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A Cockroach in the Museum of Fine Arts


by Con Chapman


Am I mistaken in thinking that cockroaches are attracted to art galleries for the warmth rather than the pictures?

Review by Raymond Tallis of Eric R. Kandel's “The Age of Insight”

It's been a while since I took my cockroach Archy to the museum. I tend to get “museum feet”—the sudden urge to sit, or better lie down—as soon as I set foot in a marble-floored mausoleum dedicated to the highbrow. Archy, by contrast, can't get enough of the stuff.

 

 

“You're not gonna bolt for the gift shop and look for Edward Hopper t-shirts the way you did last time, are you?” he says with all-too-apparent disgust at my short cultural attention span.

“You know my limits,” I say.

“You haven't . . . grown much since you pulled me down from your parents' bookshelf two score and ten years ago.”

He's got that right. I first encountered the Arch-man in the living room of the house I grew up in, wedged between golf books by Dr. Cary Middlecoff and the 23-volume set of the Art Linkletter “Kids Say the Darndest Things” library. It was a gift from some whimsical friends to my parents, who didn't make much headway through it since poetry—Archy's preferred genre—wasn't a big part of our family life. Or any part at all, other than Burma-Shave signs.

 

 

Archy and Mehitabel, the cat who was his muse, provided me with hours of entertainment, seasoned with extended periods of confusion. Many of the jokes went right over my head, but I plowed on because of the George Herriman illustrations.

“I want to see the new American wing,” Archy said, recalling me from my reverie.

“You're the boss,” I said, although I didn't really mean it. I would have sunk to a new low if my boss was a cockroach, instead of your standard-issue jackass.

I plopped him in my shirt pocket so we'd only have to pay one admission and we made our way to the “You Are Here” stanchion and tried to figure out where we were.

“I don't know why it is that people have such negative attitudes about cockroaches,” Archy said as I traced my finger over to the little escalator symbol.

“You guys don't help your cause any by scurrying whenever humans turn on the lights,” I said. “It makes you look suspicious.”

“Can't afford to take any chances,” he said. “You ever been hit with the heel of a Talbots pump?”

“Let's leave my erotic fantasies out of this,” I said, cutting off the personal stuff at the pass. “Also, those cheap motels you stay in—it doesn't help your reputation.”

“You mean like the one you checked your parents into for graduation, and your mom complained about the men and women coming and going all night long.”

“It was Brookline, home of Leonard Bernstein, Conan O'Brien and Mike Wallace. It looked like a respectable place to me.”


How was I to know?

 

We passed through the hall where Renoir's “Dance at Bougival” is displayed, and stopped for a moment to take it in; the importunate man, his reluctant partner.

 

 

“It's the same the whole world over, ain't it?” Archy said, and a young woman in black toreador pants and a sweater that drooped over one shoulder looked at him disapprovingly.

“What's her problem?” Archy sniffed when she was out of earshot.

“You said ‘ain't,'” I told him. “You're just confirming the worst cockroach stereotypes when you talk that way.”

“What stereotype—other than La Cucaracha—would that ditz have in her teeny little mind?”

I gulped. “Well, a lot of people think cockroaches are attracted to art galleries for the warmth—not the pictures.”

I could have knocked him over with a feather, but that would have been no big deal since he was so small to begin with. I could have knocked him over with a piping plover's feather, or a least tern's feather—a really small one.


Least tern, with even leaster baby chick.

 

“You . . . have . . . got to be kidding me,” he said, loud enough for the security guard to shush us. “I'm a freakin' published poet, jack,” he snapped.

“I don't think that cuts much ice here,” I said. “I mean, your work wasn't exactly highbrow stuff.”

“Oh yeah? Well how about this, pal—ever heard the expression avoir le cafard?

“‘To have the cockroach'? Sure—it's from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal.

“Lucky guess. Anyway, he picked cockroaches—and the whole cockroachy feeling that life weighs you down with—as the symbol of modern consciousness, something none of these over-educated twits can lay claim to.”

A few more heads turned, many of them containing high 700 SAT score quality brains. I could see my bumptious friend was wearing out his welcome. “I'm getting tired,” I said.

“Isn't there some kind of Walk for Museum Feet I could support in the hope that someday we could get through an entire afternoon without you bailing out on me?”

“I'm not bailing out on you just yet.”

“You mean you'll at least take me to the American wing?”

“No—I want to stop in the gift shop and see if they have any Edvard Munch t-shirts.”

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