Just before I started junior high school, my family and I moved into a high-rise building that I considered the height of sophistication and modernity.
In the five years since we had moved to Halifax we had lived, by a complete accident of geography, in a very high-income school district. We, however, were definitely not rich. In fact, I was the poorest kid I knew. Until our glamorous move to high-rise living, we had lived in various sparsely furnished, under-heated old houses. My classmates lived in modern castles with wall-to-wall carpeting and “family rooms” and picture windows, and they had canopy beds and vanity tables and vast collections of “dolls of the world” which were not for playing with, but were only for looking.
Then my parents separated and my mother, my two sisters and I sunk even lower to the “single-parent family” demographic.
When our lease ended, in 1972, we ended up moving to what I see now was a very ordinary somewhat cramped two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of an unremarkable building. But to my twelve-year-old eyes, it might as well have been Kensington Palace. It had a lobby, with shiny floors and armchairs and mirrored walls and everything. We had a shower instead of an old claw-foot bath tub, and we used an elevator every day. It was like moving to a time zone several decades ahead of the one where I had spent the first eleven years of my life. The most thrilling thing about that building was that it had a name. And not just any name, but an exquisitely high-class name. “Park Victoria”. Park Victoria! I found many opportunities to casually mention at school that I had moved to Park Victoria.
All of this made what happened to my sister and me there the next summer that much more shocking and horrifying.
Before leaving for work that morning, my mother told Jenny and me to clean out the pots and pans cupboard. While we were wiping down the inside of the cupboard we saw a nasty bug. If we had been brave enough to just squish it in a paper towel and throw it away, everything would have turned out differently. But we were two squeamish pre-teen girls, so we took the hands-off solution of spraying some Raid at it. The chemicals did their job and we were able to gingerly sweep the corpse into a dust pan and dispose of it. That could have been the end of the story. I wish it was the end of the story. But then it wouldn’t have been much of a story at all.
Apparently, the Raid drifted into the seams of the cupboard and into the spaces behind because as we were putting the pots back, cockroaches started to trickle out to escape from it. So we sprayed them with Raid too and waited for it to do it’s grisly work. Of course this dose also drifted into the crevices and spaces, and pretty soon there were cascades of cockroaches literally pouring out of cracks so tight it seemed impossible for even a cockroach to squeeze through them. At this point we became so freaked out that we completely lost all reason and started spraying wildly. The poisonous clouds were causing us to cough and our eyes to water and were now drifting high enough to seep into the vent up near the ceiling, sending hordes of vermin scuttling down the wall.
More than anything I wanted to flee that apartment and never come back, but as the older sister, and in the absence of my mother, I felt that I couldn’t abandon my post. I had to take charge of the situation and the idea came to me to draw a line in the sand by standing at the kitchen threshold and spraying any bugs that approached it. At least that way Mum wouldn’t come home to find the entire apartment infested. By now the skittling and clicking of the cockroaches’ oily hairy nasty little feet could be plainly heard even over the constant hissing of two cans of Raid.
And then something really horrible happened.
You know how when an aerosol can is almost empty it will stop spraying and you need to shake it a bit and then it will spray again for a few seconds and then you have to shake it again? Well that started happening with both cans of Raid. And each time one of us had to stop spraying and shake for a minute the cockroaches almost over-ran the threshold. We were faced with the imminent prospect of running out of ammunition.
At some point Jenny had had the presence of mind to open the door to the common hallway to at least reduce the toxicity of the air we were breathing. Luckily a neighbour passed by and saw what was happening. By the time the super showed up with a broom and a black garbage bag, the onslaught was over. He swept up enough crunchy little bodies to fill that bag nearly all the way to the top, and when an exterminator came the next day he had a hard time finding even one cockroach left to kill.
It was another two years before we were able to get out of that apartment. We moved into a subsidized house owned by a housing co-op. It was another under-heated drafty old house, but it sure felt safe to me.