Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
So my landlord’s magic cure for the now building-wide bed bug problem was to call in a softball buddy of his. I didn’t have much choice but to see Rocco’s plan through while I shoved as many of my possessions as I could into storage. This I did with Lena and Ron, my downstairs neighbors, who were also afflicted.
The inspection day came, and Bobby arrived. He wore jeans, work boots and a t-shirt, as one might expect. But he had another, unexpected accessory: He was clad in an orange mesh MTA vest.
Rocco left to tell the other tenants that Bobby was there and would be coming to their apartments shortly. Bobby stayed to chat with me.
I quickly learned that he was 52, lived alone with two dogs and had never been married. He was like a walking personal ad. He also explained the presence of the vest.
“I work for a large pest-control company—I’d rather not say which one—and we work in the subways,” he said. It was then I realized that not only was he my landlord’s softball buddy but he also spent most of his day setting rat traps on the subway tracks.
His long, lugubrious face and even longer grayish ponytail made him resemble an aging George Carlin, except that he was not funny—at least not intentionally.
He held up my bed bug jar to the light and stared at its contents long and hard.
“Yup, that’s a bed bug,” he pronounced. He proceeded to shower me with his expertise.
“Bed bugs hate metal,” he said. “They never nest in metal.”
This is completely false. In addition, they do not “nest.” It is known as “harboring.” Any bed bug specialist worth his salt knows that.
After a series of other pronouncements, such as, “They prefer to bite women,” (also not true; anywhere from 30 percent to 50 or even 60 percent of people do not react when bitten; if someone is getting bitten in bed, you can almost guarantee the other person is getting eaten alive too and just doesn’t know it) Bobby looked a bit around the bedroom.
I asked him about his strategy and told him about an upcoming bed bug lecture, the Lou Sorkin one that my landlord had chastised me for inviting the neighbors to.
“You are one smart cookie,” Bobby said admiringly. But he declined the lecture invitation.
As he left, we shook hands. Then he turned my hand palm-side down, kissed it in a gentlemanly fashion and let go of it slowly, sliding his fingers along mine.
Bobby reconnoitered with Rocco and they went to inspect Arnold’s apartment. They came out looking a little skeeved. They were very circumspect.
“I have to consider it all,” Bobby said. Rocco nodded vociferously as Bobby added, “Yes, there were stains on the mattress, but it’s hard to tell if they’re from bed bugs or food. The mattress is more than twenty years old.”
Did I really need to know this, or be reminded that 70-something Arnold had lived in this apartment since the 1970s, originally with his mother, until she died? They may have been trying to protect Arnold’s privacy (even though that’s the last thing that really needs to be protected in such a situation—something that can travel between apartments requires open, cooperative strategy). Or they may have just have been ...
“Sexist. Rocco is sexist,” Ron pronounced that evening. The three of us were at the dining table, having dinner and polishing off various bottles of wine.
He and Lena described how Rocco would dismiss everything Lena said, but then when Ron said the same thing in the same words, Rocco would say, “Oh, I’ll get right on that.” And I jumped in with how Rocco did not want to hear anything that I knew about bed bugs and how he would talk slowly to me, as if to someone mentally challenged.
I had already figured out that he was sexist, but it was gratifying to have that validated, especially by a guy. Ron was a big teddy-bear kind of a man, originally from Bangladesh.
“I mean, I’m sexist,” he said, meaning that a little sexism was inevitable, by virtue of his being a guy. “But he’s sexist.”
Lena and I guffawed. Ron went to bed, and she and I moved on to the scotch. Suddenly she blurted out, “I’ll bet money that Arnold’s place was overrun and they aren’t telling us because they’re defending Arnold.”
We bandied that about for a bit, then realized it was 3 a.m. and went our respective ways, from sharing a pleasant dinner to being dinner.
The next day Rocco came over and asked how the visit had gone. I said fine, that Bobby had described the chemicals he would use and they were the right ones, etc. I was really trying to work with these people.
“Well, your bugs will be gone, that’s for sure,” Rocco said. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Bobby likes you.”
Jeez, I thought. Wonder how far I’ll have to go to get these things cleared.
Rocco said that Bobby had to take a trip to Florida and would be gone for three weeks, after which he’d come exterminate the building. I wondered how many creatures would hatch during that time. I had to be Zen about it. They do not spread disease, I reminded myself over and over.
It was just as well. During the lull between infestations I had finally started to get some assignments, and they were all due at the end of January. What with one thing and another I had not made nearly enough headway on them. I had also been accepted into a weeklong program that would run from 9-5 daily during the first week of February, just after my deadlines. Things were tight even if I didn’t have to pack up my apartment as if I were moving.
On the other hand, the bites were increasing exponentially. New generations were hatching. I figured the bugs were in the wall, or maybe even under my new bed. But I did not want to flip the bed on my own, because I simply didn’t want to know, since I couldn’t do anything about it. I just repeated over and over, They don’t transmit disease. They don’t transmit disease.
The storage trips continued, and I Packtited madly (yes, it had become a verb by now), the machine chugging away as I sat next to it on the plastic-vinyl papasan knockoff armchair in my living room, my feet propped up on bags or plastic boxes of possessions, doing my phone reporting. If they only knew, I thought, feeling almost pleased with myself. Here these sources probably pictured me in some office, when in reality I was like some kind of squatter.
Bobby, flawed as he was, couldn’t come soon enough.
Next week: Zen and the art of waiting for bed bug extermination
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.