Now That I Never Leave My House, I’m Getting to Know All About the Spiders Who Live Here With Me
Endless months of homebound isolation will make you see your surroundings in a whole new way.
Late in summer, I was sitting at my kitchen table, right in the spot where I’ve sat every morning for the past 10,423 days. It was an unseasonably hot day — nowadays, they’re all unseasonable — and I was contemplating a) why my husband and I never installed air conditioning in our home; and b) why I married my husband in the first place. Meantime, I was playing the game with our cat and the feather that I’ve played with her every morning for the past 10,423 days. Then I accidentally dropped the feather, and as I straightened up from retrieving it, I saw The Cobweb. It was the Mother of All Cobwebs — four feet long, at least a foot wide, made up of dozens and dozens of strands of silky gray something or other, extending from the corner of the Hoosier cabinet all the way across the ceiling to the refrigerator coils.
I felt a hot rush of shame flood me, body and soul.
Body because, c’mon, there’s nothing as disgusting as a huge creepy cobweb. But soul because every holiday season, after a visit to the house of a Certain Unnamed Relative, my family has to listen to me say, “Dear God, did you see that huge cobweb is STILL THERE?!?!” Because it always is — a cobweb of Brobdingnagian proportions, distracting me from the Christmas carols and the punch and the cookies and even my nephew’s new tattooed girlfriend. It was a point of pride for me to bring up that cobweb, year after year after year — my puritanical way of saying, “Oh, sure, they may have more money than we do, and a nicer house, but at least WE don’t have a giant cobweb stretched across the living room!” Only now, I did have a giant cobweb — granted, in the kitchen, but that’s even worse than in the living room. The same kitchen where I’ve sat. For hours. Every single one of the past 10,423 days. With a cobweb dangling above me, offering silent commentary on just what kind of person I am.
I’m not going to try to pretend I don’t know we have spiders. I know we have spiders. We’ve always had spiders. An entomologist in North Carolina conducted a survey of 50 homes there a few years back and found that every single one contained spiders — 16 different species of spiders in total. Big spiders, little spiders, spiders that eat mosquitoes, spiders that pick on other spiders … Spiders are just another part of the Circle of Life. But most people manage to keep their spiders under wraps, confined to places where they won’t be glimpsed by visitors and guests. Like, say, our basement, where the cobwebs hang thick and fast, looping between the stairs, dangling off stacks of empty coolers and shoeboxes, creeping along the rafters. I know when I go down to the basement to do a load of laundry or grab a bottle of wine that I risk seeing spiders. I’m cool with that. The furnace repair guy isn’t going to judge me if he brushes against some cobwebs on his annual visit to tune things up. But I know how my good friend Ruth will react if I have her over for lunch in my kitchen and a spider drops down beside her. It’ll scare her away.
The thing about cobwebs is, once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere. Along the banister railings. In the corners of cabinets. Behind doors. Inside windows. Between the legs of chairs. Were they always there, and I only notice them now because I’m stuck at home all the time? I try to brush them into oblivion with my feather duster, but even as I do, I know the spiders will start spinning again. According to that study, a breakdown of how many homes housed which species of spiders found a range from 10 percent for sac spiders and 16 percent for goblin spiders to … 100 percent for cobweb spiders, who, as they say, have one job, which is to redecorate my house in Early Addams Family.
I used to drive for three hours every day getting to and from my office. It was early when I left and late when I got home, and frankly, I didn’t clean my house very often or well. Every couple of years, for my anniversary or birthday, I’d ask my family to gift me with a visit from a cleaning service to get at the stuff I never really had time for — to scrub the baseboards and degrub the handles of the kitchen cabinets and wipe down the edges of the panels in the four-panel doors. Other than that, I got by just dusting and vacuuming every couple of weeks, with an occasional mop job on the kitchen floor. Why bother doing more for my house when I was hardly ever there? And when I was — on the weekends — I sure as hell didn’t want to spend my time taking a toothbrush to the shower grout.
