The relatively cool, shady climate of Portland makes it a haven not just for scraggly, 20-year-old panhandlers and middle-aged ponytailed pot-growers, but for spiders, too. It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved here last summer, once I was able to see past the jobless hemp-smokers and skateboarding layabouts.
My history with spiders, much like my history with hippies, is marked by mutual distrust and suspicion. I have never been bitten by one (i.e., a spider), yet I instinctively avoid contact with them. I grew up in the hot desert climate of Southern California, where deadly black widows were occasionally sighted in our garage. And by black widows I mean the actual spiders, not African-American women whose husbands have died. Why, that wouldn’t be frightening at all, silly.
One night when I was a very young boy I had a nightmare about spiders and fled to the safety of my parents’ bed, where my father’s hand moving across the blanket to comfort me felt like a spider crawling on me, and I freaked right the hell out.
One night when I was a teenager I was sitting shirtless on my bed, reading a book and enjoying the cool night air coming in through the open window over my head, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a huge tarantula falling from the windowsill onto my shoulder and then onto the floor. This caused me to leap to my feet, wild-eyed and empty-bladdered, and immediately slam the window shut, my brain telling me that surely this tarantula was a scout for an army of hundreds who were creeping up the side of the house at that moment. (Seriously, brain, what’s the matter with you? I’m faced with possible death and THAT’S the scenario you come up with?)
To this day, I frequently have dreams about spiders, often about lots and lots of them. I mentioned one such dream to my dad not long ago, explaining that in the dream all the walls were covered with spiders, and it was one of those dreams where I thought I was dreaming but couldn’t figure out for sure. My dad said, “For future reference, if all the walls are covered with spiders, you’re probably dreaming.” Thanks, Dad.
So as I said, there are a lot of spiders in Portland, and I’ve gotten used to them, but only up to a point. My attitude toward spiders is similar to my attitude toward ballerinas: I am in awe of your natural beauty and flawless instincts, but if you come in my house I will kill you.
I believe man and spiders have an unspoken agreement (unspoken because spiders cannot understand human speech): We agree not to go traipsing unnecessarily through their habitats, and they agree to stay out of ours. I have upheld my end of the contract. I avoid forested areas, stay away from hiking trails, shun the outdoors in general. So spiders, I ask you, why have you seen fit to enter my home?
I understand that many of my fellow humans have not adhered to our tacit covenant. I know that every weekend there are thousands of humans invading the woods, glens, glades, fens and savannas where you dwell. Believe me, I have done all I can to discourage them. But their failure to respect your territory does not entitle you to invade mine! I cannot state this strongly enough.
My apartment is at least 65 years old, and the basement of our building is one of those dark, creepy places lit by a single bare bulb, much like one sees in horror movies. I would not be surprised if someone’s storage locker down there has a body in it, and it is the first place I will look if my apartment is ever beset with the spirits of pale Japanese children crawling out of the bathtub. Needless to say, the basement is lousy with spiders. I don’t have a problem with this because I think basements, being dug into the earth, constitute a sort of dual-use zone, a land meant for both man and spider.
But that’s the basement. My apartment is a clearly delineated above-ground space meant for humans only. We do not even allow cats in our building; why would we allow spiders? Yet at least twice a week I see a spider in my house. Not the same spider each time, of course, because no spider lives past my first sighting of it. They are different spiders, and often different species of spiders. In the year I have lived here, I’ve counted at least five distinct varieties of arachnids skittering across a wall or lounging in a corner.
YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE, SPIDERS!! DOES MY UNREMITTING MURDER OF YOUR KIND NOT CONVEY THAT?!
Once I was out of town for 10 days. When I returned, I found that a half-dozen very small spiders had taken up residence in the corner of my breakfast nook, at a point where two windows meet. It is a very cozy nook, I will grant you, and it gets a lot of morning sun. But still! I was flabbergasted by the boldness of these spiders, moving in during my absence. Did they think I wasn’t coming back? Did they think I had abandoned the apartment and signed the lease over to them? WHY WOULD I SUBLET MY APARTMENT TO A GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE NO INCOME?! WHAT KIND OF SENSE WOULD THAT MAKE?!
