This past Memorial Day weekend, while others were enjoying sun and fun, I was up at the witching hour tearing my apartment apart and reading bed bug horror stories for hours.
It all started about two weeks before the holiday when I woke up with several mosquito-looking bug bites on my ankles. As I scratched, I had hoped it was just because I had been sleeping with the window open and a rogue mosquito or two entered.
The next night more bites appeared this time on my legs and neck. Paranoid and neurotic by nature—I have spent hours asking my building’s exterminator about roaches and mice, neither of which I or he have found evidence of being in my apartment---I was worried I had bed bugs.
I Googled the term and researched what to look for. I learned that there may be little reddish-brown dots on the sheets and/or mattress.
I tore off all my bedding and examined my mattress; it was pristine.
Then I went over my white sheets and comforter with a fine-toothed comb and again came up with nothing.
Momentarily relieved that I was just being paranoid, I remade my bed and headed to the bathroom to splash water on my face and inspect the new bites.
As I entered the bathroom I noticed a small brown bug crawling by my hamper. I scooped it up and put it in a Ziploc bag like a total psycho. Evidence!
Of what, I wasn’t sure, but I was way too panicked to do anything more right then. I tucked the Ziploc into my desk drawer and went back to bed, planning to show the bug to the exterminator when he came later that month.
Over the next two weeks I transitioned from sleeping with the windows open to having the air conditioner on 24/7 to stop mosquitos from coming in. Every now and then I’d notice a bite but put it out of my mind.
Then at 4 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend I was awakened by something biting me on my foot under several layers of bedding.
No way this could have been an errant mosquito, especially when the windows had been sealed for days.
I leapt out of bed and saw a fresh bite on my foot. Again I tore all the bedding off of my bed, pulled it from the wall, tipped over my mattress and box spring and inspected.
Still no telltale signs of bed bugs but I also know from the little I had read up until that point that they can be wiley.
I Googled pictures of the critters learning quickly they had five stages. I compared those pictures with the still-live bug in my Ziploc.
They looked similar; it would appear I had an adult bed bug in a sandwich bag.
I then went to BrickUnderground and read BedBugged!, Theresa Braine's chronicle of her fight against bedbugs, for hours.
I was itching as the sun came up and vowed never to sleep again. And just then when I was piling my bedding into a laundry bag I saw it: another of the same bugs hanging on to my bed skirt!
I pulled it off and put him into the same bag with his buddy. I Googled some more, learning that sleeping on the couch in the living room would do no good and would actually make matters worse.
I was to get back into bed and let the bloodsuckers, well, suck my blood. Yikes! I hate sleeping alone, but be careful what you wish for! This was not the sort of sleeping companion I longed for.
I Googled "bed bug specialists" in NYC and decided that before I did anything else I would want a bed bug sniffing dog to assess my situation and confirm I did, indeed, have bed bugs. I called many but it was Memorial Day and I only got answering machines.
I finally reached a guy who brusquely told me that an inspection would be $250, a two-day treatment would be $1,200 and he couldn’t be here for several days. I tried to ask him more questions and describe my situation but he cut me off.
I called another and he picked up promptly, was engaging and kind. I liked him instantly. He gave me an overview of how complicated the bugs were, explained how he trained his dogs and generally calmed me down.
I asked him questions like, “If I have bed bugs will I have to spend thousands, lose everything I own and do weeks of work?” and “But I live in a shitty walk-up tenement; the landlord will never address all the apartments so won’t the bugs just keep going from one apartment to the other?”
He answered calmly and sweetly and then asked me to send him a picture of the bugs in the bag. I only had my BlackBerry available so I sent him a somewhat blurry shot to which he responded via text that they looked like adult bed bugs.
I couldn’t breathe and started panicking. He said he could be there at 6 a.m. the following morning with his dog for $150 and if he found evidence of any bugs could begin treatment right then. Treatments ranged around $600.
I explained that if he did find evidence of an infestation I was undecided about whether I’d let my landlord handle it (I’ve read horror stories about them trying to do it on the cheap and making matters way worse) or pay for it myself.
He was not pushy and seemed far more concerned about my well-being than money.
I begged him to come sooner, but it was a holiday and 6 a.m. seemed pretty good.
He said to stop Googling for now, not to clean or move anything and to just relax. Easier said than done, but I liked his demeanor and valued that he didn’t treat me like the hysterical woman I was.
