I am not sure about the exact time frame for this incident, all I know is that it happened sometime during sophomore year. That was the year that I lived in a 7 man split level suite with 6 people living downstairs and one in an upstairs bedroom. The suite had an extra, windowless room situated in the middle of the 6 downstairs bedrooms. At the beginning of the year one of the dominant topics of conversation amidst me and my roommates was what to do with this extra room. There was talk of making it a video game haven or a comfortable reading area. Unsurprisingly, what it ended up becoming was a mass storage/trash room. And by “storage,” I mean throwing anything in there that happened to be in the way. Eventually the trash disposal part of the room extended to the unused closets across the hall. These closets became the dumping ground of choice out of some combination of convenience and maintaining a shred of decency by not wanting to put all our trash amidst our stored items.
I need to make a quick point in our defense before I continue. We were living on the third floor of a tower, and the dumpsters were located in the basement. Getting to the elevator required us to walk all the way down a hall, and then down a flight of stairs. Then we had to take the elevator, and finally get from the elevator to the dumpsters. What an ordeal. Basically, they made it very inconvenient for us to dispose of our rubbish in a timely manner.
Making matters worse was that we did not even own a trash can. All the waste was in grocery bags, old pizza boxes, and a few plastic storage containers my roommate Neville donated to the cause. But to say that most of the waste was even in something would be a lie, because a good chunk of the trash had just been thrown haphazardly into the closet or spare room.
For a couple of months our little plan was working out quite nicely. Our personal rooms were mostly free of waste, and when you shut the door to the storage room and pulled the curtains on the closet you couldn’t even tell there was a a growing mountain of refuse we were hiding. But, inevitably something was going to have to be done with all that trash, and a strong move by the fruit flies forced our hand. At first there were just a few flies milling about, and no one was overly concerned about them. Fruit flies are small, slow moving, and not particularly loud, thus making them about a billion times more palatable to have around then regular flies. It can also make for fun sport to try and smash them between your hands.
Alas, it was a short lived honeymoon with our insect neighbors. I can’t say when they became a problem, but it was not long from when we first started noticing some flies buzzing around to when we realized we had a real, call-in-the-national-guard type problem on our hands. I don’t know who was feeling particularly ambitious, or if there was a girl coming over or something, but eventually someone wanted to take out the garbage. (Crazy, right?) We all recognized that it was a mutually created mess, and we began a team effort to clean out our two trash infested areas. What would probably have been obvious to smarter (or cleaner) people was that those flies had to be coming from somewhere, and where better to live as a fly than a 3 month old, festering pile of trash? Yet, we were unprepared for the madness that would ensue.
Immediately as we began sifting through the first layer of our repulsive debris there erupted plume upon plume of flies. They were literally everywhere. Any time a piece of garbage was unsettled in the slightest a pack of flies that had called that place home would be sent hurtling into the air, in search of a new resting place. We were completely unprepared to handle the fly menace. Our initial reaction was to flee to our rooms and shut the doors, allowing us to avoid dealing with the insects and prevent them from entering the only places we cared about, which were our personal rooms. Some of us were certainly thinking (disclaimer– probably just me): “Would it really be so bad to just let the flies have the hallway? I already have my own room, and how often am I in that closet anyway? I can put a hood on and run through on my way out, and eventually it will get too cold for them and they will leave.” But even I knew this was not a long term solution, and we had to go back and face them.
I wish I had pictures of this, because I really can’t do justice to the amount of filth we had to sort through to uproot these pesky flies. Old tissues, moldy food items, and bags leaking god knows what fluids were all par for the course. To make matters worse, there was such an unbelievable amount of trash that it was taking forever to move it all out of the dorm. It was not like we could just throw a couple bags out and be done with it. This was a serious, time consuming problem, and the smell was something else entirely. It was a stench that could only be created by such ancient and festering trash. It was like we were standing in a landfill, which I guess we kind of were. The air was so thick with fruit flies we could have probably called over all the science labs on campus and they would have been set for the year in terms of research subjects. Anything you touched sent them spiraling into the air. You had to watch where and when you inhaled to avoid getting a mouthful of flies.
My most enduring memory of the incident was when Neville emerged from his room with a secret weapon the flies could not have anticipated: A handheld vacuum. I recently read a bunch of wikipedia articles about bank robberies, and a very interesting one was about the “Norco Shootout” that occurred after a bank robbery 30 years ago in Norco, California. The robbers were met by cops after exiting the bank, and it turned into a major gunfight. The cops were getting beaten back and were severely out-gunned until Deputy D.J. McCarty showed up with his AR-15 Assault rifle. Shortly after his arrival the robbers abandoned the shootout and ran for the woods. Deputy Rolf Parkes was sure that “there would have been a lot more dead cops on the road if not for that weapon.” Well, these two situations are clearly analogous. There could very well have been some dead students due to fly induced choking had Neville not shown up with his dust-busting version of the AR-15. He gave a battle call (not kidding, I really do remember him yelling) and headed into the fray, vacuum held in front of him with his head turned away to shield himself. Sucking the flies up was our only effective way of defeating them. I mean, you can only kill so many with your bare hands. Once the dirt devil arrived and the playing field was evened we were able to gain control of the situation. Finally, after what had to have been at least a couple hours, the area was 95% fly and garbage free.
The fact that we were eventually able to handle the situation without the use of high end hazard suits and toxic gas is a testament to our fighting spirit. It was a harrowing experience, but it taught us all a much needed lesson that I am happy to pass on: If you throw all your trash in an unused closet and let it sit there for 3 months eventually when you clean it you will have to deal with a lethal stench and billions of flies. Who knew?