Learned Helplessness: Of Roaches, Restaurant Vents, and Reality

Yves here. Lambert thought I should hoist this comment from NYC-based reader jr into a post. I find the later part of his story, where the fellow tenants refused to do anything about intolerable (and correctable) noise levels to be remarkable. New York City actually has very strong pro tenant laws. And now it is not hard to download apps that measure decibel levels. If the noise was in the “dangerous to hearing” level, this would be a slam dunk for a complaint. There might also be building regulations that specify maximum levels which are sure to be somewhat below the “dangerous” level. I can’t fathom this demonstration of learned helplessness, particularly in a city where complaining, including the formal sort, is almost a sport. But as Frederick Douglass wrote:

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

In any event, this level of resignation does not bode well for any sort of collective action. If you can’t get citizens to address immediate concerns, how can you possibly move them to tackle bigger, less in your face problems?

PS. I had a “rat in restaurant” incident many years ago similar to jr’s roach story, but I will spare you.

By reader jr, from Links 4/22/2022

So I was recently told to try out a new pita joint here in Brooklyn by a good friend. I love me some falafel etc. so I hiked across town to pick up the order I called in. I was gargled and N95ed up, nose rinse in my pocket, but apparently everyone but me was under the impression that COVID was over. So I hung out outside, the place was busy and I knew it would be a wait.

The line inside shortened and I took my chance. The food looked good, people were chowing down with gusto, and the phone was falling off the hook. Seamless orders everywhere. They even had my favorite soda. I was excited to find a new “place”.

That’s when, in the full view of everyone in line, a plump cockroach decided to take the stage, ambling leisurely across the countertop. I froze and waited to see the reactions of the people around me. I was already turning to the door.

No one blinked an eye. They couldn’t have missed the fu(king thing if they were blind. Everyone went into “I’m not seeing that.” mode, I could tell because everyone kind of locked up but kept staring straight ahead or turned away or whatever. Only I actually watched the thing makes it’s way down behind the counter. The owner of the store was leaning right over it and didn’t even flinch. A suspension of belief.

Walking home, empty handed and grossed out, a memory came back to me. Before I left Manhattan, my partner and I had moved into a small apartment from our even smaller one for just a few months. This was two winters back. My partner had gone to her mother’s house out of state for a solid three month stretch to care for her after a serious surgery. I was alone in the place. Some of you may remember my comments were fairly wild around that time, something about Steve Pinker and voodoo fetishes made from human hair. I was lonely and stressed out.

Which was nothing compared to my mental state when the noise started. As the weather grew colder, an exhaust vent on the roof belonging to a restaurant downstairs began to squeal. The colder it got, the worse it got. I called the landlords, who pretended not to know that they were the landlords of the restaurant downstairs. I called the city, who pretended to send out inspectors who then wrote reports about how they found nothing during their pretend inspections. I put an app on my phone that registers decibel levels, it told me I had the equivalent of a Shop-Vac running outside my window 24/7. I stuffed a yoga mat, comforters, foam padding, etc. into the windows and it STILL was mind numbing. I really started to lose my $hit, as in manic episodes and talking to myself.

So I decided to get the other tenants on my side. The noise out in the hallway was even worse than inside my apartment, it literally rang in your ears. It had to be driving everyone else nuts, right?

Wrong. Everyone claimed they couldn’t hear a thing. One neighbor looked surprised when I mentioned it. Another said she had never noticed it until I brought it up, even as we stood in the hallway with the air vibrating around us from the force of it. Someone else said something to the effect of they don’t spend a lot of time at home anyway. No one was even vaguely interested in doing anything about it, I mentioned calling the city in a non-pushy way and got lots of non-committal looks and nods.

Only one little old lady on the first floor knew, or admitted she knew, what I was talking about. She said it had been going on for years, that it would never get fixed because it would cost the landlords tens of thousands of dollars to tear out the ancient vent system etc. and replace it. She was pretty safe from it on the first floor but she didn’t know how anyone else lived with it. She had used to live on a higher floor but it, and some other problems, had driven her down to the first floor.

I consider myself fairly jaded and cynical and I was blown away by this behavior. I couldn’t process it. When my partner got home, the noise was beginning to subside and she didn’t think much of it until I removed the stuffing in the windows and then she was like “D@mn.” The bottom line is that people can ignore almost anything, can justify almost anything, can believe almost anything, if it will allow them to maintain their illusions of stability. Their sense of normalcy. Their prime location digs.

Which bodes ill for the troubles ahead. No one will do a thing to help themselves or others if it means breaking through the illusions they pay so much to inhabit. Did I mention all of my neighbors, minus the little old lady, were firmly in the PMC? Someone above mentioned how they can ignore the fact that Biden is a shambling corpse who blurts out nuclear war initiating non sequiturs. I think they are going to ignore a lot more than that until it really hurts, then they will lash out at the nearest target. When they get hungry or thirsty and UberEats stops answering the phone.

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  1. SET

    What’s PMC? I know it’s NOT Private Military Contractor…

    Do tell, your rat in a restaurant story!

    1. Bart Hansen

      Professional Management Class; those who tell us what’s what and we’d better live with it.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      PMC = “Professional Managerial Class”. Lauded by Peter Drucker, although not using that term of art. Thomas Frank made it an object of study in his book Listen, Liberal, which made clear how they have come to dominate the Democratic Party at the expense of its traditional working class base, and what a bunch of preening narcissists most of them are. I’m not exaggerating by much on his latter point. Frank has lots of vignettes.