But since mid-March, I’ve spent every goddamn minute of my life in this house, and let me tell you, it isn’t making my heart grow fonder. Bad enough that for weeks we all scoured stores for sold-out disinfectants (which many of us then used to scrub fruits and veggies, resulting in 20 percent more poison-center calls related to cleaners). Then it turned out that contrary to popular belief, surfaces never were the problem — as the President put it to Bob Woodward (but not to you and me), “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.” Now I get to entertain myself by reading New York Times articles on when it’s safe for my regular “domestic helpers” to come back to clean the joint for me (hah!), not to mention arch quotes in the Wall Street Journal from Martha Stewart, who’s sheltering at her estate near Bedford, New York, with what she calls the “three detainees”: her driver, housekeeper and gardener, with whom she has cocktails and plays cards. Oh, the vicissitudes of having to decide which entrance the help should use in these dangerous times. And just in case you’ve ever wondered what it costs to get your celebrity mansion professionally cleaned, a waste-removal company in London, Clearitwaste, recently provided the following helpful estimates: Drake’s digs in Toronto, $208,000 a year; Kylie Jenner’s L.A. home, $80,080 a year; and Oprah’s residence in Montecito, $95,680 a year. “The Promised Land” indeed.
Lack of domestic helpers aside, you’d think those three extra hours a day when I used to be commuting would be enough time for me to stay ahead of the spiders. That’s 15 hours a week — almost two full working days! But they’re not, because the curse of working from home is that everything takes longer. Tasks bleed into other tasks: You sit down at the kitchen table to write a story, and you notice that whoever sat at the kitchen table ahead of you spilled coffee on it, so you go to the sink to get a sponge to wipe up the coffee, and you notice that whoever used the kitchen sink ahead of you (and since you have no detainees on staff, you have a pretty good idea who it was) left the drainer full of egg bits from his breakfast, which is disgusting, so you go to empty the drainer into the trash and you notice that the trash bag is full, which is really the responsibility of the other human being living in the house, but the trash also stinks, so you empty the drainer and then tie up the trash bag and haul it outside to the trash bin, but when you open the trash bin, you see it’s full of maggots because it’s been so unseasonably hot, so you grab the hose and rinse the bin out, and while you’re at it, you give the chrysanthemums a drink, too, before you go back into the kitchen and put a new trash bag in the trash can and finally sit back down at the kitchen table to write, whereupon you see that whoever sat at the kitchen table ahead of you spilled coffee on it, so you … well. You get the idea. This never used to happen at the office, because at the office, we didn’t have a hose.
The only other human being in the house is my husband, Doug, who is in every way a superior being to me, except when it comes to cleaning up spilled coffee on the kitchen table. When Doug happens on a spider in our house, he does what the experts all suggest with such beneficial insects: He gently captures it and takes it outside and sets it free, like he’s Mahatma freaking Gandhi. My method is a little different. When I happen on a spider anywhere in our house except in the basement, I promptly crush it to smithereens. If that spider cares about the Circle of Life, it ought to stay in the basement where it belongs. And every once in a while, just to keep the spiders in the basement on their toes, I crush one of them, too.
People used to commiserate with me about my long commute. I’d accept their condolences, but the truth is, I didn’t mind it. I’m not decked out with a Bluetooth and Siri and all that other crap, so I don’t pay any attention to my phone when I drive. That means those hours were mine — to listen to the radio, to think, to plan, to give the finger to idiots in BMWs. No one could reach me. If I was late to a meeting, all I had to do was mutter “Goddamn Expressway” as I entered the conference room and everyone understood. Now that I’m stuck at home, I’m at the mercy of people who want to set up Zoom meetings all the livelong day (and there are a lot of these people). What excuse am I supposed to give now: “I had spiders to kill”? My reputation for weirdness is already pretty solid, thanks.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful that I still have a job — one I can do from home. One that doesn’t involve sick people, or bodily fluids, or collecting garbage other than my own, or anything worse than facing down an arachnid or two (or 10, or 100). But nobody foresaw, back in March, that we were in this work-from-home thing for the long haul. I weep to think of the millions of granola bars left to expire in desk drawers, the water bottles teeming with bacteria now, the abandoned desk calendars left unturned — all the flotsam and jetsam of a former life. Maybe I’ll suggest Doug start taking the spiders he catches to my old office downtown. No one will bother them there.
