When the author gets bedbugs, she finds the toll on her body pales when compared with the toll on her beloved books and further, the threat the bugs pose to the bohemian spirit of New York City.
“The bugs finally woke me. They were everywhere. I cannot tell the despair, loathing and rage of the child in the dark tenement room, as they crawled on me, and stank.”
Sleep is an anchor. It is a beginning and an end. When we are robbed of sleep, by stress or pests or other predators, we lose the punctuation that separates the tape of the everyday into manageable portions. Regular sleep provides a stop, a temporary ending that is necessary for there to be a new beginning the next morning. Without this prolonged pause, the insomniac’s experience of the world becomes oppressive, involuntary, a ride one remains strapped into against her will.
When parasitic insects invaded my home, fed off my flesh, and infested my texts, I was working sixty hours a week in the New York office of Oxford University Press, editing online reference products, that, not so long ago, were known as encyclopedias. The entire world of reference was going down a long slide, and I was becoming increasingly depressed by my pawn-like position in the failing attempt to lift it back up. I fell asleep at night surrounded by the innards of some once-multi-volume soon-to-be-searchable-electronic-database, the corners of the piles of entries thorns in my chrysalis of comforters and quilts. At work, I attended meetings where higher-ups held their faces in their hands and uttered single, nonsense-sounding words in hushed voices, words like, “Wikipedia,” the dim glare of the inevitable evident in their sunken eyes.
The inkling that my private library had become a breeding ground for another species began with a series of small scarlet welts clustered around my wrists, neck, and ankles. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner” is the way this pattern is tagged in urban legend, the only legend in which my attackers were listed. Mosquitoes don’t bite in little groups like this because they fly; their wings carry them to more disparate spots on the body. Mosquitoes couldn’t have created the bumps that were appearing evermore frequently in odd-shaped bunches on my body like brail, even though it was July, mosquito season in Manhattan. If a person were getting that many mosquito bites at night, I would later learn, she would certainly be awakened by the sound of the swarm buzzing overhead.
“Do you think,” I asked one medical professional after the other, “it’s possible that I might have,” and uttered the name, whispered by my peers at parties and in work break rooms, but apparently completely unacknowledged in medical offices, “bedbugs?”
The well-dressed doctors and dermatologists looked disbelievingly at Oxford-quality me. “Do you have an old, dirty bed?” they asked, rhetorically.
“Of course not,” I would say. In fact, my bed was the newest thing in my apartment.
“Have you checked your mattress?”
I told them, wiping tears of exhaustion from my cheeks, that I had checked my mattress, that indeed I had come to check it compulsively every morning and lately at night too, as I tossed and turned, unable to sleep for fear of being consumed by stealthy, blood-sucking little beasties.
The doctors agreed that I had developed a case of chronic hives, probably from the long hours, stress, and insecurity of my job. They prescribed sleeping pills, antihistamines, and anti-anxiety meds.
The itchiness and unattractiveness of bedbug bites, though inconvenient and unrelenting, is not what makes cohabitating with the little suckers so unbearable. It’s the primal, animalistic fear of sleep, and the unavoidable slippage that comes in sleep’s place if you are without it for too long. Fear of being attacked in the center of the nest is terrifying in a way that getting bitten outdoors by mosquitoes, spiders, or snakes even, is not.
Everyone told me that if I had bedbugs I would be able to find them in my mattress. That I would be able to see them crawling around the seams, fat as apple seeds. Everyone was wrong.
All summer, I worked diligently through the screen of antihistamines and sleeping aids I was taking to keep the itchiness at bay. My days were spent “tagging” files of reference information for Oxford so it could be searchable online. The project I was working on at that time would become one of the largest online references in art history. I tagged terms like “modernist,” “cubist,” “medieval,” and “dada.” I tagged for sex, race, ethnicity, time period, movement, and medium.