      I was secretly hoping someone would ask for my rat story! This was back in the 1990s when NYC wasn’t as spiffy as it got to be, but was definitely getting more and more cleaned up. I had a friend who wrote regularly for Vanity Fair. She’d do the profiles of the big Wall Street types. As a diplobrat with an extremely volatile mother, she was adept at handling them. She would often pick my brains on some of the technical angles of her stories.

      She lived near Broadway in the low 100s, which then was a pocket popular with journalists and writers. It was still scruffy and not entirely safe, hence lower rents, but also had typical gentrifying neighborhood good restaurants at not too high price points. This was also in the day when the no smoking rules were in transition. Restaurants were allowed smoking sections in bars and she was a smoker.

      This was a late summer day. Cavernous high ceilinged space. Cleary had been some sort of retail space, probably an enormous delivery bay, so deeper than wide. We were early and the only people there. The bar was up front, the huge windows were open. She had the view to the street. I was facing into the restaurant. There are a very long wooden bar, with the main section straight and then a curve to 90 degrees with a bar stool or two right behind her seat.

      A sleek enormous rat hopped up onto the bar about 2/3 of the way into the restaurant from the bartender side. No staff was in the restaurant at the time.

      He meandered towards me. There was a glass cake container on a glass pedestal. The rat put both his front feet on the cover to give the cake a good look, then walked a bit closer to me, turned around, walked partway back, and jumped down. He was clearly not concerned about us or about being caught out.

      I turned a bit pale. The writer notice and and asked. I told her about the rat.

      She said, “All restaurants have them” and kept smoking.

      1. Ann K.

        Great story! Mine: A friend was eating breakfast at a mid-price national hotel chain and watched a rat carry a mini box of cereal across the room and into the kitchen.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          OMG!!! The rat as a freeloading customer!

          Rats are not an uncommon sight on subway tracks and near piles of garbage bags (particularly outside restaurants) but I did once see one play garbage man. I was near the end of a subway platform. Someone had dropped a wrapper even closer to the end and it looked like it might have a scrap of food in it. A rat scuttled onto the platform, grabbed the wrapper, and rushed off.

          1. Pat

            Once saw a rat the size of a large cat sunning itself in the middle of the sidewalk on 14th Street, and a whole family of them gamboling and playing on the lawn in front of Fordham.

            Broadway theaters are rife with rodents, some mice some rats. The buildings are old, easily entered, have lots of things stored in every nook and cranny and people eat and have snacks there. In the old Palace Theater before it was renovated I went to get laundry one day to find a rat chewed threw a laundry basket to get to some food behind it. But the best was the night you could hear the screams from a row of the audience go from one side of the theater to the other like a wave at a football game during the first act of La Cages Aux Folles. Yes, a rat had run across their feet for some reason known only to it. In recognition of the theme of the article, as far as I know no one left or demanded their money back despite having been trampled by vermin.

            1. Carolinian

              Old movie theaters can have rats and maybe some newer ones as well. People spill soda and popcorn and candy on the floor and so there’s plenty for them to eat.

              As for NYC and noise, I lived in lower Manhattan for a couple of years and would say that if you are sensitive to noise you may be in the wrong place. Woody Allen joked about how he couldn’t sleep without the noise and was creeped out by the countryside and all those other kinds of bugs and noises. We do tune things out and that’s natural. Here in my own neighborhood a Methodist church got the bright idea of playing very loud recorded carillon hymns for ten minutes twice a day. While I was annoyed at the presumption for awhile now I don’t even notice it.

              Frankly many of us would like to tune Biden out as much as possible but he keeps pretending to be in charge and making messes that can’t be ignored. There are worse things than rats and cockroaches.

              1. Pat

                I never thought Woody and I would have something in common. I relate to that too quiet thing. It comes from over three decades in lower Manhattan.

                1. ChrisPacific

                  It’s amazing what you can get used to sometimes. I once lived in an otherwise decent apartment that was the corner unit on a block and a few meters away from an above ground section of a main subway line. When a train went past (which they did frequently) it was loud enough that conversation was impossible. After about six months or so, we had stopped even noticing. If someone was talking when one went by, they would stop, then continue the sentence after it was gone. Our brains would then mentally edit this into a single uninterrupted conversation, and we didn’t even remember the train unless we consciously focused on it.

                  The noise in this article sounds like another level, though.

      2. jr

        Yves and Lambert, thanks, I’m truly honored. I’d like to share a mouse story from
        my days working in restaurants:

        I worked in this dump in Philly as a line cook years back. It was a hellhole: chefs doing coke at 5 AM off their cutting boards, fist fights in the kitchen, the works. I used to kick my reach-in and roaches would spread out across the wall behind it like a spray of fireworks. Did I mention the health inspector ate there regularly and for free?

        One morning, I pulled a sheet tray of brownies out of a rack and discovered it was covered in mouse prints, like a coach’s whiteboard diagramming the plays. When I showed it to the sous, he promptly began to whip up a batch of icing to coat it. “It’s out of my bonus!” I quit a day or so later.

      3. PlutoniumKun

        I spent an extended summer (i.e., I overstayed my visa) doing various casual jobs in New York in the summer of 1987 as a very innocent 19 year old student. One job was as elevator operator in a very upmarket apartment building just a few blocks up from the Dakota. The residents were a mix of old money, one or two crass new money media types, some TV personalities (who I didn’t know, not having lived in the US long), and one very famous Hollywood actor and his family. One of my daily jobs was to use the service lift which accessed the apartment kitchens directly and take out the trash from the kitchens. It was made clear to me that the number one priority was to ensure that the rats and cockroaches that infested the basement never made it up to where it would be visible to the residents or their help. Outside of school biology class, I’d never encountered rats or water bugs of that size before. The janitors cat was moderately effective at keeping rats away, but the huge bugs were everywhere. I was absolutely freaked out by them, but had to keep this to myself. The 12 year old son of the Famous Actor palled around with the janitors son (who was generally considered by the janitorial staff to be a budding psychopath) and we had to steer him away from the basement in case he blabbed to his parents. We encouraged them both to play on the roof, where they amused themselves throwing water bombs on passers-by. So far as I would work out from conversations with the Help, the residents were genuinely unaware of how close they were to NY’s wildlife.

