(Un) Fair Weather Friends
Meredith Phillips tries not to be scared of Texas’ bugs.
As a native of a tiny northeastern state with low self-esteemand a small, dense, and collectively grumpy population, I fell pretty hard for Texas and its contrasting qualities the first time we met. It took very little effort to transplant myself to a happy life in Austin, and in the four years since I moved here, my love affair with the state that loves itself has blossomed. But since then, I’ve slowly been coming to terms with a secret fact, something the Lone Star welcoming committee and the PR people manage to keep quiet. That is, aside from being the biggest and proudest, Texas may well be the scariest state in the nation.
The other day at a party I overheard a girl issue a warning about alligator fish. I demanded an explanation of this new threat, and she told me everything she knew: alligator fish are bottom feeders with big chompy teeth. They skulk around Texas lakes and rivers as if evolution passed them by, chewing on the extremities of swimmers who get in their way. A freshwater barracuda, if you will.
Alligator fish are just the latest in a list of unusual and unpleasant vermin I’ve discovered since becoming a Texas resident. But our home state shouldn’t only be remembered for its critters—it’s also host to threats from the sky. Don’t look up, Texas has much more ominous weather patterns than I would have predicted from my previous northeasterly roost.
For these purposes, the term VERMIN means anything pesky, scary, or gross that wants to attack you or wants you to host it.
A few months afterI moved to Austin and realized the gravity of the bug situation, I began to theorize that maybe what I needed to do was move significantly closer to one of the poles. It seems that the further you get from the equator, the slimmer the odds that you’ll suffer, either physically or emotionally, at the hands of vermin on a mission.
In January of 1994 my friend Heather and I moved into a tiny, clean apartment on the east side of town. Almost immediately, the bathtub started filling up with silverfish. Clearly, an empty bathtub is better than one full of bugs, but the silverfish were wonderful, mild-mannered guests compared to the next infestation: cockroaches.
Thanks to the exterminator, most every roach we encountered that year was already doing the slow, gyrating dance of death: lying on its back, one foot pawing aimlessly at the air and antennae waving slowly. A roach would stay in the pre-death coma for days, and eventually expire. But just try to move a roach in that state, and it will haughtily resurrect, ready to show you who’s boss.
With a tree roach, you almost have to meditate before the fight. To kill one takes about seven dead-on whaps with a hefty shoe, and at some point during the scuffle the roach starts to fight dirty: it will fly at your head, or leap into your bed and hide under your covers, or try something else so utterly jarring that you lose your cool, and thus, your aim. We eventually discovered that it is possible to even the playing field; you can stun a roach by spraying something at it over and over again, until it’s damp and drugged and exhausted. Water may not work, but a healthy dose of Windex is better than going into combat against a dry roach.
When the roaches backed off, which they eventually did, some really creepy things started happening. We would regularly encounter tufts of gray fur in the pantry, and we’d hear scratching and thumping and running in the walls. Since we never saw this visitor, we decided he was a squirrel. This was easier than considering the other possibilities.
Our final infestation was ladybugs. Commonly regarded as one of the more appealing insects, even ladybugs are disconcerting when there are more than 12 of them gazing at you when you wake up in the morning.
In North America, only four varieties of snakes can kill you: rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, and coral snakes. All of these thrive in the Lone Star State.
A co-worker announced one day that he had an enormous snake threaded through his air conditioning system, trying to get into the house proper. He was leaving the office to meet the snakecatcher at his house.
The compromised air conditioning must have been the factor that aggravated the situation, because most natives of this state would have tried taking matters into their own hands before calling in the professionals.
Every East Texan I know has a framed picture of their mom or grandma posing next to a cottonmouth that she mauled to death with a stick after it snuck up through the commode. West Texans have a video of their baby sister whupping a rattler’s ass with a garden hoe.
And what other state can count snake farms as part of the tourist industry?
If Texans seem sort of blasÈ when it comes to snakes, it’s probably because they’re used to them, and because at least they’re big enough to spot easily. What’s an occasional snake to people who can’t even wear open-toed shoes in the yard?
Things to Hide From in the Yard
I was sitting on my friend’s porch when she, gazing upward, asked, “What is that woolly thing that just fell from the sky?” This was my second run-in with an asp, but the first time I saw one fling itself off a roof.
My introduction to asps, the tiny, furry beasts that hump along the ground in a deceptively benevolent manner, was in a parking lot. The longtime Texas resident who pointed it out explained that if an asp touches or bites you, it hurts more than you want to imagine, and then you go numb. Not your whole body, just the extremity where the asp bit.
I wanted to get my car and run over the damn thing, but she wouldn’t let me.