I used the hose attachment on the vacuum to clean out every square inch of the apartment, every dark corner and hidden crevice. This was necessary because in the course of ordinary sweeping and cleaning, sometimes you miss a corner. And the spiders in this place are so plentiful that if you don’t happen to pass by a particular place for a couple days, a little spider will spin a little web there.
But my efforts were not enough. Still I would see spiders. Mind you, these were usually very small, harmless spiders, and I do not fear being attacked by them. But it’s the principle of the matter. And besides, sometimes the spiders I saw were somewhat larger, nickel-sized and dark in color, and those things can produce a painful bite. Some people carefully remove such spiders and place them outside, but not me. I goosh them. I’m not going to tangle with poisonous creatures! Crikey, I’m not an idiot.
So we were at a stalemate, the spiders and I, until a few weeks ago. I had just come home from the grocery store, and the first thing I did upon entering the house was to drop the milk on the floor, shattering the plastic jug and sending milk everywhere. (This is an ancient custom of my people, and I don’t appreciate you making fun of it.) I used a couple bath towels to mop it up and threw the towels in my laundry bag.
The next day, my laundry bag was covered with ants. Little black ants, a swarm of them, evidently quite fond of spoiled milk, which I did not realize was such a delicacy in the ant world. Where they had come from, I don’t know. I had never seen ants in my apartment before. Had the spiders conveyed to them — quite erroneously, I might add — that I was a welcoming host? Are spiders and ants even friends? I don’t think they are. I think spiders catch ants in their webs and eat them. It did not bode well for me if these two enemy camps were now working together.
It was clear that I would have to take drastic measures. I bought one of those “bug bombs,” the fogger cans that you set off and then leave the house for two hours while they gas every living thing in the place. I reasoned that if any spiders or ants were hardy enough to survive the holocaust, they were too hardy for me to kill them and I should just give up and let them have the place.
The bug bomb did the trick, or so I thought. About a week later, I began to see ants congregating near my laundry bag again (which, yes, I had washed in the meantime, thankyouverymuch). An ant expert I know told me that when ants find food, they leave a pheromone trail as a signal to other ants who may pass that way in the future, and that’s why the ants had returned even though there was no more spoiled milk. Sure, I said, a pheromone trail. But doesn’t the second party of ants notice that the pheromone trail is littered with the carcasses of ants who died in the gassing? Apparently ants are such single-minded eaters that they don’t care how many dead bodies they have to step over to get to the food, which, truthfully, reminds me of some experiences I’ve had at Hometown Buffet.
I deployed another bug bomb, and that solved the ant problem. I have not seen any spiders lately either, which suggests that they have been convinced of the inhospitableness of my apartment. That, or they are congregating outside, gathering their forces for an all-out attack. I will close the windows, just in case.
I have never been to Hometown Buffet. I've been to Chuck-a-Rama, but that chain is only in Utah, so a reference to it would have been obscure to many readers.
The story about the spider nightmare I had when I was a little kid was related, in quite similar language, in a previous column. I thought for sure I had told the tarantula-on-the-shoulder story at some point too, but apparently I had not.
Regarding this line: "My attitude toward spiders is similar to my attitude toward ballerinas: I am in awe of your natural beauty and flawless instincts, but if you come in my house I will kill you": First of all, I love that joke. Second of all, I struggled for days and days to come up with the right person or group to use before finally settling on ballerinas. I kept trying to think of a person whom I truly admire and find beautiful but want no direct contact with. I came up empty. Finally it dawned on me to take a different tack, to go a little absurd. Even though I don't honestly have a problem with ballerinas on a personal level, I think it's funny to pretend I do. "Ooh, never let a ballerina in your house!" "No, once you invite one in, it's impossible to make her leave!" Etc.
(Almost chosen for that joke instead of ballerinas: mimes.)