I either had to keep my books in storage for a full two years while the bedbugs exhausted their superhero-like ability to live without air or nourishment, or pitch them entirely.
Nights, I sat in the center of a lidless igloo of paper arranged atop my mattress, and combed through old encyclopedic entries and spreadsheets that went into the hundred-thousands, trying to figure out new groupings, new ways to compartmentalize the glacier of information my employer had spent so much time editing and compiling, so that it could be packaged and sold electronically, so that it could continue to exist. Sometimes my boss would call me into her office, close to tears. “We’re rearranging the scales on the brontosaurus,” she would say, “but the dinosaurs are already extinct.”
The photos published online and in newspapers as reputable as the New York Times of the almost microscopic insects are usually magnified ten to twenty times for dramatic and graphic effect, which gives people the impression that bedbugs are much bigger than they actually are. Once bedbugs have grown big and dark enough to match those photos of them available, they have reached their final adult phase and are laying eggs all over the place, like a tumor left to metastasize.
In late September, I found a website where a former host suggested that if you suspect you have bedbugs but have been thus far unable to locate them, you should set your alarm for 3 a.m., jump out of bed the instant it rings, pull back the covers, shine a light in the sheets, and try to catch one of the wee vampires in the act of eating you. I did this that same night, and sure enough, I spied one slinking off, its flat transparent body engorged and tinted reddish-brown with fresh blood.
Later that morning, I called Pest Away, an extermination company that specializes in bedbugs. A woman named Sherell answered the phone.
“Do you have bites?” she asked.
I told her I did.
She emailed me a list of instructions of everything that has to be done to a bedbug infested apartment before any effective exterminator will start to spray.
We took my books from the shelves, from where they were lined up on top of the shelves, from where they were stacked in front of the shelves and shook them out in a frenzy of sisterly efficiency. We followed the instructions on Sherrell’s sheet to the letter, putting the shook-out books in doubled black garbage bags and vacuuming all the air out with a disposable bag vacuum.
When we’d gotten rid of all my soft furniture and rolled the defiled rugs outside, writing BEDBUGS! and INSECTOS MALOS! in thick black Sharpie all over them; when we’d laundered and dry-cleaned all my clothes and then brought them back to my apartment in giant Ziploc bags, when we’d covered my mattress and pillows with vinyl covers and then duct-taped over the zippers—because freshly-hatched bedbugs in their nymph phase really are small enough to crawl through the cracks in a zipper—when we’d done all these things and cleaned every inch of the apartment in preparation for the exterminator’s spray, I made the mistake of calling Sherrell back to ask when I could open the bags of books back up again.
I’m not sure what I thought she’d say. Maybe after the pesticide had time to dry? Maybe after the three-month warrantee period when any quality bedbug exterminator promises to come back for free if you get more bites? What I didn’t expect her to say was, “In two years.” It was only then, after Sherrell informed me that I either had to pay to keep my apartment’s worth of books in storage for a full two years while the bedbugs or eggs inside exhausted their superhero-like ability to live for eighteen months plus without air or nourishment, or pitch them entirely, that I began to weep for all I had lost.
A lot of people in publishing get bedbugs, partly because they hoard books and paper, and partly because they make less money than people in other professions.
