When I first moved to the city, I had dreams, delusions some might say, of grandeur. I’d seen influencers and old friends posting about their lavish lifestyles in high-rise, renovated penthouse suites. I’d seen them dining out every meal and partying like it’s 1999 seemingly endlessly. The reality I encountered was quite the opposite – more akin to the life of the starving artist I was. I found myself considering high-end to luxury cardboard boxes when I moved to the city. Practically everything I looked at was at least double my monthly budget. That was all until a nice old man at a corner bodega told me he knew someone who was looking for a tenant just a couple blocks away.
I made my way up there, to the side of town nobody tends to talk about never mind live in. The landlord was another pasty old man with an Eastern European accent similar to that of the bodega cashier. He told me candidly but without specification that the place had had its fair share of ‘misfortunes’ and ‘incidents’. To be fair I didn’t ask him to specify – I don’t think I wanted to know. I’d finally found an apartment that was within my price range and was a six-minute walk to the train from which I wouldn’t have to take a transfer to get to work. Sure, the place sat above an abandoned restaurant, had a musty odor, and seemed to have fewer residents than a ghost town, but it was somewhere to hang my hat until I could find a better spot.
Within the first week, my very own set of ‘misfortunes’ began. I was getting ready for work one morning, maybe four days after moving into the unit. I had a couple coffees while I was getting dressed and doing my makeup, and, needless to say, I needed to use the bathroom before heading out for my commute. While I sat there on the toilet, scrolling through my different social media apps, I felt something tickle my toes. I peered over my phone and nearly flung the phone across the room when I saw what it was: a massive cockroach, about three-inches long, scurrying over my bare feet. I screamed and kicked, flailing without a thought. The roach wiggled and soared until it hit the door, not far from the toilet. I stood with my pants still around my ankles and ripped off some toilet paper. I’d always heard how hard it was to kill these things, but I’d never before had to do it myself. I slammed the toilet paper atop the roach, then pulled away. It was still alive. My chest fluttered and my breathing shortened. I tried again and it still squirmed away. It took five attempts until I dragged the piece of toilet paper across the floor with the roach under it, hearing the cracking and crunching of its shell until I was rightly convinced it was dead. Those are some durable fuckers. I hadn’t even the first clue as to where the roach came from, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time. After all, I did live in a city with the added bonus of being situated atop that abandoned restaurant. Cockroaches were to be expected – a fact of urban living.
But the roach problem wouldn’t end there. Only a few days later, I came home to at least half a dozen of those things scurrying away with their wiry legs tapdancing across the aged wooden flooring towards the bathroom like I’d interrupted their party. Again I screamed, and again I chased them with a paper towel. I threw my bags down at the doorway and followed them to the bathroom, where they’d all ran in unison. Even in the moment I found it strange that they didn’t scatter – they traveled in a pack the way a family in a horror film would sprint for home. When I rounded the corner into the bathroom, I saw two in the back of the group, lagging behind and slipping as they tried to climb up the outside of the toilet. I wacked one off and killed it, this time with the experience from the first a few days prior behind me. I caught the second too, squashing it and smearing its guts against the tile floor in a brown streak of fragmented shell.
I was admittedly proud of myself in a grim way, but only for a moment. There were at least four, maybe as many as eight others when I first walked in – where did they all go? They’d disappeared like apparitions in the bathroom. Was there a crack in the wall? Perhaps even a small sliver between the tiles. I would have checked those places, but given where the other two were headed, I was horrified to draw the conclusion I did: they had traveled in a pack, and the two I’d caught were climbing into the toilet.
With a new paper towel, I cautiously approached the toilet. Its lid was shut, but I didn’t dare lift it with my bare hands, remembering with a chilling disgust what it was like to feel one of them scuttling on my bare skin. Even without touching the seat, my skin crawled and itched relentlessly like they were already swarming all over me. I took the handle of a razor that rested next to the skin and shoved it between the lid and the seat. I lifted it slowly, readying the paper towel for roach-squashing in my other hand. I involuntarily held my breath, then flung the seat upwards where it clattered against the back of the toilet. Nothing – at least for now. There weren’t any roaches between the lid and the seat, but I did see the tip of a black leg pushing and slipping against the seat as it rounded beneath it. Being a woman, I hardly ever lift the toilet seat, other than for cleaning. But seeing that leg slip into the darkness forced me to check. “Oh God,” I moaned squeamishly to myself, almost ready to puke.
I tightened my grip on the razor as my hand shook with trepid anticipation. A part of me thought about setting the apartment on fire rather than lifting that seat, but the roaches probably would have survived that too. I stuck the razor’s handle under the lip of the seat and threw my arm upwards with scrunched lips holding my breath once more.
I jumped, my arm jerked, and I threw the paper towel at them in a reaction of pure flight. Three roaches lost their grip on the seat and plopped together like Olympic divers into the water. I gagged, watching them drop and squirm in the water, looking for a surface to cling onto. But that was only the first three.
I then caught another glimpse of the legs scurrying around the inside of the bowl as the indestructible insects searched for darkness. A couple more slipped, then fell into the water. Then one more followed. Then my fear turned to what I thought would be a brilliant triumph. I leaned forwards and pulled the handle to flush the toilet. The water began to spiral taking the six flailing roaches with it, but only for that moment. The flushing water gave them more surfaces to cling onto if they were strong enough – and they all proved they were. Almost as synchronized as they had traveled in a pack, they clung to the inner bowl and climbed upwards – coming towards me. I stumbled backwards, away from the toilet, shrieking in small shrill noises I’d never heard myself produce. Along with those six roaches came an army that was hiding inside the rim. There was a dozen, two dozen…and then what looked like hundreds of roaches climbing out of the bowl and running towards me like an army.
I felt like I’d forgotten how to walk while they ran towards me. Their legs tapped against the tiles, the volume of their charge rapidly increasing. I turned away from them and ran – not just out of the bathroom, but out of the unit, out of the complex, and three streets down until I could finally convince myself I was in the clear.
Once I collected myself, I called my landlord in a fit of tears…but he didn’t answer. I called again and again, and still no answer. I even thought to stop by the bodega down the street where I’d met his friend. I asked for a kind old white man with a European accent who worked there, but they just stared and kept asking me to step aside so they could serve the next customer.
I even slept at a friend’s house that night and wore the same clothes to work the next day. I called the landlord at all hours that day, and he still never answered. In retaliation, I stopped my direct deposits, but the landlord never asked for another rent check; he never even called back.
Months later, after moving on and finding some roommates downtown, I decided to look into that building and its history. I found some articles from local archived papers online describing what had happened. It turns out, the building wasn’t just as quiet as a ghost town, it was a ghost town. It had been officially condemned by the city for infestations and general health risks. All residents were evicted around the same time that restaurant below the apartment complex had shut down. But then I looked at the date of the articles I’d found – 1989. Nobody had lived in that building for nearly thirty years.