Over the summer, my son Jake texted a photo of his shower curtain to the family text-message group with the caption “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.” When you enlarged the photo, like, 500 times, you could see there was a spider on the shower curtain. A pretty sizable spider — or, as Jake described it, an “unholy abomination.” He went on to explain that he’d defeated it in battle: “But first I put on sweatpants, a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, a ski mask and goggles. To ensure that I had no exposed skin.” Jake, who’s six-foot-three, was a football lineman in college. He’s an Eagle Scout. He plans to get a pilot’s license. He’s pretty fearless. But a spider can do him in. He used to have a roommate, a country kid named Picky who liked killing spiders. But Picky moved back home to his mom’s at the start of the pandemic, so Jake’s on his own now. It’s up to him to keep the place spider-free.
A Washington Post story mentioning that spider study cited research estimating the global average spider density at 131 of them per square meter, which actually sounds about right for my basement. That study found spiders in 69 percent of the bathrooms and 76 percent of the bedrooms the researchers examined, and the Post further helpfully noted, “There’s a good chance at least one spider is staring at you right now, sizing you up from a darkened corner of the room, eight eyes glistening in the shadows.” This is not the way to get people to cozy up to their arachnid friends. It is, however, the kind of alarmism that plays on Jake’s and my fears and has made Americans in particular, according to University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood, “incredibly entomologically dumb.” Lockwood, author of the book The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, recently told National Geographic, “We just don’t distinguish the dangerous from the harmless from the helpful.” I gather he’s suggesting I get right up on that spider and identify its species before I crush it to smithereens. In the same article, entomologist Gwen Pearson, head of some awful thing called the Purdue Bug Zoo, notes that in all of North America, there are only two kinds of spiders that are dangerous to humans: the brown recluse and the black widow. The former rarely kills people. And there hasn’t been a U.S. death from the latter in more than 35 years. All that means to me is that we’re more than due.
The irony, of course, is that while I’m busy scouring my house for cobwebs, nobody is coming to visit. We haven’t had house guests in months, and when we did, they hung out in the backyard garden, which I’ve had time this year to tend as closely as the professionals at Longwood. Not a single African daisy goes un-deadheaded; my salvia are Vesuviuses of scarlet and blue. As a result, the backyard is constantly swarming with insects — a testament to its healthy biodiversity. Nobody sitting there ever complains about the bug life. I have to think my spiders would be happier outside, basking in the rain and sun.
But no. They malinger in cubbyholes and corners, busier than beavers, endlessly spinning out their skeins of silk. In many world cultures, I understand, spiders symbolize persistence and creativity. For me, they’ll always be reminders of That Year We Sat Around On Our Butts.
The Washington Post featured another article recently, about the rise of housekeeping robots due to the pandemic. It turns out hospitals, airports, subways and hotels have been snapping up bots to scrub floors and bombard bacteria with ultraviolet light and spray disinfectant onto seats. Jake and my daughter, Marcy, both have Roombas, those robot vacuum cleaners. I think when you have a robot vacuum cleaner, you miss out on the good old rush of moral superiority you get from vacuuming your own damn floors. But as long as we’re building robots, how about a remote-control drone equipped with feather-duster wings? I’d send that sucker circling my rafters 24/7, frustrating entire generations of cobweb spiders in one fell swoop. I’d send it down into the basement, too. And I’d have it hover over Doug’s workbench full of fly-fishing gear that’s gone untouched for so long — since the kids were born, basically — that it’s more spider-infested than the Amazon rain forest, which is pretty much the spider capital of the world. Then I’d — uh-oh. Sorry, but I have to run now. I just saw another cobweb in the corner of the radiator. One down, hundreds of millions left to go.
Published as “House of Little Horrors” in the November 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.