Whoever says kids these days aren’t into books has either never been to Brooklyn or is getting their information from an unreliable source. After I had salvaged eight plastic bins of my most beloved books and papers, my sister helped me lug the rejects out to join the rest of the tainted garbage on the curb. Because the bags were black, we used thick masking tape to make impromptu labels on the outside, on which we again wrote and illustrated the most ferocious warnings we could think of in both Spanish and English. My sister and I went inside to gather up the next batch of garbage bags. When we came back outside, the bags we had previously lugged to the garbage heap were already ripped open and little Dominican boys and girls were running away with the salvaged booty. We yelled after them in Spanish, “NO! NO! NO! LOS LIBROS TIENEN INSECTOS!” But they did not listen. We chased after them, in some cases all the way to their doors, where we explained in Spanish to their parent sitting on a stoop why bedbugs are to be taken seriously. This was not an easy thing to convince them of in the face of a bounty of free books for their children. Even in Spanish, the name “bedbug” sounds like a punch-line. By the time we returned to the garbage pile in front of my apartment, new children had arrived. For what are a few measly bugs to an information-starved eight-year-old when right before her is the entire, lushly illustrated, multi-volume encyclopedia of animals or dance or space exploration? My sister stood guard while I went inside and got a bulk bottle of dish detergent, then poured it over the tainted bags of books the way I had seen my babysitter do more than once with the offending second-half of a dessert she felt too fat to finish. The green slime trick works every time. I didn’t feel triumphant depriving these inner city kids of their loot though. I felt like I had gone over to the dark side.
New Yorkers’ plucky tradition of turning trash into treasure is one of the reasons we are in the middle of a full-scale epidemic. The number of bedbug complaints has increased by almost 2,000 percent in the past five years, rising from 537 in 2004 to over 10,985 in 2009, according to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city measures the problem by the number of people who dial 311 to report bedbugs. These statistics understate the magnitude of infestations because most homeowners and tenants never make those calls. If they have the money, they call an exterminator. If they don’t, they often don’t call anyone at all.
Sanga, my exterminator, was a delicate Trinidadian man with an accent that sounded British to my ears, aquiline features, two long French braids, and a prison record he openly listed as one of the reasons he chose extermination as his profession. Apparently, it is a field that does not discriminate. When he learned the reason my eyes were so puffy was because I had lost all my books, he asked me if I worked in the publishing industry, because apparently a lot of people in publishing get bedbugs, partly because they hoard books and paper, and partly because they make less money than people in other professions that they consider to be of their same status, so editors and writers are frequently the people renting bug-infested apartments in newly gentrified neighborhoods with prices that are “too good to be true.”
I asked Sanga if knowing so much about the insects and how they spread made him paranoid about getting them himself. Sanga said that he wasn’t paranoid, but that he did take off all his clothes before entering his apartment at night and seal them in a plastic bag, and that the only things he kept inside were a bare mattress with a vinyl cover, a synthetic sleeping bag with no seams and six fish tanks.
Alfred Barnard is a thirty-three-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in Spanish Harlem, where he still lives. He trained Sanga, and is the most requested bedbug specialist at Pest Away, the most requested bedbug extermination company in the five boroughs. The nametag embroidered on his uniform simply spells “Al” which is how his clients and pretty much everyone else in his life refers to him. As a child, Al suffered from frequent, severe asthma attacks, which, during his training to become an exterminator, he finally understood were triggered by the shed shells of roaches in his childhood home. Like Sanga and other exterminators I’ve met, Al gets satisfaction from rescuing innocent people from distress, though he also admits that a large motivation for specializing in bedbug extermination is that the exponentially increasing number of infestations creates an ever-expanding demand for his services, which cost anywhere from five hundred dollars for a single room, to thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the apartment and the maturity of the infestation.
In his spare time, Al experiments with bedbugs to test his knowledge and learn more about his resilient adversaries. He released a single male in his apartment to see if he could find it again. He did. It was under the bed. He has frozen the hard-to-kill insects in ice cubes for three months, then allowed them to thaw and watched them walk away, proof that you cannot put your possessions in an average freezer to rid them of bedbugs, a common misconception.
After my return to the world of the waking, I sought out Lou Sorkin, the only bedbug expert in Manhattan who is not an exterminator, and found him in his lab on the fifth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. Lou has been working as an entomologist at AMNH for twenty years, but only began researching bedbugs, or Cimicidae, in 2003, when victims who had no idea what they were up against started bringing specimens to his laboratory for identification. At fifty-five, Lou’s green eyes retain the mischievous spark of a boy who once kept insects as pets. Among the vials of dead spiders and other specimens that threaten to bury his desk, Lou keeps two living colonies of bedbugs in old jelly jars.
