hung on one wall, books were arranged on two bookshelves, and DVDs were crammed beneath the television.

In the sweltering August heat, only bottles of Corona made sense, brought straight from the cooler of a nearby bodega. Mihm and I grabbed paper bags full of dinner from the neighborhood taco truck, where a tiny abuela soliloquized about how we are all una familia and we should all love each other in our corazones. I ordered one taco con carne, another with goat, and a third with cow tongue.

We ate around their small coffee table, sitting on the sofa and on the floor. We gabbed about movies, about acting, about art. We complained about New York and extolled its virtues. We joked and chewed and sipped and joked.

A cockroach scurried across the floor and slinked behind the entertainment center.

“Roach!” I exclaimed.

“Where?” Mihm said.

“Really?” Sol said.

We all rose halfheartedly, hoping it was an apparition, but then it appeared again, charging between Sol’s feet and rounding the corner, into their bedroom.

“Great!” Sol sneered.

“Don’t crush it!” I said.

Don’t crush it?” Mihm echoed, eyebrow cocked.

“I’ve heard that if you break the shell, it spills out eggs, and you get an infestation.”

I didn’t know that this was a myth, concocted for who knows what reason, but still I scampered into the kitchen and grabbed a pint glass.

The roach zigzagged down the small hallway, and with reflexes I never knew I had, I slammed the glass around it. The roach paused for only a second before crawling the sides, exploring its strange new prison.

“Now what do we do?” Sol asked. “Can we throw it out the window?”

“Better in the street,” I declared, with apparent authority.

At my request, they found a paper towel and rubber band. Using a magazine for leverage, I slid the paper towel under the glass and folded it around the sides, then snapped the rubber band over the rim. I held it aloft, displaying the trapped—and seemingly confused—cockroach.

“That’s some MacGyver action,” Sol said.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, pleased.

I descended the stairwell, past the doors of actors and bohemians and even an opera singer, whose robust tenor would flood that space the next morning. At the bottom of those antique marble steps, I spilled into the street and snapped off the band. I set the glass on its side, and the roach tentatively crawled out. But it lingered on the outside of the glass, like a parolee taking one last glance at its penitentiary, before scuttling off.

Three kids stood nearby, nervously posing by their stoop. The pudgy boy watched me and the overturned pint glass.

“Una cucaracha,” I said.

The boy gazed at the empty sidewalk, then smiled, gleeful.

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