        Two years years later I had a similar job in, of all places, Heathrow Airport. The mix of incoming flights and constant heating meant that it was full of cockroaches and other exotic non-native bugs that had presumably hitchhiked by plane. As a temporary barman, it was made clear to me that one of my main jobs was ensuring no passengers caught sight of one as they made their way up various service ducts. One evening I was serving in a restaurant bar – behind a hatch about 4 foot by 3 next to the diners, serving the waiting staff. The edges of the hatch were a white laminate. Once, when drying the sink, I noticed a large roach very visibly strolling up the white laminate, in full view of one table. Hardened by my NY experience I slammed it with my cloth, but then realised that my sudden movement had attracted the attention of quite a few diners, who all looked at me as I stretched over. I tried to make a vague polishing motion, realising that the bug was probably still alive under my hand. One hardened cockney waitress looked over and said very loudly ‘whats the matter, is is a…’ and mouthed the word ‘cockroach?’. I could just keep the stretch going until the customers returned to looking at each other and I could flick it to the ground to stomp on it (which also drew attention to me). And no, I didn’t get thanked by the manager for this.

        My main rat story is from Vietnam. I cycled along the coast in 2003. One particularly torrid day involved a long tough haul in the pouring rain on muddy roads and I arrived exhausted at the only hotel I could find in an industrial town. There was a queue at reception of tired looking people waiting to book in. With growing horror I realised that by coincidence this seemed to be exactly the same hotel described as the location of a grim epiphany in the travel memoir Catish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham, a book I’d read before setting out on the trip. A very large rat casually walked across the lobby and vanished down a gap in the tiling. Everyone looked at it, and then as one, everyones gaze went to the one farang in the lobby, me, as if wondering if I’d be the one to react. I was actually too exhausted to do anything but wait politely in the line and get a room. Thankfully, I was too tired to do anything but sleep and leave as soon as possible first thing in the morning.

        1. Hayek's Heelbiter

          What you have called a “water bugs” and others “large cockroaches” were probably migrants from the South called Palmetto Bugs. As we say down in Dixie, they are “big enough to stand flatfooted and f* a turkey!”

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Yes, I always drew a distinction between roaches, which will get into food, and water bugs, which usually don’t. Generally speaking, roaches are brown, medium to small and move quickly. Water beetles are dark brown to black, move slowly and can be huge. The ones down here can be scary big.

            In NYC, in the apartment I lived in for many years, I was lucky enough not to have roaches. But if there was any construction, the water beetles would come to visit. My cats loved prodding them to death.

            PK, your old super probably had the worst remedy with his rat and roach/water bug infestation. In the old days, before the extermination methods improved, boric acid was a great way to kill and deter roaches and water beetles. Very effective. But you can’t use that if cats or dogs are around. And if he wanted to go the cat route, he’d need more, and ones that liked chasing bugs.

            1. jonboinAR

              The common name of what we usually call a “roach”, is german cockroach. It’s native habitat in modern times is human habitation, especially kitchens. When you find one in the kitchen, it means there are more, and that they are completely at home. Because of this, they’re pretty hard to control. You can spray forever for them and not get rid of them. I use bait, mostly, and can usually rid a house entirely that way. What we call “waterbugs” are other species of cockroaches. These are usually not nearly as at home inside as “roaches”, and tend to be easier to control. German cockroaches you have to do something about if you find them because they ARE going to take over if you don’t.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                They have improved poisons now. You need to get a professional exterminator. The roach eats the poison, goes away and dies, and his buddies eat his body (eek) and also get poisoned and die. But you need a few rounds at 1 month intervals since roaches lay eggs and so you need to get the ones that hatched after the last treatment.

                1. jonboinAR

                  You’re right about all of that. I AM a professional exterminator. The only caveat I’ll make to what you said is that I like to make my second treatment in a week or two depending on the severity of the case. After that it’s once a month until they’re gone, completely.
                  Me: “Do you still see any, at all?”
                  Client: “No, not really”.
                  Me: “Do you see any live ones, at all? Any?”
                  Client: “Hardly ever.”
                  Me: “We have to continue.”

            2. John Zelnicker

              Yves – Down here on the coast the big roaches I’ve called tree roaches, although they spend most of their time trying to get into homes for food.

              They run 1 1/2″ to 2 1/2″ long and what scares most people is when they start flying. When cornered they will sometimes take off straight for your face. Definitely scary.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            Thanks, yes, I was confused at the time by the difference between what I called cockroaches, and some NYers called waterbugs. The size of the bugs horrified me, I’d no idea anything that big, or that fast, existed. The ones I encountered in London were nothing like as large or intimidating. Thankfully, the mild Irish climate keeps roaches and those bugs away except, I am told, in the basements of some large institutional buildings.

