The Bug Was a ‘Massive, Hairy-Legged Monster,’ So Why Did He Hesitate to Kill It?

Photograph via Wikimedia.

By Allan Ripp

I shuffled into the bathroom for middle-of-the-night relief, and felt a soft tickling on my foot. How nice, I thought, the dog came in to check on me – then why didn’t I hear the pitter-patter of his paws? I turned on the light and encountered the urban nightmare of an enormous water bug crawling across my ankle.

I had the presence of mind to whisper-scream since my wife was asleep a few feet away, and violently flung the intruder off, sending it near the bathtub. Odd that I have no problem with other bugs and am constantly picking up beetles, crickets, ants, Daddy Long Legs, caterpillars and even an occasional honey bee when out and about. I’ve made trophies of well-preserved cicadas and dragon flies to display atop our piano.

But as any resident of a pre-war Upper West building knows, water bugs are different, creatures from the “other side,” inhabiting sewage pipes and tenement hallways, or emerging from dank basements and toilets. I think of them as massive roaches – this one looked like it came from the Amazon basin, a hairy-legged monster.

Is it possible that the thing was actually an Oriental cockroach, often mistaken for a water bug but more reddish-brown in color and sporting a spindly antenna and protruding head (facts I later learned from an exterminator’s web site)? Of course it could have been, but at 3 AM my entomology skills were a little shaky. All I knew is that I couldn’t let it escape into the rest of the apartment and was prepared to kill to make that happen.

I grabbed a paper cup thankfully left on the hamper and in one swoop had the beast covered. The only question now was whether to crush or stomp it out of existence. But then I heard – and felt – its trapped, crusty self inside the cup struggling to be free. I imagined it living a peaceful semi-aquatic life behind the walls feeding on silverfish and dust mite larvae. Did it deserve to be snuffed out for making a wrong turn into my bathroom?

Was I also hesitating because Rosh Hashanah had arrived, when I appealed to my own merciful and all-powerful maker in hopes of being inscribed into the annual book of life? Which one of us was the real insect?

I squeezed shut the top of the cup and stood up to open the window but in trying to lift the screen the bug fell out and scurried along the tile floor, shrewdly stopping behind the tub’s drainpipe. I bent down to position the cup for its next move and smacked my forehead on the sink – not exactly clemency karma. As I rubbed my temple and vowed revenge, he bolted. I brought the cup down hard but he whizzed past and slipped through a crack I never knew existed, back to his parallel cootie universe. Note to self: call the super and stock up on boric acid.

I awoke a few hours later, wondering whether it was just a Kafkaesque dream. But then I looked in the bedroom mirror and felt the welt on my head. I tiptoed into the bathroom in hopes of an all-clear. OK, fine – and then, there he was, on his back, legs up, inert beside the plunger. I did the decent thing and gave him a burial at sea, flushing twice. I pray he died of natural causes.

Mr. Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.

ABSURDITY, COLUMNS | 28 comments | permalink
    1. Mark Moore says:

      I helped eliminate a spotted lanternfly yesterday. It was in the lobby of our building on Columbus Avenue.

      • At a cemetery Sunday in Saddle Brook, NJ, the spotted lantern flies were SWARMING! A rain, a hail, an orgy; dozens and dozens.

        My relationship with bugs in my flat is: stay out! Because really: one bug leads to another and before you know it, I’ll be hosting a whole ecology of prey/predator species and then bingo: I’m sporting lumps & welts and who knows what else… I mean, can rocky mountain spotted fever be far behind this theoretical incursion?

        Anyhow, the corollary to that stance is: outside of my apt., pad, crib, bedsit, whatever: once you’ve exited my place, bugs, all things are possible.

        But lantern flies attack trees and, as a member of the monkey family, that just doesn’t fly for me and yes I may have killed a few.

        But it was as futile as going after a biblical plague of locusts sporting only a flyswatter.

        So I called the Saddle Brook Board of Health today; I said there was a health problem to the woman who answered the phone there. She said she’d connect me with Tracy.

        “Do you want to know it’s about? Because it’s an invasive species!”

        “Tracy is the only one here,” she answered.

        It turned out Tracy had never heard of the spotted lantern fly.

        She didn’t ask me for my name, but she was nice, had a lovely voice and that was enough; it’s out of my hands.

    2. Mary Fincher says:

      Mr. Ripp:

      Your water bug’s cousin is my houseguest who has overstayed their welcome. He waits for me most mornings in my kitchen like a pet waiting to be fed. He looks at me longing for some sign of acceptance and appreciation.

      We’ve arrived at this new phase of our relationship after I had every nook and cranny of the bathroom caulked.

      I have learned that water bugs are signs that we will be okay and that we have all the answers we need within.

      Thank you for sharing… it’s nice to know that I am not alone in this experience! Although, I do hope that my guest is soon satisfied that I have gotten the message.

      • HH says:

        “I have learned that water bugs are signs that we will be okay and that we have all the answers we need within.”

        This comment gives me life. Thank you Mary for reframing my absolute worst nightmare into something…hopeful!

    3. LL says:

      An actual water bug somehow got to my bed in the middle of the night. All I know is I woke up at around 2 am to fond a water bug ON MY ARM. And I screamed like whoa. I somehow managed to kill it. And that is the only time I have dealt with one in my apartment. They are creatures from my nightmares.

      I have seen them on RSD a few times which is never fun.

    4. SB says:

      Thank you for your mercy. The last time I had a waterbug (or what I thought was a waterbug) in my apartment I was ready to spritz it to death with roach spray when it took flight, buzzed around my apartment, and then slipped under the door to hide in my bedroom. I packed up and headed to my girlfriend’s in another borough to stay the weekend. By Monday I felt secure that it was deep in the sewers again and returned home. I’ll try to remember your approach next time.