It’s difficult to conceive of such a vicious strain of caterpillar, when the fiercest pest in my past had been a black ant, a benign insect who did nothing but sully the kitchen counter with its feet. And not only do asps hurt you, but it’s premeditated; they hide on roofs, concealing themselves from view while carefully selecting a target. Then they launch.
Fire ants, another fire-and-brimstone pest, aren’t quite as discriminating. They will eat anything (or anyone) until there isn’t any left.
The fire ant native to Texas isn’t as much of a problem as the South American species that was accidentally introduced several decades ago. These super-aggressive ants don’t have any natural predators up here, and are forcing Texas’ native fire ants into submission and possible extinction by devouring all the low-lying potato chips and toes they can find. The answer to this problem?
University of Texas researchers are gearing up to introduce another non-native pest, this time a fly from South America who specializes in tormenting fire ants. That’s right, the tactic they use is to hone in on the South American fire ants and scare them into hovering in a ball. It’s hard to hunt while you’re hovering, so the native ants will finally have a prayer against the South Americans. But don’t both kinds bite us? And do we really want to introduce another bug with no natural predators who specializes in torment?
While swimming at Hamilton Pool in Travis County, a beautiful grotto with a blue-green waterfall and stalactites galore, my friend Manuel casually swatted a beeaway from his leg.
This bee held a voracious grudge, and stung him twice without dying.
It kept coming back and Manuel spent about a half-hour dodging it. His only effective recourse against the bee was to run and plunge into the pool and swim underwater, covering as much distance as he could. The bee, who had no trouble distinguishing Manuel from the people it wasn’t mad at, hovered directly above the spot where he went under. But apparently seeing under water isn’t one of the talents of a killer bee.
Eventually the bee backed off, and we learned later that had Manuel actually killed it, it would have released a pheromone that would have attracted its cohorts to the scene of the crime, and they would have swarmed and perhaps maimed the lot of us.
As Manuel put it, “It’s no fair to make a bee that you can’t even kill without fear of getting killed yourself. Soon they’re going to rule the world, these bees.”
Luckily, it didn’t seem to have an interest in following us home.
Things to Check Your Bed For (Every Night)
Other things to hide from include scorpions, who travel in pairs and are frequently found in apartments or houses recently constructed where a field used to be.
The preferred method of dealing with a scorpion is to ignore it. It is said that they won’t attack unless you touch them. So if you spy one on your cheek out of the corner of your eye, just pretend it isn’t there and you should be fine. But keep your other eye out for its traveling companion.
You also don’t want a brown recluse spider to bite your face. My landlady’s boyfriend and her previous boyfriend were both bitten by this special kind of treacherous spider while sleeping. Both are alive and well, although one almost went blind and the other developed the telltale black line running up his arm toward his heart that can only mean one thing: blood poisoning.
In short,if you’re in this state and anything with teeth comes near you, hide. If it finds you and bites you, go to the doctor. And if it’s a snake, take your time. Walking fast will just distribute the poison through your bloodstream more quickly.
Threats from the Sky
People say that the sky,like everything else, is bigger in Texas. That’s convenient; it takes a sizeable sky to accommodate the golf ball-sized hail that we live in the shadow of every spring.
The only natural disasters from which Texans seem to be exempt are earthquakes and tsunami waves. Our vast geographical diversity means we are in the perfect position to host flash floods, tornadoes, sandstorms, hurricanes, and starting this spring, a new kind of hazard from above: smoke attacks, springing from our typically friendly neighbors down south.
But in this climate, even fair weather can be threatening. People of my pigmentation and temperament (pink and non-pioneering, respectively) simply would not have settled here, certainly not before the advent of Freon and SPF 50. What probably happened is that the early settlers were simply too hot to leave once they arrived, and they decided to embrace the climate of Texas, for better or for worse.
It was 10 degrees below zero on the day I left Connecticut four-and-a-half years ago, thinking I wanted to be warm. As it turns out, I’m the wrong color to be warm. The opposite of a steak, I begin at a medium pink and become rarer when heat is applied; after four minutes of Texas sun, my natural rosy glow progresses to a feverish hue.
And if memory serves correctly, it was 102 degrees every single day during the summer of 1994. A weather obsessor, the heat was my primary topic of conversation that year, and I couldn’t understand why others wavered from the sweat stains topic in their own conversations.
While it made perfect sense to have black vinyl interior and no air conditioning in a car up north, in Texas it has been the inspiration for prolific cursing and gnashing of teeth. Before I discovered steering wheel covers, I was forced to drive home from work every day in a pair of purple polarfleece mittens; they were the only thing that made steering the car a feasible option.