“When most people come across a picture of a bedbug, it’s a quarter-inch long and reddish brown,” Lou explained to me. “Then how could you miss it? How do you miss having a bedbug infestation? Well, it’s because five-sixths of the population are not reddish brown and are not a quarter-inch long. They are transparent, about a millimeter or one thirty-second of an inch long, and as thin as a sheet of paper. They are the most photographed bug in the world and people still don’t make the correlation between the bites they’re getting and these tiny little things crawling around.” Then he picked up one of the jars, full of the bloodthirsty creatures in each of their six stages of development—during the first five they resemble a speck of dust —and overturned it on the soft flesh of his forearm. For the rest of the interview, sensing human heat, the hungry bugs inside clambered over one another, taking turns straining their needly proboscises through the mesh screen Lou had duct-taped to the top of the jar to feed on his blood.
Like about seven percent of American men, Lou’s reaction to bedbug bites is slight. This is why he can sustain his population off his arm with minimal side effects. Most people, however, people like me, experience serious allergic reactions to the bites, including intense swelling and itching that doesn’t subside for the better part of a week.
It’s also true that bedbugs prefer women, that they will often only bite the woman if a man and a woman are sleeping in the same bed. They also prefer to bite children over both men and women, for reasons scientists suspect have to do with body temperature and breathing patterns. Bedbugs also often remain loyal to one host, causing situations in which only the child or wife of a family is plagued by bites at night, situations which require a significant amount of trust and empathy on the part of the male of the household, the unbitten leader of many families who is often the one to make the call on whether it is really worth spending the money to bring an exterminator over to find out exactly what is keeping his spouse or offspring up all night.
Al says that for every completely infested building with tenants that have no idea where the bugs keep coming from, he finds an apartment with an un-allergic, macho male living alone who’s had them for years and either didn’t notice them or figured they weren’t bothering him so what was the big deal. One such person told Al he was sure he didn’t have bedbugs, even as they crawled in and out of the seams of a baseball cap on his head.
Around the time I started staying awake all night, I was dating a banker named Angelo who I’d met at a bar. He worked the same hours I did, which didn’t leave time for a complicated love affair. We had an arrangement where once every couple of weekends he’d treat me to a dinner I couldn’t afford, and we’d share a bed and brunch the next morning. As I lived in a windowless studio in Brooklyn, and he had a large and airy apartment on the Lower East Side, I spent far more time in Angelo’s bed than he did in mine. Still, on the rare occasions when he took the L out to Brooklyn, Angelo didn’t get a single bite. Bedbugs are loyal to their hosts.
When I found out the cause of the odd stellae on my body, I called Angelo and told him to wash all his bedding in hot water and put it through a full cycle in the dryer as soon as possible. He was gracious about the whole thing. He regularly sent his sheets and clothes to a laundry service anyway, so it was no skin off his back. The walls of Angelo’s apartment were bare and white. He had no use for books or anything else that would clutter up his life, which is why he never borrowed any of mine, something pretty much everyone else I’ve dated has done. Angelo’s lack of interest in literature is one reason he never got bedbugs, as they don’t travel on the bodies of their victims, but in objects, like books, that are kept near the bed.
I’d like to think my heightened awareness of Angelo’s blankness was the reason I never called him back after confirming that he didn’t get bedbugs and not the shame of having to ask him to boil the sheets because I’d slept in them, but the truth lies somewhere between the two.
