13 Jul 2010 7:00 am   //   Filed under: Brooklyn

How I fought the bedbugs, and won

I’ve spent 6 months deciding whether to write this post. That’s how long it’s taken me to be sure the bedbugs are gone. Not that you’re ever really sure.

In January, I discovered my apartment was infested with bloodsucking parasites. The bites were nearly identical to mosquito bites, appearing 2 or 3 at a time, occurring several days or even weeks apart. Bad? No, but perplexing. After a few weeks of this I lifted up my boxspring and saw a bedbug under it. I felt the blood drain from my face and a shiver wash over me. I had gathered my wits and, not knowing what else to do, I carried my boxspring out to the curb. Back inside, I put clean sheets on my sagging mattress. The next few days it was hard to sleep. I woke up one morning with a bite on my face.

Finally, I told my building super. She gave me the number of an exterminator. Two days later the exterminator visited my apartment, and I showed him the bedbug, which I’d sealed in a Zip-loc.

“The first thing to know is that it’s not your fault,” the exterminator told me. “You could be the cleanest person in the world and still get bedbugs.” I was impressed by his bedside manner. Bugs mess with your head, and the exterminator’s reassuring words helped me feel better.

I spent the next two weeks following a page of detailed instructions he gave me. I threw away a bunch of stuff, washed most of my clothes and linens in hot water, took everything else to the dry cleaner (two different cleaners, on four different trips, so as not to arouse suspicion), vacuumed everything every day, caulked the baseboards in my bedroom, organized everything into sealable plastic bins, and basically became a neat freak on speed. Within a week, the exterminator sent his team to treat my furniture, walls and floors, at a cost of $350. I ordered a new boxspring and encased my mattress, boxspring and pillows in bedbug-proof zipper bags. I elevated my bed on blocks and wrapped the blocks in double-sided tape. All told, I dedicated about $1,000 and two solid weekends to de-bugging.

Throughout the ordeal, I saw only 3 bedbugs. They’re bigger than fleas, smaller than ticks, and slower than spiders. They’re brown and flat as a wafer, and wiggle with difficulty on piddly little legs, as if lethargic and drunk. They’re unmistakable. If you see a critter and aren’t sure if it’s a bedbug, it’s probably not a bedbug.

Immediately after the extermination, the bites stopped. Today, I can declare: My name is Daryl, and I have been bedbug free for 6 months.

Will the bugs come back? I can’t say. But the problem is widespread. All four of the apartments in my building have had bedbugs. Other buildings on my block have had them. On “30 Rock,” Alec Baldwin’s character had themNew York published a story this year about how the well-to-do residents of the Upper East Side have them. This month a Hollister clothing store in SoHo and an Abercrombie store at the Seaport both had to shut down for bedbug extermination. Just yesterday, an emergency room in Brooklyn was briefly closed after a bedbug sighting.

Bedbugs thrive in New York City apartment buildings—environments with comfortable temperatures, an abundance of crannies in which to nest, and a dense population of sleeping mammals on which to feed. Some people believe bedbugs live in foreign hotels, then end up in suitcases, then pass from suitcase to suitcase in airports. Residents confronting a bedbug outbreak will blame the most well-traveled neighbor in their building, or someone who has just moved in. I’m pretty sure that’s nonsense.

Bedbugs exploit some clever social hacks to ensure their survival. Bugs, while annoying, never rise to the level of a crisis. That is, they don’t spread disease or kill anybody. Nobody misses work over bedbugs. There’s a financial incentive for building owners to keep the problem as quiet as possible, obviously. Among everyone, rich or poor, there’s shame in acknowledging you have bedbugs. Neighbors will scorn you. Friends won’t visit. No one will sleep with you. The result? There are no spokespeople for the bedbug-ridden, and there never will be. Any pressure for the city government to get tough on bedbugs is low. The problem is handled locally and privately, and the bugs can crawl contentedly from building to building—and back.

Who’s left smiling? Your friendly neighborhood exterminator.

By the way, the three photos in this post are not documenting my own bedbug problem. These pictures were all taken at different buildings, on different days, all within two blocks of my apartment, all within the last month.

Sleep tight!