It’s Sunday afternoon as I write this, and summer has fallen on Houston. My six-year-old is at the YMCA swimming pool, which opened for the season last week. The temperature is 83 degrees; humidity, 72 percent. Green lizards bask on the window screens, reviving the cat’s predatory instincts. Lately we’ve woken to dismembered cockroaches on the carpet at the foot of the bed. Our nocturnal Nimrod catches the bugs, torments them, pulls off the legs and leaves them twitching on the floor. So much for the Peaceable Kingdom.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science last week announced a cockroach bounty. For every live roach you bring, they pay 25 cents. The curators need 1,000 roaches for an exhibit scheduled to open on Memorial Day. As of Saturday, only 49 roaches had been turned in. They bring a better return than recycled beer cans but I assume it’s tough to bring ‘em back alive.
The Homer of the cockroach is Don Marquis (1878-1937), a newspaper columnist and humorist I loved reading as a kid, especially when his “archy and mehitabel” poems were accompanied by George Herriman’s drawings. “archy” was the cockroach who climbed on Marquis’ typewriter each night and painstakingly wrote poems by leaping on the keys. All the letters were lower case as a pleasing jab at e.e. cummings, I suppose, but also because archy couldn’t work the shift key. “mehitabel,” the cat, was archy’s best friend.
Do people still read Marquis? My sense is that the American humorists of the 20th century, the ones I grew up reading – Marquis, Thurber, Benchley, Perelman, Ogden Nash -- have evaporated from respectable consciousness. As writers they were funny, not portentous or subversive (though humor, to those with an ear for it, is always subversive), so they are of little interest to an earnest age. Here’s an excerpt from “the coming of archy”:
“expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to before
there is a rat here she should get without delay”