      4. jonboinAR

        I don’t know if anyone is interested in this, but as a professional exterminator I can tell you, rats take a LOT of creativity to control. I don’t know if it’s actually intelligence that they possess more of than most other animals, or wariness (they are definitely wary), or are otherwise conditioned, but whatever, it definitely works for them. I have had to DO SOMETHING to control them in what we call here in Tyson Food country a “chicken house”, that is, a chicken raising barn. Once, years ago, I put out poisoned bait that happened to be in a spot that other animals could access (a mistake). I think I got a dog sick, killed a skunk, a racoon and a possum. The rats just walked past it and said “Do you think we’re stupid?” Oddly, they tend to be a bit vulnerable to snap-traps. You have to lay some down, unset, and attract rats for a few days by sprinkling bird seed or something around them. When you’re sure they’re used to safely being in the vicinity of the traps, you then bait and set them. You can kill several then, usually. For whatever it’s worth!

      5. eg

        A hawk killed a rat that had loitered too long under the bird feeder in our backyard and then spent a leisurely afternoon there eating it.

        I was not displeased …

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Years ago I saw a heron do the same by a riverbank. I saw it dart into the weeds by the side of the river – I assumed it was a fish, but then I saw the rat tail wiggle as it went down the herons throat.

          One of the big mysteries of nature for me (I’ve asked various ecologists this question, nobody has given a good answer), is why those great rat hunters, the weasel, never followed them into the city. Weasels are one of the tiny handful of predators who regularly hunt and kill prey substantially larger than them. They hop on the rats back and use their incisors to bite in and snap the rats spine. The weasels bigger relative, the stoat have been domesticated (ferrets). I wish we could do the same for the weasel.

  2. jabalarky

    This is what our society trains us to be: docile, heedless of our own health and safety, uncomplaining. If you point out a problem, you have a “negative attitude.” Whole families allow physical, sexual, and emotional abuse to occur while the family members pretend not to notice.

    This is why I have no hope that we will be able to deal with climate change or any other serious problem. We are much better at ignoring reality than coming to grips with it.

    1. jr

      Agreed. I’ll never forget standing in that hallway talking to that woman. The air was humming with the noise. I introduced myself and brought it up. She looked around as if in surprise. It was physically impossible for her to not hear it but so she claimed, with a straight face. The bred docility, the “go along, get along” attitude, was truly something to behold.

      I really think we are screwed re: climate change etc. People prefer their bubbles, it’s true they are repressed and programmed and distracted but I also think it’s something in our psyches as well. It’s why all that stuff works.

    2. anon y'mouse

      right, and the one person in the family or group that won’t shut up about it is labelled both “crazy” and “a problem”, and usually scapegoated, disciplined or ostracized into submission or at least until they’re no longer in earshot so the Denialists won’t be bothered.

      you can guess which one of those roles i kept playing. it’s the key to being the eternal child in the Emperor’s New Clothing parable. but it’s not a ticket to being liked nor advanced in anything.

      maybe that’s why Diogenes lived in a barrel.

      1. jabalarky

        If that barrel has a waterfront view it probably goes for about 100k over the asking price.

    3. Basil Pesto

      I dunno, travel guide sites like yelp, trip advisor etc. have traditionally always been rife with seppos complaining about the tiniest things so this is a kinda surprising development.

      The Roach thing is weird but sound and sensitivity to it can be a pretty subjective thing, so I don’t think the people apparently oblivious to it were necessarily in denial or full of shit.

    4. rob

      Isn’t that a fact.
      That is why the movie “don’t look up”… really nailed it..IMO
      There is nothing that people can’t “ignore at their own peril”

  3. LawnDart

    IIRC, induced dependency was a prelude to learned helplessness. So the continued beatings are having their desired effect after all!

    …people can ignore almost anything, can justify almost anything, can believe almost anything, if it will allow them to maintain their illusions of stability. Their sense of normalcy…

    Which bodes ill for the troubles ahead. No one will do a thing to help themselves or others if it means breaking through the illusions they pay so much to inhabit.

    An excellent observation.

    1. jr

      Thanks LD. I’m truly worried about the times ahead. I casually drop choice bits to people in random conversations: empty shelves, diesel fuel scarcity, shortages of medicines coming down the line. No one is really aware of the problems, everyone looks concerned for a moment then they move on to whatever distraction is in front of them. If you talk about preparing in any way, you get weird looks.

      Something I’ve been stocking up on is coffee. I’ve managed to quit all drugs and booze but I cannot shake caffeine. I’m thinking of buying a tub of the capsules as a back up.

      Everyone is addicted to caffeine. I see 12 year olds walking with cups of coffee. What happens when that becomes scarce? Imagine all the jagged-out drivers, medicos, EV battery inspectors, and nuclear missile pilots. One more factor to add to the storm.

      1. eg

        A caffeine addiction takes at least three or four days of unpleasant headaches to shake. I’ve decided it’s not worth giving up anymore.

        1. jonboinAR

          I’ve safely tapered off of cafeine before with few or no unpleasant effects. It took a little effort and discipline. Soon enough, though, I was addicted again. I’ve given up (trying to control it).

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Will those who have less money to buy less illusions with be more prone to rebel against bad things?

      Also, I wonder if all the noise-hearing neighbors had learned over the years by performing “experiment” after “experiment” after “experiment” that the city authorities will not ever, ever, ever . . . do anything about such a situation. And that eventually the city authorities got all their victims trained to accept these conditions.

  4. Joe Well

    Heads up: you have an unclosed strong tag.

    When I lived in NYC, tenant protections were seriously undermined by the fact that housing court records were public and just having gone to housing court would put you on a black list with tenant screening services. This is all I could find after a quick search to support this: http://housingcourtanswers.org/event/overview-of-housing-court-and-tenant-screening-reports/

    Also the fact that so many tenants were themselves in violation of their leases especially with regard to illegal sublets and pets.

  5. Joe Well

    I just got out of an apartment in an old house where the furnace had major issues causing it to burn oil like crazy and we were without heat for a total of about six non-consecutive days in winter. The worst night it hit 45 degrees inside and I spent the night at a family member’s house.

