Oh no, not I, I will survive….

hungry_cockroach_43475You may be wondering why the title ‘Cockroaches and Coffee’. This being Spain, the coffee should be self-explanatory, but the roaches….? Well, first of all, everyone has an opinion about cockroaches, don’t they? Hate ’em or hate ’em, they certainly don’t leave anyone cold.

I have always despised the little bastards, but the first time I came into close contact with them was while living in Ibiza. Like everything there, the cockroaches are more flamboyant, larger than life, and in your face. I am sure the only reason they don’t wear false eyelashes is that they can’t stick them on properly. (And are probably too busy eating the little tubes of glue). Otherwise they would be strutting around the island on miniature heels, adjusting their wigs, and lip-syncing to Cher songs.

A few days after a friend had moved into a new flat in D’alt Villa (The Old Town) we bumped into him in the street and he looked more like a recent war veteran with PTSD than someone taking time out to live it up for the Summer. He looked positively traumatised. We asked him what was wrong

‘The flat’s infested with cockroa.ches.’ he said, flinching, and glancing over his shoulder. ‘But they’re not like normal ones, these ones have got attitude. I’ve been fighting them for days.’ Fighting them? They fight back? I know it’s not easy to kill them but I thought you just had to stamp on them or poison them. He explained that every time he raised a shoe to smash one of them into the lino, it would look back up at him, cocky as anything, and instead of running for cover, it would eyeball him and assume a martial arts pose. He would raise the shoe ready to strike, and the roach would launch itself at him like Bruce Lee, and begin hand to hand combat in mid-air. And he was losing.

twinkie-cockroachI was working at the time in a restaurant run by an ageing, camp Argentinian. One night he and the other waiter, while I was setting up the terrace outside, decided to fumigate the place before it opened, only they forgot to tell me. Have you seen what happens to roaches when you poison them like this? After about half an hour they literally come running out of the woodwork and die a grotesque, drug-crazed death, breakdancing like body-poppers on Red Bull. Before opening the doors, the boss and I were leaning on the counter at the back of the restaurant and chatting. I was listening to his tales of Ibiza in the 70s. I thought to myself ‘Why is Alberto caressing my hand while he tells me this?’ I looked down and to my horror saw a large shiny roach attempting groggily to mount the back of my hand. I can still recall the gentle probing of its feelers, soft, almost sensual.

Later that night Alberto opened the ancient cashtill and pulled out a ten euro bill to give a customer his change, Sitting serenely on the note as though it was his very own flying carpet, at least until it launched itself at his face, was another roach. Alberto swore that it winked at him.

Cockroaches bring out the aggressive killer instinct in me that I didn’t think I had. I once spent twenty minutes, jet-lagged and almost hysterical in a hotel room in Bangkok chasing a cockroach around and trying to smash it to pieces. Eventually it eluded me and I gave up. When I was getting ready to leave later, I opened my handbag to take out a lipstick and there it was, celebrating its squatter’s rights inside my bag. I found myself pounding its mangled body into the floor with a flip-flop, shouting ‘In my handbag? Oh no you don’t pal…….die, you fucker, die!!’

Coincidentally, this morning as I got ready for work and was dusting the inside of one of my shoes with talc, I tipped it upside down (thank God) and out fell a huge roach onto its back. I made a noise like a puppy being trodden on. It was too early for the gratuitous violence of ‘The Shoe’ and besides, it had fallen onto my bedside table and lay there wriggling frantically, emitting little clouds of talc. While I dithered it managed to right itself and make a run for it. I haven’t seen a roach in my house for months, as the flat is positively land-mined with traps so I can only assume this one was on its last legs and had crawled into my nice warm shoe to die.2719_flying_cockroach.jpg

So everyone has a story when it comes to cockraoches. Everyone hates them and finds them disproportinately disgusting. They would rather fumigate the place and have done with them. What purpose do they serve? We’d all be better off without them. And you just can’t seem to get rid of them- whatever you do, they keep coming back. They live on scraps, creep around behind your back, and no matter how many times you stamp on them they seem to be able to pick themselves up, shake themselves down and live to hustle another day.Like those of us who live here.

