Bugging Out

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

For months I’ve been hearing random mentions — threats, really — of the looming cicada infestation that is, as of this writing, no longer looming. I didn’t give it much thought back in the fall or the winter, or even as spring’s first blooms appeared. When it came up, on the news or in casual conversation, I thought, “Ew, yuck,” and I went on my merry, bug-oblivious way.

That was about the extent of it.

I was not braced for what was about to happen – the scores of insects around my home, randomly littering my porch, snuggling up with my copy of the Post inside its delivery bag, casually hanging off my car tires. In their early developmental stages, they bear an eerie resemblance to the creature I hate more than any other: the cockroach.

After the cicadas break out of their protective shells, before they get all cool-looking with their intricate veined wings and their shocking red eyes against the black of their bodies, they crawl around and are first off-white and then brownish. They’re just roachy looking.

In the days and weeks leading up to the great cicada invasion of 2004, I started to become shaken by the news reports promising a scene right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie; I let my imagination run wild, if only for a short time. I imagined them dive-bombing me as I dashed down our front steps to my car, only to find my car doors plastered with chirping insects that fly at me when startled.

I started to panic.

At various points since the cicadas made their emergence from the ground, I have been convinced that I will not survive this phenomenon. I have wondered why I didn’t take a month-long cruise during May, or go on a kibbutz or something. (Why? Because I get seasick and I am not Jewish.) Some time ago I planned a short jaunt to Iowa — beautiful, cicada-free Iowa — which happens to fall during the height of cicada season, and lately I’ve started kicking myself for not planning a longer journey, one spanning maybe a week, or two, or three. I know my loved ones would not get sick of me. I know they would make sure that creepy-looking bugs were not hanging from every surface I saw.

My friends who live in the less pastoral areas of the District of Columbia are finding themselves conflicted with feelings ranging from jealousy to relief – many of them say they have not seen a single cicada since the insects started crawling out of the ground as nymphs, quickly maturing and mating like crazy on the pavement outside my home. They don’t have a fence that’s now adorned with multitudes of cicadas the way our neighbors, the lesbians across the street, do.

We’ve stopped to take photos of this fence and have seen others doing the same. I am happy that our neighbors have this fence, not because it provides a point of interest in my neighborhood, but because it seems to be where all the cool cicadas hang out, and it is far enough from my house and my usual parking spot to enable me to drive by slowly, in awe, with windows raised and doors locked, without ever feeling threatened. At times I’ve even suspected that it is somehow a draw to cicadas on the block, who might otherwise find contentment on my car or the screen door on my house.

This is not to say they’ve completely evacuated my end of the cul-de-sac. They’re out and about, peppering the pavement by where I park and flying randomly. I am trying very hard to practice my ideological foes’ dubious example of loving the sinner and hating the sin, and find my vegetarian principles and my Iowa nature in conflict with my rampant insect-phobia.

I do not want to kill them (although I have never had philosophical problems with helping a cockroach meet its maker), but I do want them to stay away from me. I’m trying to remember that the cicadas are just here for a giant orgy, the culmination of their 17-year lives — they’re just horny teenagers out to mate, procreate and die happy.

I’ve been fascinated by the way they mate end-to-end, sort of like they were both walking backward and just bumped right into each other and were too lazy to do anything about it. I’ve caught more than a few of them in this coital act, and I’ve taken care not to step on them during their moments of pleasure.

One day I even carefully maneuvered my car to avoid two cicadas involved in their booty-sex right in the middle of my street. I could have run over them with glee, considering it a small investment in a fraction of my peace of mind when the next generation emerges in 2021, but I was trying hard to love the sinners, even as they engaged in their sin right in front of me.

I’m still not convinced that I’ll survive this outbreak. I have not gotten a convincing answer on whether we’re seeing the worst of it now or if it’ll get much more intense. I keep an eye on the neighbor’s fence, gauging the population daily and trying to figure out if there are more now, and if they’re new ones or if they’ve all just flown clumsily down the hill from my area to hang out on my block’s little cicada corner.

Maybe it’s like their Greenwich Village, or their Castro. I shouldn’t judge them. But do they have to have their pride parades on my street?

Kristina Campbell’s column, Alphabet Soup, appears biweekly and usually is not about insects. If you’re reading this outside of the reach of Brood X, do an Internet search and see what all the fuss is about. You can commiserate with the columnist or send words of encouragement to her at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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