Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
At first I assumed that they had started with me, and I made the mistake of saying so.
The bites had started soon after (or even during?) a trip to San Francisco that I’d taken in March 2009. I remembered noticing three bites clustered on the inside of my left ankle and remarking to someone, “Hmm. I’ve got three bug bites but I haven’t seen a single bug.”
But I had just moved back to the States from outside the country, and bed bugs were the last thing on my radar. I even forgot about the incident. Then there’d been a few more itchy welts, and a few more, and then, of course, the hive explosion.
Once I’d found actual bugs, I started wracking my brain trying to figure out where they’d come from. I remembered thinking that about the three bites, and started pinning the origin to San Francisco much the way one becomes absolutely “sure” they know the exact food that made them throw up. (Sometimes it’s just a passing virus.)
It was the sofa bed I’d slept on, which I found out was a floor model lent to my friends by the furniture store when their order didn’t arrive in time for my visit! No, wait—it was the secondhand shirt I’d picked up on a sunny afternoon spent ambling through the city’s streets! My brain wanted answers, or a scapegoat.
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The friends I’d stayed with never did get bed bugs, so they were out as a source. The shirt, well, it went into the dryer with everything else, and there’s no way to know if there was a hitchhiker clinging to it.
Nevertheless, the human mind grasps for a cause rather than a solution, and I, like my landlord, wanted to know WHY.
“I must have brought them back from San Francisco,” I said, too often. My landlord had no reason to think otherwise.
But the more research I did, the more I realized that “he who first smelt it, dealt it” (as my dearly departed grandmother was fond of saying) does not apply when it comes to bed bugs. This is another reason that careful inspections must be done in surrounding units when an infestation is discovered, since the first person to find them is not necessarily the one they came in with.
Ideally the landlord will be on board with this, understanding that bed bugs do not confine themselves to one unit. The landlord will do his or her homework and learn that the bugs can: travel next door via wiring and emerge from, or even harbor behind, light sockets; find their way between floors, especially by crawling along pipes for, say, heating and emerging near the radiator; and in some cases, simply walk down the hall and through the entryway, like one of us.
Also key for landlords to know is that if exterminated in one place, the bugs will sidle into another one, where they will not die unless that place too, has been treated. In the best of all possible worlds the landlord has a plan for regular, thorough inspection and quick treatment from a reputable bed bug specialist if a problem is discovered. Early detection is key, just as with cancer.
Thus the unlucky discoverer is more likely to be a symptom than a cause of a bed bug infestation. But it is seldom perceived that way, and my landlord, Rocco, proved to be no exception.
The tide is slowly changing as awareness grows and stigma abates. But on the whole we are far from enlightened. So I share these details because my landlord’s reaction was more typical than not.
Rocco’s initial response when I discovered the bugs in June 2009 was to say to me, “I am not responsible for this. Bed bugs are ‘brought in.’ ”
Sometime during the ensuing summer, he had come by to see if I was “still having any more problems” and saw the chaotic plastic-bag mess. “I think you may be driving yourself a little crazy with this bed bug thing Theresa,” he said sympathetically. I looked at him askance. Um, I thought, This is standard bed bug treatment protocol! It was clear that he simply did not get the drill.
So when they returned, this time building-wide, and his response was to blame me, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
We cleared the air the day after Rocco accused me of causing everything and of lying about what the neighbors said and promised to find someone other than TC to exterminate. Forced to do something because the things were now in three of four apartments, he of course had no choice.
But the farthest he got on the awareness front was to say, “I’ll get someone to do the whole building.... But then that’s it. If they come back, it’s because you guys brought them, and I won’t spring for it again.”
In other words he acted as though he were doing his tenants a favor. I would try to impart lots of bed bug wisdom to Rocco over the next few months. Ironically, this erroneous assumption of me as origin was the only one of my bed bug pronouncements that Rocco would absorb.
Refusing my offers of help, he was adamant that it be done his way. I could not afford to treat my place again, and besides, that wouldn’t help if the rest of the building were not treated adequately. In addition, since it was his building, and he hadn’t raised the rent after fixing up the place a little when I first got there, I didn’t want to hassle him over it or cause any bad blood between him and my brother, whom he had known for years. It was his right to do it his way.
I had no idea what “his way” meant. Little did I know I would soon be nostalgic for TC.
Next week: Bed bugs, the sequel—the building preps.
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.