Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
So there I was, trying to sleep on my sofa bed, even though I had just found bed bugs crawling out of the arm. I was about to learn how not to get rid of bed bugged furniture. Furniture tossing isn’t required, for one thing. There are ways to treat it, though I didn’t find that out till later. But surrounded by helpers as clueless as myself, I was about to do everything one shouldn’t do.
(A brief pause while I exhort and disclaim: Do not try this at home. Call a competent professional, even if you can’t afford it, because you can’t afford not to. )
I was in quite a state by the time TC, my so-called exterminator, arrived the next morning in answer to my frantic call of the night before, toting a silver keg of noxious chemicals. I don’t remember what they were, and he did not have the paperwork handy. (It was not DDT. He was not clever enough to procure it, and bed bugs are pretty much resistant to it anyway.)
In fact he did not have any paperwork handy. I had tried to find him on the list of licensed exterminators-- he swore he had a license--but I could find no record of TC or his supposed employer on the New York State Environmental Conservation Web site of licensed exterminating companies. I decided to overlook that. I just wanted the bugs gone.
TC pulled apart the two folds of material where arm meets couch to reveal bed bugs deeply embedded; several industrious-looking creatures tooling around, plus a couple of apparent breeders. I thought I was going to vomit.
But there was more. TC did the same with the outside of the arm, where it met the side of the couch, to reveal at least a dozen. “See this female?” he said, pointing to one of them. “And those are the eggs. And the babies.”
I was sobbing.
TC grabbed his pesticide hose, opened the throttle wide on his magic pumping can and let loose like Rambo on the couch with a stream of poison. Not good enough.
“Out! I want it OUT!” I gasped. “This couch has to be taken out immediately!”
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I was out of my head. All I could think about was getting that damn, disgusting thing Out. Of. My. House. Right now.
Just then, at the apex of my freakout, my downstairs neighbor happened by and offered to help. The two men complied with my demand, or tried to—the sofa wouldn’t fit through the apartment door unless you took the bathroom door off. We tabled that project and put the couch back in the living room, dead and dying bugs and all. As for the ones fleeing from the spray, we sprayed them some more and stomped on them—the ones we noticed.
Later that day the guys who had renovated my apartment, whose licenses were no more discernible than the exterminator’s, broke up the built-in bed frame and the couch. As they pulled apart the nailed-together plywood sheets that comprised the bed’s headboard and platform, I realized that it was a veritable Bed Bug Trump Tower. It was riddled with plump adults, unfed nymphs, poppyseed-sized hatchlings—a veritable gallery of the five life stages—tucked into crevices thinner than a Metrocard. The thing was zoned for bed bug condos.
Some of my “roommates” scurried out, heading for the baseboards. I sprayed them with Steri-fab, an alcohol-based pesticide that is one tool in the bed bug warrior’s arsenal. I thought I got them all but there was really no way to tell.
In case you haven’t figured out Major Error No. 2 (No. 1 having been committed the previous week, when I moved into the living room instead of serving as bait in my own bed), it has to do with the disposal of my infested furniture. Everything should have been completely encased in plastic so that not a single bug could escape during transit. Instead, the workers leaned the unsheathed pieces of wood in the hallway, right next to my neighbor’s door. Distraught as I was, it took me about 15 minutes to notice.
When I did, I started yelling at them: “This can’t stay there! You have to bring that straight to the curb!!”
I couldn’t believe they hadn’t figured that out. Today I can’t believe that I couldn’t figure out how to get it wrapped in plastic. Mind you, this all happened in 2009, before bed bugs started crawling all over the media, along with instructions on how to deal with them. In my defense, I had called 311 to ask how to dispose of mattresses, and someone named Cornelius had told me there was such a thing as mattress-encasing plastic just for bed bug removal.
I had tried to procure some during the week between the first and second sprays, but no one had known what I was talking about.
“Home Depot will have it,” Cornelius 311 had said.
Home Depot sent me to Bed, Bath & Beyond, which only sold the mattress covers that you leave on for sleeping. So I sort of let it slide. Then when the horror of it all broke upon my brain, I simply shoved the offending items out the door.
Thus, beleaguered and bedless, and divested of my bed bugged furniture, I went out and bought an air mattress. I slept in the living room because I didn’t have the energy to clean up from the bed-frame demolition.
The next day dawned bright and sunny in my east-facing digs. I woke up itching, with several new bites. I opened my eyes. They fell on the business end of a plastic broom about 18 inches from my face. I saw something suspicious in the bristles, grabbed my glasses. Yes. It was a bed bug.
My heart fell. I started looking around in the piled possessions, not yet bagged. I found three or four more. I started crying.
I called TC yet again. “I’m finding bed bugs in the living room!” I yelped.
“Really?” he said. “They must be stragglers.”
Stragglers, shmagglers. He promised to come over. We were becoming like an old married couple.
He arrived with the magic can and doused my living room all over again, and then some. Before it had been mainly the sofa, but this time he didn’t hold back. Wielding the hose, he drenched the floor, then moved to the walls, as high as the door frames between the living room and kitchen. Pesticide dripped down from the top of the doorway onto the floor, forming puddles.
TC promised to come back in a couple of weeks and bomb the place. But I had at last found some credible information on the Internet, and one thing I had gleaned was that bombing is another HUGE no-no. Bombs contain chemicals that repel the bugs and send them deeper into the walls and potentially to your neighbors, which is fine if you want the pests to come back to your pad when the coast is clear. I, curiously, didn’t.
“Well, the bombing gets rid of everything else,” TC explained. “Then we come back in and focus on any bed bugs that survived.”
He was so fired.
Next week: Shopping for a Real Exterminator
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.