I followed Lou to the New York Pest Control Expo, at the Armory, where he was giving a slideshow presentation on bedbugs. At the Expo, I learned that the epidemic has become so profitable in the years since my infestation in 2007 that if I got bedbugs now, I wouldn’t have to get rid of all my furniture and most of my books. If I could afford it, I could pay a fumigation company around a thousand dollars to pack up my belongings, cart them away and pump them full of a residue-less gas that kills bedbugs and their eggs instantly by sucking all the oxygen out of them. This is how Columbia University deals with many of its dorms that are currently infested, sending students’ belongings away to be fumigated in trucks, room by room. Co-op buildings, hotels, government buildings, and other well-funded institutions are other big consumers of fumigation services for bedbugs.
Bedbugs were all but eradicated from American cities in the 1950s after the introduction of DDT, but the numbers of reported cases have been creeping up since the paradigm shift in pest control that occurred after DDT and many other pesticides were banned in the United States in the nineteen seventies, following the publication of Rachel Carson’s famous anti-pesticide manifesto, Silent Spring.
If you were a bedbug, you would reproduce by a process called “traumatic insemination.” Once you had drunk enough blood to reach your final adult stage, if you were a male, you would use your sword-shaped genitalia to stab a mature female multiple times over the surface of her body, then inseminate her oozing wounds. If you were a female, you could then lay up to five hundred eggs in a six-week period, dropping them here and there as you crawled though the seams of a mattress, the leg of a couch or over the bindings of books. As one of these eggs, you would hatch in one to two weeks, then immediately seek out a host. You would then need to complete five molting phases, or instars, before you became an adult, able to reproduce and visible to the untrained eye. Because each time you fed it would promote you to the next phase, getting lost, locked up, or trapped in a big black garbage bag for a few months could actually prolong your life from an average of about six weeks to up to two years.
Exterminators like Al and Sanga use a cocktail of three chemicals when they spray for bedbugs. The first two, pyrethrins and pyrethroids, are natural poisons derived from chrysanthemum flowers and the synthetic replicas of those extracts.
Gentrol, the brand name for something many exterminators simply refer to as the “growth regulator,” is the third ingredient. Gentrol is crucial because it keeps bedbugs from reproducing, which is one of the only ways to eventually squash an infestation.
City dwellers will be unable to furnish their apartments, fill their bookshelves, clothe their bodies, continue to build their rare record collections and create the comfortable and eclectic habitats that are the cornerstones of bohemian or at least somewhat affordable city living.
The founder of Zoëcon, the company that makes Gentrol and other hormonal insecticides that battle hard to poison insects by sterilizing them, is a scientist named Dr. Carl Djerassi. He is also the inventor of the modern birth control pill.
Pesticide can be contraception as well as poison. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson argued for a reactionary approach to pests as opposed to a preventative one, writing with extreme conviction that it was immoral to spray chemicals preemptively. While fighting for the protection of wildflowers along the highway makes perfect sense, Carson never once mentioned the use of relatively safe pesticides such as pyrethrins in an urban environment such as New York City, where they are most needed and least likely to affect the harmony she prized so highly in the outdoors. In places like New York, preventive spraying may be the only way to eventually stop the spread of bedbugs.
“We changed the way we did pest control,” Jeff O’Neill, an insect toxicologist with Zoëcon, whom I spoke to at the Expo, explained. “We used to go into an apartment and preventively spray the whole thing, and it would kill every pest in the house. If a bedbug strayed in they would contact these chemicals and die. In the ‘70s and ‘80s we stopped doing that. Instead, we’d go in, we’d find the problem, then target what we found. We stopped spraying and started adding more baits and glue traps. Well, bedbugs don’t eat baits. Bedbugs don’t go into traps. So now we have to change again.”
Bedbugs not only pose a threat to sleep, that necessary ingredient to all life and sanity. If city dwellers are unable to acquire and sell used things, they will be unable to furnish their apartments, fill their bookshelves, clothe their bodies, continue to build their rare record collections and create the comfortable and eclectic habitats that are the cornerstones of bohemian or at least somewhat affordable city living. These practically invisible pests constitute an assault on anyone who believes in the value of the old, of sacred objects culled from bargain bins, of rare books found on shady street corners. Bedbugs possess the potential not only to infiltrate the habitats of new contributors to our cultural hubs, they could also destroy the livelihood of an older generation who own antique shops, used bookstores, vintage clothing warehouses and other invaluable if unofficial archives of city history.