    It was a two-month Airbnb rental but my understanding with the landlady was that I would continue as a tenant after that.

    I looked into my “tenant rights” and it boiled down to a cumbersome process of written letters, return receipt requested, while I suffered not only from the cold but all the other issues the place had. All the while I would have a thoroughly combative relationship with the landlady. Of course, Airbnb complicates this as the municipality did not have clear rules (in the city of Boston, anything over 30 days is clearly defined as a tenant).

    So I left and the landlady already had a new guest lined up for the night of the day I left. She asked for a five star review which they would appreciate as a small business.

    In case I need to spell it out: the moral is the landlords hold most of the cards in a tight housing market unless you are willing to take the nuclear option of changing the locks and squatting, made possible in Massachusetts by a massive court backlog with regards to evictions along with tenant protections that make it harder to evict while an official complaint is pending. But as a PMC-adjacent person (PMCAP) with a credit history that I need for lots of things, and who works from home and needs a place I can think in, this is not an option.

  6. Joe Well

    I would like to know how readerjr eventually dealt with all this, as I have been in so many bad landlord situations myself.

    1. jr

      We moved out, Joe. The city has an app to report these things and according to it both of my complaints were “inspected”. Nothing wrong was found, according to the emails I received from them. Emails I read as the noise filled my ears.

      1. Joe Well

        So sad, that’s how I had to deal with my last few bad housing situations. I am in the process of looking for another place in Boston now. My economic situation is improving so I can probably do better but it galls me to be paying $3000 or more a month to live in a building that was paid for long ago.

        I hope you are in a better place now I wish you the best of luck.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        I wrote a comment a few comments up about whether the reason your fellow tenants “ignored” the noise was that the city had very carefully taught them all over the years that the city would never ever take any suppressive action against the noise.

        And this comment answers my questions. Your fellow tenants must have learned over the years what you just recently learned from those city answers to your complaints. That the city will never, in any case whatsoever, enforce any of its own laws or rules against such noise. Never. Ever.

        So eventually people learn to live with things that the city is committed to never ever changing.

        Its like Harry Truman once said . . . if you can’t stand the noise ( or the rats or the roaches), get out of the city.

  7. Lex

    I’ve seen two cockroaches in my life. The first was on the street in New Orleans, lumbering up the gutter and then slipping down a drain. Until it slipped down the drain, I thought it was a pony. Pretty sure ponies can’t do that. Other people also saw the roach; no one made a production of the sighting but then they all appeared to be locals.

    The second was in a stand-off with a gecko on the bathroom mirror in Hawaii when I got up to pee in the wee hours and turned on the light. I’m talking about large tropical steroidal-looking cockroaches you simply couldn’t ignore. I froze in the doorway and screamed aloud like a pedestrian in a kaiju film. Turning on the light had introduced a new threat while they continued to size each other up. Nothing moved but the cockroach’s antenna. The opponents looked to be in the same weight class. I turned off the light and let them have at it, then stepped outside the hut to empty my bladder. No more sleep was had that night.

    Yesterday I stepped out of an room at vet PT with my dog to hear a couple (in their seventies) share their recent encounter in Martinique with a spider on their ceiling the size of the husband’s hand. He had large paws. The wife had “dispatched” the spider and they spent the rest of the night awake wondering when the spider’s friends and family would be wandering through their hotel room.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That spider was probably an “insect control” spider and should have been left alone to control the insects.

      I sometimes have those lovely little black hairy jumping spiders living in my dwelling unit. I leave them alone on that basis.

  8. Eclair

    I did read jr’s comment a few days back and my reaction was, yeah, we humans can become acclimated to almost any kind of constant pain, grief, dirt, corruption.

    My beef over the last few years has been the PMC’s reaction to ‘the homeless situation:’ The ‘homeless’ are dirty, their encampments result in filth and disease and crime. They create noise and start fires. They must be removed.

    During a walk around Seattle, we came upon a homeless encampment, a tiny tent village on a hill, right adjacent to Interstate 5. Yeah, there was litter: the City does not provide trash, compost and recycling pickup to these sites. Yeah, people relieved themselves on site: the City does not provide PortaPotties.

    But, as I stood on the bridge, looking down at 8 lanes of speeding cars and trucks on the highway, the noise was deafening. The carbon monoxide was invisible, but I figured it was considerable, as were the particulate emissions. (If I had to chose between time spent in a locked room with an idling automobile and a grubby homeless person, the latter would win hands down, as I would not survive the former.) The rubber ‘dust’ from all those tires is washing off into the Sound and helping to kill off the salmon.

    But, we live with the noise and poisonous effluents from millions of ICE vehicles without a murmur. They are killing us and the planet but we turn our rage upon a handful of poor human creatures who should deserve our aid and compassion.

  9. Lex

    Way too into the weeds, but the phone apps do a decent job of determining noise levels. If it’s a legal (or potential legal) matter, then I recommend starting by renting a real sound pressure meter. Even better if you rent one with octave band analysis. Rentals will come with the software to handle the data, though you may well not understand it. In pretty much all cases, the units arrive setup for standard noise level measuring like A-weighted, slow response, 5 (or 3 db) thresholds, etc. It means that the software will spit out comparisons to OSHA regulations and other recommendations. The larger – and better for this type of thing – SoundPro or similar type units rents for ~$100/day; personal dosimeters rent for about $60/day and would give you solid data.

    If municipalities have sound ordinances, they’re always much lower than OSHA exposure limits but they are often exemptions for essential activities, construction, etc. And some of them are based on specific octave bands …. mostly to address trunks full o funk. The benefit of measuring noise with octave band analysis is the ability to pinpoint what is making the noise, even if it’s obvious.