That’s what endears them to me in the end despite my loathing, and what allows me to empathise: the humble cockroach is an outcast and a survivor. Therefore it has its place in Lavapies mythology. Because the inhabitants of Lavapies have certain traits in common with these insects. Take our natural habitat, for example:

Pest species of cockroaches adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings‘. Too vague for you? How about ‘Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and will run away when exposed to light. Another study tested the hypothesis that cockroaches use just two pieces of information to decide where to go under those conditions: how dark it is and how many other cockroaches there are.’

If you go out on the street at 8 a.m. in Lavapies you will see only tumbleweed rolling across the plaza and maybe an old lady walking her dog. Step outside 6 hours earlier at 2 a.m however, and the streets are crawling. There is a lot of scuttling to and fro in and out of small, dark bars crammed with other warm bodies.

Regarding living conditions and group decision-making ‘:Research has shown that group-based decision-making is responsible for complex behavior such as resource allocation. In a study where 50 cockroaches were placed in a dish with three shelters with a capacity for 40 insects in each, the insects arranged themselves in two shelters with 25 insects in each, leaving the third shelter empty. When the capacity of the shelters was increased to more than 50 insects per shelter, all of the cockroaches arranged themselves in one shelter. Researchers found a balance between cooperation and competition exists in group decision-making behavior ….’

Lavapies is well-known for its housing crisis, for its tradition of squatters moving into abandoned buildings, and for the mind-boggling number of immigrant inhabitants per flat. Living on top of each other and sharing resources is nothing new for us. It is an extraordinarily co-operative neighbourhood, far more group-oriented than the nuclear-family ‘normality’ surrounding us.

One of the most notorious characteristics of cockroaches is their hardiness.Cockroaches are among the hardiest insects on the planet. Some species are capable of remaining active for a month without food and are able to survive on limited resources like the glue from the back of postage stamps. Some can go without air for 45 minutes. In one experiment, cockroaches were able to recover from being submerged underwater for half an hour.

Need I say more? However much you hate them, you can’t help but admire them for being tiny indestructible machines of malice. I would say that we Lavapeños (I made that word up) are also hardy, resourceful and can survive on next to nothing.cockroaches_cancer-11977

Let’s take a look at food: ‘…they are scavengers and will eat anything organic. They prefer food sources such as starches, sweets, grease and meat products, but other items may include cheese, beer, leather, glue, hair, starch in book bindings, flakes of dried skin or decaying organic matter (plant or animal).’ Now, there’s not that much difference between this list and the diet of the average Lavapies dweller at least until you get as far as leather. The streets of Lavapies are lined with Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Lebanese eateries and good old fashioned Spanish tapas bars (which covers starches, sweets, grease, meat products, cheese and beer.

One mustn’t forget that ‘cockroach’ characters have appeared in literature and drama at least since classical Greece, speaking for the weak, the underdogs, the outsiders, in short those who live on the underside of dominant human culture. In his book ‘Revolt of the cockroach people’ Oscar Zeta Acosta, for example, used them as a metaphor for opressed and downtrodden minorities in US society in the 60s and 70s.

I am a sucker for metaphor. Also useless trivia, so here’s the final pointless but impressive fact:

A cockroach will live nine days without its head before it starves to death. Starves to death?? I would have thought that would be the least of its worries. What does it do all that time? I know I will be haunted by this thought. But not for as long as I will be haunted by the other thought I had this morning:

‘Yes, but would I have felt it wriggling under my socked foot in the confines of the shoe (really bad) or would I have just ground it to a pulp all day only to find out when I took my shoe off? (Worse).

These are the reasons I chose the title ‘cockroaches and coffee’. I know what people outside this neighbourhood think of us. They think we’re roaches, and I’ve decied to be proud of it rather than offended. I know there are many people in Madrid who recoil at the thought of us all scuttling around down here and scavenging on the city’s scraps. They think we are vermin, we survive on next to nothing, we creep around after dark and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get rid of us. Worse, our numbers are multiplying to plague-like proportions. An infestation of immigrant hippies, artists, musicians, queers, crusties, students, druggies, poets, tramps and hustlers. Help!! Call pest control, quick!Cockroach_Halloween_Costume

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