Last Valentine’s Day, I was newly single, frantically searching for an apartment, weeping weekly to my therapist about the future, and numbly watching episode after episode of The West Wing, trying to will myself back to a past when everything made sense. After the votes had come in and the marching was over, there was only the long, cold winter to endure day after day, and my perpetual anxiety about my future and the world in general wasn’t doing much to keep me warm. Romantic, right?
As I settled in one cold January night, an email popped into my inbox from the Bronx Zoo. “Name a Roach!” it read. It’s a word that makes any urbanite instantly recoil, but it seemed to me that there’d never been a better moment to take a long, hard look at the things that scare us, so I opened it up. After all, there’s nothing scary about the Bronx Zoo—it’s basically inescapable when you grow up around here.
My grandfather grew up blocks away in the Bronx, and decades later, he would speed my brother and me along on the shoulder of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, merrily avoiding the traffic-choked lanes to get us there in time to see the sea lions being fed in the Astor Court. My mom would let my cousins and me run wild through the aviary, and my dad loved to bring us to watch the gorillas, just like his dad had brought him.
The zoo is intertwined with my family’s story, and my family’s story is one that so many Americans share. My grandparents were the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, who fought in WWII and then battled inequality at home, teaching in the New York City public schools and fighting for racial integration in their Stuyvesant Town apartment complex.
My mother, who enrolled in law school when fewer than 10% of law students were female, now manages her sister’s Alzheimer’s care, supported by Medicaid and programs that have helped provide for generations of Americans. And my dad now watches us try to make careers and start our lives in an economy that he knows is stacked against us even as he urges us to succeed.
So why would I want to give one of these people who’ve shaped my life the naming rights to a Madagascar hissing cockroach, you ask? It’s not just that naming a star seemed unbearably cliche or that chocolates are unwelcome so close to New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that we come from a city where cockroaches are a fact of life, much like blowhard public figures and insanely ambitious politicians. It’s really that the only thing that makes it possible to survive decades together is a good laugh now and then.
So for my parents, for my grandparents, for my city, and for myself, I made my donation to the Bronx Zoo and gave a cockroach the only name I could think of:
It didn’t go viral. I don’t think anyone really saw it. I’m not famous on Twitter or anywhere else. But in the moment it expressed all I needed to say: that we see you, Mr. Trump. We know what you really are and we’ve crushed dozens just like you with the heel of our shoes over the years. We can take you.
Some people have told me this is unfair to the cockroaches, and I suppose I see what they mean. After all, what did a cockroach ever do to be compared to a politician? But thanks to those donations, those cockroaches will live to fight another day. They’ll generate funds and research that will keep all kinds of animals alive for the next generation.
So this Valentine’s Day, I’ll be thinking back to all the times I needed a laugh this year and all the Weinsteins, Sessions, Bannons, Lauers, Frankens, Conways, and Flanagans responsible and marking the passing of their significance with a donation for one of my loved ones. And in 2018 or beyond, somewhere in the Bronx, maybe a kid will see a creature that’s survived for hundreds of millions of years and they’ll know that if you persevere, all kinds of evolution is possible in this world—and that if you can’t change when the world around you demands it, then you might get squished.