"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 23, 2014

Cooties And Other Creatures

My four-year old daughter was scratching her head like an old dog, and when I finally checked her scalp to see what was the matter, a thousand head lice went scurrying. “You have cooties”, I said.

From that day until we finally got rid of them – no easy task – she referred to them as ‘My Cooties’.  She never seemed concerned about having a nest of insects in her hair, took it for granted that life must be that way, especially since she was born shortly after my wife and I returned from India, and I was in a satyagraha phase.  None of God’s creatures should be willfully and wantonly destroyed, so while India still had a hold on me I shooed bees, flies, and wasps out of the house, caught spiders gently with a tissue and released them in the garden, and lived peacefully with the few cockroaches brought in with the groceries. 

However since the ‘few’ cockroaches now numbered in the hundreds, and my daughter’s head was full of lice, I knew I had to rethink my philosophical construct.  First we tried regular baby shampoo, gave her head a good scrubbing, then rinsed and blow dried.  “That ought to do it”, I said.

It didn’t, of course, so we had to ratchet the potency of the shampoo up a few notches.  We went to simple, over-the-counter patent medicine products which had no effect.  A day after the treatment, poor little L was flailing away at her head again, sending her pigtails and barrettes flying. There were more lice on her head than ever before, and it was obviously time to end the shampoos, the room quarantine, and the defensive hats, and get serious. We bought the most potent anti-lice shampoo available.  It was actually a pesticide that could only be bought contraband and under-the-table from the dog pound where it was used to keep the flea and tick population in check.  We were assured by the attending vet that if we kept it on L’s head for only five minutes – no more, no less – we would kill all insects with no hazard for her.  “Families come here from Anacostia all the time”, he said. “No Silent Spring worries there”.

At the pound, they mixed the pesticide powder in water, filled large jerry cans with it, and power-sprayed it on the dogs once a week.  “You don’t have to power spray it”, the vet said. “But I would use rubber gloves.

After two weeks of living calmly and unstressed about ‘my cooties’, L picked up on our anxiety about using a a DDT-derivative (thanks to Rachel Carson, we could not buy the pure stuff), and started to yell as soon as she saw the rubber gloves, the timer, face masks, and rubber hose.  When we began to rinse her hair and rub in the mixture, she started to howl as loudly as any dog in the pound where we bought it.  She thrashed, splashed, and fought until we stopped. 

We bribed her – candy, My Little Pony, extra desserts – and gently told her that she had to sit still for five minutes so that the ‘magic medicine’ would work.  “OK, Daddy”, she said; but when the time came she churned up the water in the bathtub like an outboard motor, and screamed to high heaven.

“L”, we said.  “If you don’t let me do this, I am going to cut off all your hair” – not an idle threat and what most exasperated parents eventually resorted to.   She agreed, shut her eyes tight, kept her mouth shut, held her nose, and let me shampoo.

Whether we cheated on the five minutes and rinsed too quickly or dosed down and diluted the mixture; or the treatment or her cooties had already built up some kind of maximum resistance, the treatment did not work. I was ready ready to shear her long hair when our maid said that she could get rid of them.  “We have lots of lice in El Salvador”, she said; and lots of time, she should have added, because her remedy was to strip each strand of hair of nits one-by-one.  She was very practiced and went fast. She ran her thumbnail down each strand of hair, picked the nits, squished them, and flicked them into the bushes.

Of course, I thought. This is the way we have gotten rid of lice since we came down from the trees.

When I happened to tell my mother about L’s cooties, she was horrified.  In her day and mine, only poor people and immigrants got lice.  “Where on earth did she get them?”, she asked, but already knew the answer.  As a child I was warned about association with ‘colored people’ – although the black population of New Brighton lived far across the tracks and none of us would ever venture over there cooties or not – and she made Mrs. Rozczicki our Polish maid wear a tight-fitting, rubberized head cover whenever she came to clean the house.  “I no have bugs, Mrs. Parlato”, she insisted.  “I very clean”; but my mother didn’t trust her or any Polack for that matter and made her wear the contraption with no exception. Our house was not air-conditioned in those days, and poor Mrs. Rozczicki sweated under my mother’s rubber contraption for three hours while she vacuumed, scrubbed the toilets, and made the beds.