    If your initial measurements indicate an issue (or go towards proving the issue you know about), it’s probably worth looking into hiring someone like me. Or hiring a lawyer to hire someone like me. We’ll do all the same things I just recommended you do, but in a way that’s legally defensible from a technical perspective. But even without lawyers, you may find that waving data at people goes a bit further than stating the obvious.

  10. JTMcPhee

    “Eeeww, gross!”

    Welcome to the real world. Humans create friendly eco niches for rats and roaches. I’d bet the vast majority of us, outside the Gardens of Heightened Expectations fed by notions of privilege and middle/upper class sterility, just “live with” the ineradicable concomitants of our consumptive lifestyles.

    I may be way wrong, but it’s pretty impossible to even conceptualize a “final solution” to the “ew, gross” roach and rat reality. Pesticides just breed ever better, hardier and better adapted pests. Apparently roaches and rats would survive a nuclear war that would relieve all us human snowflakes of our morbid symptoms. https://jeevoka.com/8-animals-that-would-happily-survive-a-nuclear-war/s

    We don’t have the individual or collective discipline to change the behaviors that let roaches and rats and bedbugs and viruses thrive.

    So it’s “welcome to the Matrix,” don’t see or hear or smell what you don’t have the impetus to fix to meet your expectations.

    1. Revenant

      I disagree. We need not accept “living with vermin” any more than “living with virus”.

      Public health measures include rat catchers, sanitation inspectors, public rubbish collection and strong enforcement. There may be ineradicable urban populations of vermin but we can control them and minimise their harm rather than surrender to them. The same applies to rentiers!

      As an example, take places like Singapore with really tough rules on allowing standing water on your property. They have eliminated malaria and other mosquito vectored diseases etc and plan to keep it that way. They also send out people to catch 6m long pythons all the time. :-)

  11. VH

    This is so true – that people seem to be numb about crazy stuff like noise, rats, whatever! I live in a condo complex where noise happens, people do the most amazing things with their trash, like just leaving it on the ground instead of putting it in the dumpster, etc. Suggestions to the board about a noise policy, as there is none in the bylaws and none for the county, was met with a big ho hum. Board members related their own stories of putting up with noise like they were proud of their toughness and their tolerance. WTF! They all had stories but were totally unwilling to set down any rules and enforce them. They agreed to send out a flyer that describes the concept of “quiet enjoyment” and what are considered quiet hours when you shouldn’t be making excessive noise. No change in the children upstairs running, screaming, fighting with each other and dropping things at 12:30 a.m. that sound like bombs hitting the floor. As for the trash, they have to hire people to clean up the mess. Our HOA dues pay for that among other things. What is it with the garbage? Like the people don’t want to lift the lid because it may be dirty but hey didn’t they make all the stinky garbage they are bringing out? By Monday it is a total disaster. These are adults – they drive cars, go to work – I assume – but throw the garbage around like they are toddlers. As for rats, I am sure we’d have an army of them but we have stray cats which people may hate (some of us are trapping and neutering so trying to be responsible) but if not for the kitties with all that garbage strewn people would be screaming about the rats – or maybe not! Makes me want to move to a cabin in the woods to get away from people. No one goes to HOA meetings either so forget about coming together to solve problems – maybe 7-9 people show up and that includes board members.

  12. NL

    The pro-tenant laws in New York City are not enforced; subsequent to enforcement tightening up, loopholes will appear, then more abuse of tenants, following which there is new round of legislation, such as the 2019 tenant protection act. Enforced? Your guess.

    The PE landlord’s response to my attorney’s letter was to send the super to the roof for an hour of pounding in order to open up cracks in the walls.

    Because the the city’s human rights commission is toothless I will be filing with the NYS Human Rights Commission for housing discrimination. Only the older single women are recipients of such wanton treatment. When I suggested to their Fellow* attorney that the playbook of dirty tricks was being enacted across their properties, for the same category of tenant, ‘we will see’ was the reply. He has requested contact info for the other tenant-victims. Now I have to get started collating documents, taking pics… oh, I tried the route of the pro-tenant organizations… my free labor and several years gone.

    (Time to become an ex-pat– but that is for another posting.)

    *interestingly, he wrote an article for a law and policy journal suggesting how tort law covering defect products could be used against Amazon.

  13. Gregorio

    Once we were eating a late night meal at a dive Chinese restaurant called Hung Far Low in Portland Oregon’s Old Town, when there was a power failure and the lights went off, when they came back on a few minutes later, there were already a half dozen or so cockroaches feasting on our Chow mein.

  14. Keith Newman

    Yves secretly hoping for someone to ask about her rat story! Got a good laugh out of that.
    My first job out of university in the mid-1970s (yes I’m that old!) was in “Product Protection Services” for a large food company in Canada. It was a euphemism for control of rodents, insects and bacteria. I enjoyed the job because it was fun climbing way up into remote corners of flour mills and other food plants. I had a lot of freedom and was able to chat at length with a number of factory workers something that got me into trouble at one point since I was management. After a couple of years I was ratted out to higher management by the lab manager. Fortunately I was warned by one of the workers I was friendly with and was able to fob it off as nothing to my boss.
    In any case back to rats, mice and cockroaches: I enjoyed the horror stories people recounted. Mine are mainly industrial so not so relevant. What I did want to add is that if you see any of these creatures boldly strolling around in exposed areas it’s because there are lots and lots of them. Normally they hide in corners or behind walls, and scamper away immediately when exposed. So if you saw one of them boldly serving itself on the counter, etc., it means that behind the walls the colonies are very large indeed, probably with as many as can possibly squeeze in to the available space. Think of that next time you see a roach or rat in a restaurant!