    5. Julia Z. says:

      Love this article, thank you! I am guessing your visitor was an American cockroach (*Periplaneta americana*), originally from Africa and Middle East.

      Here is my growing chronicle of my encounters with them, mostly in my pre war UWS apt:

      • Allan Ripp says:

        Amazing!! Thank you for sharing this site and your experiences – next time I’ll know who to call on for advice! Allan

    6. Paul says:

      I once saw one with a license plate and bumper stickers.
      But I wasn’t living on the UWS at the time.

      I didn’t have bug spray but I hit it with carburetor cleaner. Did the job.

    7. Janet says:

      I so can relate. They have souls. . I feel badly about going up against bugs yet I still want them gone only because as you pointed out where they have been spreading germs and diseases. Humans will leave this earth but they will live on. Thank you for sharing. Hope your head healed quickly.

    8. sudden_eyes says:

      So we’ll written!

      Honestly, I just kill them, BUT we once had one that looked exactly like the roach in WALL-E, and that was a tough one. I tried and failed to get it out onto the fire escape. … It didn’t live. Sigh

    9. Sarah says:

      I think I like Mary Fincher’s spiritual approach above as suggested by Socrates:

      “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

    10. MAD says:

      My exterminator said to close all your drains at night, esp. in the bathroom. They come up out of the drains. Gel bait in wall cracks works well, too. If you have construction or wet spots in your building, you will be more prone to have these visitors in your apt. Make sure any holes you have around pipes are sealed to the best of your ability. Good luck!

    11. Asil S. says:

      I moved to a new apartment in December, and a few months ago I made the mistake of taking off the drain cover and there it was. I had such a panic attack, but I had bug spray and went bananas on it. I did not like doing that but, I did. I covered it with paper towels and my friend threw it out for me. About a week ago I left the bottom of the window open in the bathroom with no screen again by accident and when I was taking a shower, I saw this spider with maybe 6″ legs on the ceiling and again almost had a heart attack when it moved. Same friend saved the day. I am only afraid of one thing – bugs.

    12. Kerry gold curreri says:

      I would have screamed. Shana Tova❤️🤗

    13. Sunnys Mom says:

      Has anyone had the pleasure of having a smart cat who if you throw a ball or cat toy he will fetch it and bring it back for you to throw it again several times till one of us gets bored of this game? (Do you know where this is going?) oh yes,.. one fine afternoon a toy was dropped in my lap, not unusual while looking at my cat I was reading something, I went to throw his “toy” I did not recognize the “toy texture” I did not look down either till I did and proceeded to.. scream! Sylvester was very proud of his conquest and was gifting me his catch,.. a very dead black water bug! No thanks! Needless to say I always look before I throw now. Lesson learned.

    14. Don says:

      I never kill anything I find in the apartment.
      Trap and release!
      Build up that karma!!!
      You never know — the next time around you might be that bug…

    15. Jeff from West 90th Street says:

      Such a well-written bug story. It deserves its place in the literature of the unwanted. Definitely publishable. Oh, right! It’s been published, right here! Carry on. L’shana tova bugatevu.

    16. N. Leaf says:

      A July 1956 night – my husband was working at a summer theatre. I was alone in our westside studio apartment and encountered a waterbug in the bathroom. I knew I’d never get back to sleep so I dialed 911. Two NYPD officers showed up and I told them my fear. They did away with it and made me promise never to tall anyone. I’ve kept my word for 65 years…..

    17. I wrote a similar story and sent it to Metropolitan desk. They didn’t print it but it’s almost the same. The difference is that I ended up in the hospital getting an MRI of my skull because after trapping the beast in a glass with a paper underneath it, I fell backward, hitting my head against the door jam, opening a cut that required 4 staple to close. And, my beast was alive in the morning so I CAREFULLY lifted it, the glass and the paper underneath and tossed it off my terrace.

    18. Carolyn says:

      Yeah! I had one – first experience – I freeked out! It was huge – about 6 inches – fly swatter? no too big; rolled paper? no too big; bug spray, no (didn’t have any) so I grabbed my shovel from the fireplace and hit it! It was knocked out only and started to dizzily move……I grabbed the vacuum cleaner, turned it on and sucked it up…..and about 2 minutes later, the darn thing crawled out of the hose! I screamed and ran to my neighbors and he heroically came to my rescue. To this day, don’t know what he did with it, but it was gone and I got my vacuum back.

    19. Sam says:

      My sister who lives in Michigan asks: “So what did he die of?” sam
      PS So well written…and I can so empathize. I had quite a fright when a 5-inch red roach (which I later learned is a Palmetto bug)FLEW up at me from the outside front of the refrigerator.

    20. Sam says:

      PS I forgot to mention that the giant red flying roach has retired to a spot under the kitchen radiator, and I have conceded that part of the apartment to him or her.

    21. robert dowling says:

      remember we fought ww2 to stop and we did stop it, an entity trying to anniliate another entity because of no knowledge of its postion in life and the grand scheme of things in the world. peace.

    22. ANDREA says:

      This was such an amusing article because I am so sickened scared when I spot one of these creatures. Fortunately, it has always been in the basement laundry room, not in m own apartment. But I can empathize. I’m not sure what I’d have done~ the vacuum cleaner comes to mind ~ but his wife was sleeping. Still~ it was an emergency. Oddly, I also felt relief knowing the thing had died a natural death, and the author did not have to kill it. Well-written, and thanks for sharing!