In any case, Julia’s nit-picking worked; but it wasn’t the last time that our children had cooties. As much as parents and teachers forbade sharing hats, combs, brushed, fairy crowns and baseball caps, the cooties kept on coming.  Vigilance was the key, for it was far easier to get rid of a few than a few hundred.

We never knew where the cooties came from, although my mother had her own ideas; which, given the comment made by the vet at the pound about his poor, inner-city customers, were probably right.  In any case provenance ceased being an issue once cooties were everyone’s problem.  Eventually they became episodic and no longer endemic.  The Herculean efforts of parents, teachers, and play group aids finally paid off.

Around this time, my wife’s aged and beloved dog died.  Herman was a big, standard poodle who had the run of the large property which extended for half and acre down to the suburban lake, and even farther up to the residential road above.  There were enough foxes, squirrels, raccoons, and field mice on the property to give poor Gigot plenty of fleas, but since as long as he was alive, the fleas stayed on him, and none of the family was ever bitten.  As soon as the poor dog died, all fleas jumped ship.  Meal ticket gone, they looked for other easy blood. Before Gigot’s ashes had cooled, the fleas who had found a temporary home in the thick living room carpet, jumped on anyone who came into the room.  They covered bare legs like a black rash, bit and hopped, bred, and multiplied like a plague.   How poor Gigot stood it we never understood.  We figured that hosing him down every week with a pressure hose would do the trick, apparently the water apparently only stunned them.

Getting rid of the fleas was far worse that ridding L’s scalp of cooties. They had infested every knot of the large wall-to-wall carpet, and we had to vacuum, shampoo, and vacuum again every day.  

Last but not least of the insect scourges of that era were the cockroaches I had tolerantly allowed to live, reproduce, and multiply in our kitchen and bathrooms had become a brazen, crawling swarm.  I immediately thought of the cootie pesticide which would have done the trick; but roaches are so common in urban areas, that pest control is a big business, and far less hazardous methods seem to work fine.

Despite my dalliance with non-violence and vegetarianism, roaches were hard to take.  They are disgusting, in fact; and when I woke up to three or four big ones chewing on my toothbrush, I knew it was time to spray and spray well.

Years before I had bought an old 19th century Gujarati sea chest from an antique dealer in Calcutta.  It was made of solid hardwood which had withstood many a voyage across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.  Its walls were 6” thick, its hatches heavy and dense, and its iron fittings clanked and rattled like the chains in a dungeon.  It had been fitted with legs so that it could be used as furniture. We installed it in the living room of our small penthouse flat of Mt. Unique on Peddar Road, and had it sprayed for roaches.

The next day as I was working at my typewriter, writing my first impressions of India, I heard an intermittent clacking, almost clattering noise behind me.  I looked around and saw 2” cockroaches falling from the cracks in the bottom of the chest to the marble floor.  They were so big that you could hear them hit.  They kept falling for a day until we called the exterminator to finish the job he had obviously not completed.  He sprayed desultorily, until we showed him what we were after.  “Very big”, he said.  “Very impressive.  Must be Calcutta variety”.  He upped the dose and the volume, sprayed until the chest was wet and slimy, and we both watched as roach after roach dropped, squirmed and died in front of us. “Bigger than one would have expected”, he said.

One of my favorite birthday presents once the India phase was over was an electrified fly-swatter from China.  It looked like a badminton racquet and packed enough of a charge so that flies cracked and crackled on the metal strings just like Southern zappers in every restaurant in the Delta.  Not only had I lost any vestige of satyagraha, but I enjoyed swatting and incinerating flies and even kept the screen door ajar so I could kill for fun.

I keep the house pretty much sealed up these days – not like in the hermetically sealed gated community homes in Potomac and Great Falls, but still roach, fly, and cootie free.  What’s the point, I say?  I changed my mind about all the non-violence hoopla when my son stopped being a vegetarian.  He had thought about the lack of any logic behind the tradition – didn’t antibiotics kill living creatures? – was not an early environmentalist, and was too young to worry about his health, so one day when he asked if I could cook him a big, rare Porterhouse, I knew that the idealistic phase was over.  Like son, like father; and I stopped all my nonsense about bugs. 

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