    1. wilroncanada

      reply to Keith Newman
      My first “job” after I walked out of a dysfunctional home in the early 1960s (I’m even older) was for a “quality food processor” in Toronto They made instant hot chocolate mix and packed jams and marmalades into 1oz containers for the airlines, etc. In the first week I had to throw 100lb bags of raw chocolate into a hopper 6 feet up, to mix with sugar. The sugar was at times transporting itself, so to speak. The best lifter was a wiry little guy, one of the few who spoke English, who would that same week disappear for a couple of days, then come back in the morning and immediately chug-a-lug sever mouthfuls of vanilla extract to reduce the DTs before starting work.
      The second week I was put in charge of the “portion-packing” section,. The packers who took the little paper cups from below the filler and put them into a succession of boxes, 20s to 100s to 500s, were all immigrant women. Within 4 days we were setting production records because I turned the filler machines down from full blast to allow the tables at the end to be cleared, and made sure the inputs were the right temperature. The foreman was so happy, he was being congratulated, he assumed we could do even better by cranking the machines back to high speed. Constant shutdowns for spillage ensued. The end of week two I quit, and got another job.

    2. jonboinAR

      If you have “a mouse” that you see regularly at all, chances are you have 30, 60 even.

  15. Glossolalia

    I lived in New York and San Francisco for the better part of 20 years. Oddly the sight of a roach in a restaurant never bothered me that much.

    As for the noise though, I’ve had similar experiences with neighbors’ barking dogs. Everyone around me seemed to not be bothered by incessant barking. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could sleep, or watch TV, or just exist with dog barking constantly. But I felt like the crazy one because everyone else just shrugged it off. That’s also when I learned that even though there are plenty of laws about noise, barking dogs specifically, the reality is that it’s almost impossible to get anything done. It required multiple neighbors to all complain simultaneously, and for a noise inspector to actually hear the barking himself, and even then, if the offender’s owner just didn’t answer the door, the noise inspector just said there’s nothing he could do and left.

  16. JEHR

    I enjoyed reading these nifty stories.

    The only feedback I have been giving for years is writing letters to “politicians of all stripes.” Just recently I got a personal e-mail from the governor of our central bank regarding raising interest rates in order to fight inflation. I pointed out to him that he must not believe that raising interest rates helps fight inflation because he made a speech about how raising interest rates fought inflation and then he didn’t raise the interest rates!

    The central bank always replies to my questions.

  17. Starry Gordon

    I had a barking-dog problem while living in a New York City suburb. Complaints to the authorities accomplished nothing (see above). However, I did find a way of shutting the dog up, which was by laying a piece of plywood across an old-time oil drum I happened to have around and striking it hard with a solid wooden broomstick, which made a noise not unlike a gun shot. Apparently loud noises frighten dogs, or at least some dogs, and the dog gave up barking long enough for me to get to sleep. The owner of the dog later complained about me to the police for shooting at the dog; an officer actually came to the door. I said I didn’t own a rifle (true at the time) and if I had been shooting, I wouldn’t have missed the dog. I suggested that some other neighbor, less accurate than I, might have been shooting. I also mentioned the barking and the fact that the police had done nothing about it. It was a standoff. Later I obtained the secret phone number of the dog’s owner, which proved more effective, especially in the early morning hours.

    In other news about the inability of the authorities to suppress illegal noise, at a later time I rented an apartment across from what eventually turned into a hip-hop bar. The noise, even at 4 a.m., was so deafening as to break the filaments in light bulbs. No call to the police or 311 had any effect, whether on my part or my neighbors’. This was later explained to me by one of the locals as Mafia interest in the bar; he said that if any of us had succeeded in bothering them or the police it would have been greatly to our disadvantage. Connections can explain a lot.

  18. polar donkey

    I think of neo-liberalism as creating a mindset of Darkseid’s world Apokolips. From Wikipedia-As Jack Misselhorn writes: “No one on Apokolips evolves spiritually because there is no love. It is a stagnant society, its inhabitants living in ignorance, the legacy of oppression”

  19. WhoaMolly

    The bottom line is that people can ignore almost anything, can justify almost anything, can believe almost anything, if it will allow them to maintain their illusions of stability. Their sense of normalcy. Their prime location digs.

    A few more examples from an old man who has lived a long time.
    – Gradual increase of panhandlers on every corner
    – Gradual increase of filth and trash in public spaces
    – Gradual decline in taste and quality of public water
    – Gradual decline in quality of public schooling

  20. ywhaz

    Not to disapprove what you said, but it could just be that those tenants in your story are “living in the future”, not the moment. This might be true considering it is likely those people are not long term tenants like the lady who noticed the problem. When I was about to leave my previous job because I got a new and better offer, I was sort of the same. I stopped complaining to my former boss and HR because I know my suffering is coming to an end (and yes it was). Is this still learned helplessness? I’m not sure. And this of course does not explain the cockroach case.

    1. jr

      Yeah, that’s definitely a thing in NYC, people are always looking for their next place right after moving into their current place. But this was bad, not just a leaky sink or something. It would be one thing if people were willing to admit it sucked but no one even seemed to notice it. They had to, unless they were deaf. It lasted 3 whole months! That’s a level of compartmentalization bordering on Multiple Personality Disorder.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        They already knew the city would never ever ever ever take any suppressive action against the noise. So what would have been the point for them to even bother to notice it? What purpose would have been served?

        The city authorities have made their attitude very plain. ” If you can’t take the noise, get out of the city.”