Finally, the first summer shriveled to a close. When the second one rolled around two months later, my attitude was much improved. I had begun to acclimate. Now, even when it’s over 100 (which is every day, in case you hadn’t noticed), I am a trooper. A damp, crimson, angry trooper, but a trooper nonetheless. I have learned to focus my negative energy on what the meteorologists call “severe weather.”
In Texas, if it’s not fair, it’s unfair.
Several years ago, a friend from Houston called me in Connecticut—he was flying in the next day and needed a ride from the airport to the coast, about 60 miles. Whereas I normally would have been happy to do it, we had a hurricanescheduled for that day, so I was reluctant to commit. Plus, I tried to explain, his flight would most likely be canceled anyway.
He insisted that it’s perfectly all right to drive in a hurricane, it’s even acceptable to fly in a hurricane, and Texans did these things all the time.
At that point, I might have known. Anyone advising a good friend to “just drive around all of the felled and falling trees” is accustomed to a low quality of life, weatherwise.
I had a lot of things to learn, but one of the first was that as long as I live inland, hurricanes are the least of my problems.
It has always been this way; the first thunderclap strikes and I’m in the fetal position: kneeling down, face on the ground, hands over my ears, butt in the air. In Texas this is called The Tornado Position.
In my world, “Yep, looks like a funnel cloud over there” is not a sentence to be uttered nonchalantly, and yet here I am, in the nether regions of tornado land. We’re still seeing the effects of El Niño, and La Niña is looming. Because of these unsavory siblings, tornadoes are the hottest things on the horizon this year, and tornadophobia is probably about to become really fashionable. In this, if nothing else, I am on the cutting edge.
The tornado problem started the day of the Jarrell incident, when everyone in the building where I worked was huddled in a stairwell. I had never noticed before that the building was nothing but hundreds of squares of glass, welded together with tiny strips of steel. While high winds unravelled a building next door, another glass block that was still under construction, I mentally ran through the safety essentials:
• During a lightning storm, stay in the car. During a tornado, get out of the car and get out of its way.
• If a tornado in the distance looks like it’s standing still, it’s coming straight for you. Run perpendicularly to the path of the tornado. Do not run in a circle; this behavior is only appropriate in the presence of alligators.
• In the event that a tornado is going to strike, get into a basement if possible, or in an interior room on the ground floor. Assume The Tornado Position. If a bear is going to attack you, it is also appropriate to assume The Tornado Position. Other bear safety rules do not apply—ringing bells and singing loudly are not storm deterrents, although these things may make you feel better.
• Right before a tornado there is a drop in barometric pressure. So open the windows. No, close the windows. There are different schools of thought on what to do with the windows; the only thing you really need to remember is to get out of their way.
During a tornado, more people are killed by flying debris than by . . . than by what? I don’t even want to know what the other options are.
People who don’t hide in the tub all the time tend to have a hard time understanding why I do, and it’s no wonder. The bathtub in my second floor apartment is plastic, wobbly, and probably aerodynamic, but after scouring the neighborhood in vain for ditches, culverts, or a free-standing basement of the Kansan variety, the tub seems like the safest place. Chances are I’d be better off crammed into the kitchen sink or the toilet. At least those things have enamel coatings.
Because the world’s worst tornadoes have typically transpired in May, I require intense coddling during the fifth month. Every time the sky darkens or the wind turns, I can be found gazing up at the clouds with a stricken look, but this May there was nothing to see. The sky may have been green, black, and funnelish, but it was hard to say, because all weather activity in Texas was effectively blocked out by smoke.
In the winter and spring of 1998, huge fires raged out of control in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatamala, producing smoke cover over much of Texas.
Austin was almost unrecognizable. Visibility was poor and our sunsets became the shimmery pink of those in dirty cities. The sky was completely white and instead of being several hundred feet up in the air, it started at about 10 feet off the ground.
The best thing about the smoke is that it seemed to ward off tornadoes. But other than the fact that large portions of Mexico were being ravaged, the greatest downside may have been the health warnings Texans were often placed under.
Being told not to exercise, spend time outside or open the windows is such severe advice to give a whole state, especially at the best time of year to do those things. For a healthy breathing person, the smoke turned out to be more of an emotional threat than a physical one. Austin is famous for the high quality of life, and not exercising or spending time outside combined with the deprivations of never seeing the sky made for a city of mopes.
Reports that the smoke would stay through the summer were greeted with long drawn out sighs and impromptu vacation plans, but before long the smoke had blown from our midst, only to be replaced with 100-degree days and the promise of no rain for the rest of the summer.
Come to think of it, a drought should contrast nicely with the flash floods of last summer.