There is a reason why one of the most common hallucinations of the drugged-out and insane is insects, insects that often come in the night, that other people can’t see, that crawl and bite and increase with speed. There is a way about bedbugs that is so metaphorical as to almost convince us they don’t exist.
I have a friend who recently moved. She told me she fears bedbugs every time she moves into a new apartment, but that she has realized that what she fears is actually metaphor. She is afraid of all the elements that hover beneath the realm of the visible, the quirks and problems that wait until after you’ve signed the lease to present themselves. To her, bedbugs are synonymous with bad juju, with all the small evil you can’t quite put your finger on, but can still feel and fear. I stopped my friend mid-sentence. I told her she had better find a new metaphor for her phobia, and that while she was at it, she might as well preventatively spray her new apartment before she moved in all her stuff.
At a party my freshman year in college, I asked another friend who was a computer geek to explain the Internet. We’d had a few beers, and he talked for over an hour while I laughed hysterically at the absurdity of what he was saying. Something about virtual conduits of information twisting through space at lightning speeds. I laughed because I didn’t understand it at all. At that time, over a decade ago, the Internet seemed to me to be as fantastical as a hallucination. I couldn’t begin to fathom how it existed in real space. At that time, email was a choice, web research was a choice, you could take it or leave it. Now, there is no choice. Every day I use it a little more, not because I want to, but because I have to. The Internet devoured my bosses at Oxford’s jobs. It attacks books faster and more stealthily than any insect. Now, I take it seriously. Now, I know it is real. And there is not a growth regulator in sight.
The only snapshot I have left of my first love. In the picture, we are kissing, and you can’t see anything except the featureless sides of our faces and the cords in our necks straining toward each other. I saved all my old pre-digital photographs, looking through them as I placed them in plastic storage bins, many of them for the first time since they were taken. All my pictures are online now. I seldom bother to print them, though of course, new technology has made acquiring hard copies quicker and easier than ever. I saved every love letter I have ever received, but hadn’t remembered that I’d kept until I went through old boxes of papers that I usually just move from apartment to apartment without taking the time to open. I saved letters from my mentor in college who inspired me to become a writer, though I almost didn’t because I was still in touch with him over email. Two years later, he would be dead by his own hand, and I’d be glad I still had his letters stapled to thick drafts of my own bad, early writing, his multi-colored marks on the half-formed stories, sometimes in four colors of pen, sometimes five, meaning, I think, that he read them each at least four or five times.
The books would take care of themselves. So much so that now, three years later, my paper haven has seemingly regenerated itself so that it is impossible for me to pick out the twenty or so items I painstakingly deemed worthy of the plastic bin. The few dozen titles I elevated above the rest, tearfully reading inscriptions and wondering, where would I be without these words? I did not keep a catalogue of the hundreds, perhaps thousands I threw away, a catalogue of the dead. I probably should have, but at the time there was no time. The host had to be free of its parasite. Everything else faded in the blinding domination of that basic animal need.
Sara Faye Lieber’s essays have been published in PANK, Porchlight, the anthology Make the Most of Your Time on Earth, featured on The Huffington Post, and awarded honorable mention in the Gulf Coast 2009 Nonfiction Contest. She has written for AOL, MTV, Rough Guides, and Frommer’s. She is currently a second-year MFA student in nonfiction at Columbia University, where she teaches undergraduate writing and is Editor-In-Chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.
Recommended further reading on bugs, bloodsucking, and other invertebrates:
Bug by Tracy Letts.
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray.
Consider the Lobster, essays by David Foster Wallace.
Delft: An Essay Poem by Albert Goldbarth.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Photo via “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteredin/4423502690/