        ( And since I know I can’t take that kind of noise, I would never live ( and never have lived) in the Big Sh*tty to begin with).

  21. Dylan

    Paying excessive attention to things you cannot easily change tends to put you in a bad mood. True, the examples in this story are a little less than impossible to solve. But if someone has already decided they’re willing to deal with the noise, better attempt a temporary self-lobotomy to avoid a permanently furrowed brow.

    I guess this is why change often happens at once.

  22. Dave in Austin

    On noise. Yves said: “And now it is not hard to download apps that measure decibel levels.” That doesn’t always work.

    My case: diesel water pump going 24/hr/day outside my apartment in northern VA. Illegally placed on a sidewalk. I called 911 and told the cops what my sound meter read. The police in my case came and said “You need a certified, calibrated meter”. Me: “Does your police department have one?” Cops: “No”. I’d already talked to the construction superintendent. No luck.

    Solution: The diesel generator sprang a leak in a radiator hose line one weekend. The replacement was put where it belonged, in the construction hole.

    Problem: noisy upstairs neighbors who don’t take the polite knock on the door hint at 11:45 pm on a Wednesday. Solution: pound hard on the door at 6:30 am Thursday and when the bleary eyed guy in a bathrobe answers, politely say: “I tend to go work early, so I thought this might be a good time to talk with you about a little problem I have…”

    On roaches in the restaurant.

    First be polite and ask for your money back. If no luck, stand up, and loudly proclaim “These C… S…ing M…… F….ers have roaches and….” The diners look appalled. The owner threatens to call the police. These days you can tell him “Do it! In 30 minutes they’ll be here and I’ll have you, your restaurant and the cop on the internet!” and keep talking. This comes with a 100% money back guarantee. For me this was in Boston a long time ago; I told the girl with me she could leave and wait outside if she wanted to before I began. She said: “Not a chance”. Great date. We ended up at a clean Steak and Ale.

    I’m a pretty quiet guy, 78, got the degrees but came from a lower middle class background where truly creative cursing was taught by old guys who’d practiced on Iwo Jima.. I’ve only done it once at a restaurant. But the Sprint Communications store in Austin got a visit three years ago.

    We should all aspire to be polite. But sometimes it helps to fall a bit short.

  23. ywhaz

    This might be a bit off-topic, but when I was in NYC, a friend told me to only go to restaurants with a sanitation grade of A, because any place without an A is guaranteed to have problems. But to date I have never seen one with a grade that is not A. Are they hiding it? I guess they must be, because there is a website that lists all the grades, and there are some Bs and Cs: https://a816-health.nyc.gov/ABCEatsRestaurants#!/Search

    And I am a little skeptical about the ones that do get an A, which are the vast majority. Why do I keep hearing stories of mice and roaches? Maybe vermin control isn’t a big part of the grading system? The city government gives the grading criteria but it is not that clear: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/rii/how-we-score-grade.pdf

    One last thought, your roach story somehow reminded me of a movie where people live in a train in a post-apocalyptic world. The lower class found out that the food ration they got was made from milled cockroaches and decided to revolt against the steak-eating upper class. Truly amazing story. Who knows that having roaches in restaurants isn’t a way to desensitize you for that? Might as well start enjoying the extra servings of protein. /s

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      There was one restaurant that I had liked and was popular in the ‘hood that went out of business due to bad sanitation grades. It was shut down for a week by the sanitation police and never reopened. I believe the sin was rat turds on the floor in a food storage area.

      Back in the 1980s, the New York Times would publish sanitation notices in the Sunday paper. Chinese restaurants in Chinatown had high representation.

  24. Paul Jonker-Hoffren

    I had a restaurant experience like that in Paris years ago, in the Quartier Latin. Some shady Libyan restaurant. Cockroaches on the wall all over the place. My friends were happy to eat but I couldn’t. Me and one other went to a Pizza Hut after that…

    The vent story kind of reminds me of the basic plot line of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil…maybe that was the truly forward-looking dystopian movie that got it right about our current time.

  25. drumlin woodchuckles

    I remember once someone who went to U of Florida–Gainseville for a while telling me a story about how some young good ol’ boys were getting so rowdy in a bar that they were invited to leave. They came back later with a rattlesnake and threw it into the bar. It was wrong and probably illegal for various reasons to have done that, but are there legal things or borderline legal things in the “spirit” of throwing a rattlesnake into a bar that could be done against the restaurant or the landlord or both to force the silencing of that exhaust-vent on the roof?

    Could there be ways to make the dining experience so awful for so many of the restaurant patrons for so long that the restaurant would be driven out of business and therefor the vent not used anymore? If people inside the apartment building had friends on the outside ( and elsewhere in the city) who could be recruited into a stealth campaign to harrass and disrupt the restaurant till it went bankrupt and stopped using the vent, then the noise problem would be solved.

    As long as the problem is mis-defined as getting the City to “do its job”, the vent would never be silenced, because the City is firmly committed to never ever “doing its job” on controlling illegal noise sources. Whereas a “global guerillas” type approach to actually shut the restaurant down would have shut the noise down. And if such an approach succeeded, it could be used against every successor business which dared to open in that space. Enough such shutdowns and that space might come to be seen as “cursed” and no business would ever dare to rent it, and the vent would never be used and would never make that noise ever again.

    I don’t know if direct action by many diffuse and untraceable people could actually shut down that restaurant, and shut down every business that dared to try opening in that space and using that vent.
    But in a city firmly devoted to prevention of law enforcement against illegal noise, one can either try “throwing a rattlesnake into the bar”, or one can accept that the noise will never stop and one can try training oneself to not even hear it anymore.

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