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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Facing a second bed bug infestation, I knew this time what I had to do. I needed to bag my stuff and get it out of the way of the exterminator, Bobby. Unfortunately, I (and my neighbors, who were also infested) had to wait a few weeks before Bobby could get there.
I wasn’t sure just how helpful Bobby would turn out to be anyway. His biggest qualification, aside from having served as a tech on some bed bug jobs with his big pest-control firm (which does not make a person anything approaching a certified bed bug expert), was that he played softball with Rocco, my landlord.
Most of his experience involved vermin of the furry, four-legged variety: When Bobby had told me he worked in the subway, I’d thought for a split second that he’d meant the sandwich shop. But his orange mesh MTA vest attested to another kind of subway altogether, one involving the eradication of rats on tracks.
Bobby made completely erroneous pronouncements about bed bugs, including the declaration that he was not going to treat my desk (it was built in along the bedroom wall shared with that of my even more infested next-door neighbor, the clueless Arnold, and I had actually seen a bed bug crawling across it) because “that’s just papers, and they don’t like papers.”
Never mind that corrugated cardboard, and piled or folded papers, not to mention wood, comprise some of their absolute favorite habitats.
None of this inspired confidence, and I vowed inwardly to try and get Rocco to hire someone else.
I had plenty of time to do so. Before Bobby could treat our building, he had to take a three-week-long road trip to Florida. Why my landlord was allowing this was not precisely clear. It was not acceptable but I didn’t have much choice.
Too snowed under with work to do the prep any quicker (even though much of my stuff was still in bags and still more had been discarded after my first treatment, and still more was being shoved into storage in cahoots with also-infested neighbors Lena and Ron, I seemed to have an inordinate number of possessions lying around), I welcomed the extra time but with mixed feelings—I was getting bitten more and more, this time mostly on my ankles, although the upper left arm was also still a favorite munching spot, as it had been the previous summer. Although it didn’t bother me psychologically as much, I was literally being half-awakened in the middle of the night by the itching, the feeling of a thousand minute feathers dancing on my anklebone. I dared not open my eyes because I knew there was nothing I could do.
Bobby’s plan was to treat my bedroom and living room as well as Arnold’s. But he was only going to treat Lena and Ron’s bedroom, laboring under the notion that since they were not in the living room, he wouldn’t have to treat.
This of course was exactly why he had to treat the living room. Every expert knows that you have to think about where they might go, not just where they are at a given moment.
Luckily (in the context of this warped scenario, at least) it was around that time that Lena and Ron found a bed bug in their bathroom. This made Bobby reconsider and agree to treat their entire apartment.
Not so with Mauricio’s place, downstairs from mine, which had been deemed bed bug free. There, Bobby was just going to do “a little preventative treatment,” he said. I said that if we all had bed bugs in our apartments it was inevitable that they would flee our extermination and go to Mauricio’s, so that might not be enough. But that fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile my invites to the bed bug lecture being given by Lou Sorkin, one of the country’s (if not the world’s) premier bed bug entomologists, at the monthly meeting of the New York Entomology Society, had met with derision from Rocco and indifference from my neighbors and Bobby himself. So I went alone.
There, I ran into John Furman of Boot-A-Pest, who had successfully exterminated my apartment the previous summer. (True, the bugs had returned. But as I suspected they had been running rampant in Arnold’s apartment the whole time, it had been a miracle they’d ever left at all, so I deemed Furman’s results successful.) Afterward we had a long, bed bug related heart-to-heart, standing outside in the freezing cold.
I caught him up on the latest in my bug saga and told him about my specimen, which was still alive and well in the little plastic jar. I had tentatively named it Roberta, even though I wasn’t sure of the gender. I asked whether they were like roaches—if one bed bug brazenly crawled across my desk in daylight, didn’t that mean there were legions teeming in the walls? He said not necessarily.
“You might want to fold up a little piece of paper accordion style and stick it into the jar,” Furman said. “She’ll harbor in it.”
I burst out laughing. “Really?” I chortled. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Just to make her a little more comfortable,” he said.
That didn’t really answer my question, but I let it slide. I had bigger fish to fry. I told him all about Bobby, my new suitor/exterminator.
“What he’s doing is illegal, in case you care,” Furman said of Bobby’s moonlighting. He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask. But basically Bobby was not licensed himself, it was through his company, so he was only legit if working through them rather than on a freelance basis for Rocco.
“I don’t,” I said, unfazed. “I just want him to get rid of the bugs.”
I went home and to my surprise actually found myself doing what Furman had suggested: I folded a small piece of white paper into an accordion shape and stuck it into the jar, then re-sealed it.
I'm not sure why I did that. I felt curiously attached, so maybe there was a little Stockholm syndrome in there somewhere. There was also a morbid curiosity of sorts. I was mildly interested to see how long she lived, whether she would lay eggs (I was pretty sure it was a female, don’t ask me why) and perhaps to try and wrest back a little control from just one of the creatures that had up-ended my life.
But if any of these motivations were present, I was not aware of them consciously.
She did indeed perk up though. I renamed her Hilda the Happy Harborer.
I itched, and plotted ways to have anyone but Bobby do the extermination.
Next Week: I give a lesson to the medical profession and consider finding Hilda a husband
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.