Baltimore bugs seem polite after N.Y. encounter

Rowdy roaches: Uncouth water bugs think nothing of climbing the author's pants leg, driving him `buggy.'

July 10, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

THIS IS THE TIME of the year when my grandmother made a face, twisted her nose and declared our surroundings "buggy."

She knew her local geography and the particulars of its weather. Buggy season began right about July 4, a date after which outdoor living becomes chancy -- especially if you have delicate skin. And a buggy address was her idea of no place to visit.

Almost anywhere can be buggy, but let's describe the Baltimore version. You walk into the kitchen, turn on the lights and -- presto! -- there is a traffic jam of flying and crawling creatures darting about like some mad insect carnival. The moths are banging against the screens so loudly you wonder if you should summon the police.

I had a bad buggy night this week, one that taught me never, never again to complain, not even about a trip to Assateague Island in late July or any stroll on a boardwalk when there's a land breeze blowing.

This "mugging" by bugs happened in New York. The experience taught me a lesson. I'll keep silent about bugginess in the Chesapeake region from now on.

I suffered a far too intimate experience with Manhattan water bugs -- reddish brown roaches the size of cigar butts, only mobile. They were cavorting about an apartment's damp corner where an air conditioner had leaked.

One red roach jumped on my pants leg; the others brazenly danced around like Checker cabs in midtown traffic. It would have taken an aggressive tomcat to kill these pests.

After witnessing this outrageous show, I picked up a train schedule and cast my eyes on the column that said "arriving in Baltimore." I'm not returning until Mayor Rudy Giuliani hands out cans of bug bomb to unsuspecting tourists.

And I'll never curse a Baltimore water bug again. Ours are smaller, of refined habits. Inside they stay to themselves, rarely exiting the neighborhood of the bathroom water pipe and domain of the Comet can stashed under the kitchen sink.

Baltimore myth holds that water bugs don't carry disease. Also, it is no sin against good housekeeping if water bugs appear. They are part of the summer landscape, like the brown haze that drops over the harbor and the aromatic rubbish cans full of crab shells and denuded ears of corn. It's folly to exterminate. They just appear on the first hot night of the season.

And they mostly stay outdoors, preferring to vacation around sewers and under cracked pavement squares.

A friend of mine says that it's not worth going out for a nocturnal walk in old Baltimore neighborhoods from May to September unless you tread on five or six. The water bugs' hard shells smash down with a convincing pop.

On very hot nights -- the kind we had this week -- the water bugs convene by the street curbs and cast-iron water meter lids. Some of the merrier ones even wear funny hats -- flecks of street dirt.

And, unlike their New York cousins, they mind their manners. They prefer the dark. And they don't jump on linen trousers.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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