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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
To say it got surreal from here on in would be an understatement.
At least three of the four apartments in my building were infested with bed bugs.
Besides me, there was Arnold (the elderly and somewhat clueless man next door to me who may or may not have been the epicenter all along), and the neighbors (my friends) below him, Lena and Ron. The only exception, Mauricio (who lived below me), had a vested interest in keeping the critters at bay, since he owned the restaurant below him, on the ground floor, and bed bugs would be very bad for business.
Rocco, the landlord, had begrudgingly agreed to treat the building. He felt backed into a corner and acted as though he were doing us a favor. He didn’t seem to understand that he was protecting his investment (make that his inheritance, since it had been handed down by his father). At least he had eased off from blaming me for causing the whole thing, for the time being at least.
He eschewed my offers of assistance even though I had been researching the subject for several months and knew all the top names in the business. He preferred to find his own guy. He at least promised it would not be his roach “baseboard jockey,” TC, who had botched my first extermination the previous summer.
Before he started shopping around, Rocco came over to check out my apartment. The atmosphere was congenial, his attitude sympathetic as I showed my latest bites, which were starting to multiply. He held the small jar containing the live specimen that I had caught while he was out of town (yes, it was still alive a week later) up to the light and looked at it from several angles. It was indeed a bed bug, he confirmed.
Then he put it down and said in an avuncular tone, “Do me a favor Theresa. It’s very important that you keep this so you can show the exterminator when he comes.”
I looked around at the several plastic containers of dead bugs that I was still holding onto from the summer and then back at Rocco and the live bug I’d already had for a week. I nodded and smiled and batted my eyelashes a little. At least the macho-101 dealing skills I’d acquired during seven years in Mexico, where attitudes like this are found on every streetcorner, weren’t going to go to waste back in New York.
Lena and Ron were more receptive to my bed bug advice. Now that they were looking for bugs, they were finding the things in their laundry bag, which was situated near the pipe that came down from the ceiling to the radiator, meaning the bugs were indeed traveling from Arnold’s apartment directly above them.
Bed bugs were also cropping up in their bathroom, which may have meant they had hitchhiked on pajamas or robe. New habits were formed: PJs stayed on the bed, lest you accidentally bring the bugs into another room, and no other items or articles of clothing came in contact with the bed. You woke up, stripped and grabbed a coverup out of a plastic bag, or better yet, walked naked to the shower.
Lena worked nights, so she was getting bitten while she slept during the day. One day she had woken up to find a plump bed bug crawling out from under her duvet. The ew factor was too much for her. She ended up throwing out her entire comforter, even though most likely the bug had merely been crawling on it, not living in it.
She also, like many of us do, developed a keen bed bug–spotting eye. One day she had discerned a freshly fed hatchling nymph, the size of a poppy seed, on the pillow, impressing Ron to no end.
Likewise, my copy editor’s eye had come in handy during the whole process. Having spent years scrutinizing words on computer screens while looking over people’s shoulders, I could spot a typo from a few feet away, and that translated nicely to bed bug inspection. But pretty much anyone who has dealt with these bugs for any length of time can home in on the tiniest speck.
Of course, that is the same eye that makes us jump at the sight of lint, but eventually we learn to tell the difference, or at least not to freak out, especially as the proportion of lint to bug sightings shifts in lint’s favor.
I passed as much of my bed bug knowledge on to Lena and Ron as they could take. They knew, for instance, to save all those bug samples, preserved in rubbing alcohol. (Alcohol is not necessary, but it’s a handy way to kill them without squishing them in case you need evidence. It takes 91 percent, not 70 percent, to kill them, though the latter is fine for the preservation part, and if you dump a live one into 70 percent it won’t live long, since they are not known for their swimming ability.)
While Rocco looked for an exterminator, Lena, Ron and I took turns with the Packtite, shopped for big plastic bins that we could seal with packing tape, and car-pooled to and from the storage unit. We made sure to disinfect everything and then seal it up in case the storage place had bed bugs, given all the people out there who simply stash their things, thinking the bugs will die or lose interest. We didn’t want to take any chances.
Mauricio didn’t seem interested in prepping, even though the bugs could have traveled to his place at any time, or may have even already been ensconced without his knowing. He bowed out and let Rocco take the lead.
I tried to persuade Rocco to at least let the apartments be inspected by John Furman of Boot-a-Pest, who had treated my place the previous summer, to determine where the populations were and how best to attack them. But Rocco made it clear that he was going to get someone he knew personally.
One day he called me, sounding excited.
“I’ve got someone to do the job,” he said. “He is a bed bug guy, he works for a larger pest-control company and goes on bed bug jobs all the time. He is licensed and everything and will bring all his papers when he comes.”
I was psyched. At last we were on the same page, and cooperating/collaborating!
“Great!” I said. “Who is he? What’s his company’s name?” I was all excited to Google him and prepare to be his right-hand tenant gal, his liaison with the building, talking bed bugs with someone who knew what we were going through and translating his instructions to the neighbors.
“Bobby,” Rocco said. “His name is Bobby.”
My heart sank. That was it?
“He prefers not to reveal his company,” Rocco said. “It’s funny how these things happen. It turns out we play softball together. I had no idea he was a bed bug guy.”
Next Week: Bobby, Promulgator of Bed Bug Myths and Other Delusions
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.