That night I laid on my bare mattress sans pillow on high alert. It was as if I was waiting for medical test results that would let me know if I was dying of cancer or not.
I called my closest friends, but was scared to share my ordeal with others for fear I’d be stigmatized. When my friend Holly volunteered to have a mid-Monday brunch I made sure she didn’t come up to my unit, for fear I’d infect her.
Another friend was convinced that because I had visited him in his apartment the week before he was now also infected and had bites. I realized the bugs liked feeding on their human host pre-dawn so that was the hardest time for me.
I was so exhausted, though, that I passed out around midnight and was up again at 4 a.m. counting the minutes until the man and his dog would arrive.
Bobby, the bed bug guy came with Bruno, his German shepherd. My own dog, Mini, was howling, confused why this other dog could have run of the apartment and was allowed by the bed. I explained to Mini that while he costs money and does nothing to contribute to the household, Bruno actually made money!
IBobby was even nicer, more reassuring and knowledgeable than on the phone.
He let the dog do his thing, taking him through the bedroom, opening drawers and closets so the dog could sniff inside. He seemed genuinely interested and enjoying his job. When the dog found nothing, Bobby took Bruno through all my other rooms including my walk-in closet and bathroom.
Bobby said with a smile that he was 200% sure I did not have bed bugs. I was so relieved I wanted to kiss him! I kept asking him over and over -- as if I was Rainman -- if he was completely sure and what if there were only a few bugs and an infestation was just starting.
The thing I like and value most in this world is a good story, and I rank those who can tell one up there with heroes. Bobby has some great ones and tells them with animation and charm.
He started out by explaining that he used to train dogs to sniff out cadavers and drugs and then a man came to him and asked if he could train a dog to smell bed bugs.
Unsure, Bobby tried, gave the dog a test for a year and when it was successful started doing so with other dogs. He now has 32 and explained it is a constant job to train them.
They must be run through tests daily to keep their skills sharp. Bobby hides a single bug and the dog must find it.
Or he will try to confuse the dogs to keep their instincts topnotch.
He went on to tell me that the weirdest bed bug story he had was when a guy on Wall Street called him and explained he was getting bites but then a month would pass without any, and then they’d resume again. This is not typical bed bug behavior.
The guy didn’t call for a few months and then did so again, plagued with bites. Finally Bobby took the dog to the man’s studio and the dog focused only on the center of the mattress.
The owner of the unit slashed open the bed and there were seemingly no bed bugs. The dog searched everywhere else and just came back to the middle of the bed. It turned out there was a rare single bug there.
Bobby had never seen anything like it but a thorough search both by Bobby and the dog turned up no other bugs. Convinced if there was even a single bed bug in my apartment the dog would find it, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I then remembered the Ziploc I was hording like a demented squirrel would nuts. I pulled it out and showed the bugs to Bobby who laughed and said they were not bed bugs but rather they were carpet beetles which do not live in beds and are commonly found in NYC apartments.
He said my building exterminator could address them quickly and easily and that it’s possible one got in the bed by mistake and while they don’t bite, they do cause irritation if passed along the skin.
Once the exterminator came, he said there was nothing he could do about a few carpet beetles. He said all the construction that's going on on my block (and some renovation in the storefront outside) might have caused it. He seemed completely unfazed.
I still have some trouble sleeping, the psychological effects of thinking I had bed bugs still plaguing me.
But it is a funny thing; this episode does have somewhat of a silver lining. I had been very sad and depressed prior to Memorial Day for a variety of reasons, but, like a cancer scare, everything seemed shinier and happier since I realized it could be so, so much worse. Everything is tons better when you don’t have bed bugs!
Kelly Kreth, recently returned to Hell’s Kitchen, chronicles her misadventures in her tenement-style walk-up in this bi-weekly BrickUnderground column, Hell’s Bitchen.
Bedbugged! How to tell a bed bug from an impostor
Bedbugged! Discovering my strengths, and over benefits of bed bugs
Bedbugged! Some of my favorite experts sort fact from fiction
Finally, a breakthrough in bed bug detection
Also by Kelly Kreth:
Hell's Bitchen: I vow never to move again
Hell's Bitchen: Meet my super, Aquavelva
15 things I've learned from 'Million Dollar Listing NY' so far
The 20 deadly sins NYC rental agents should never commit (but do)
Escape from the UES: Goodbye douchebaggery, hello Hell's Kitchen
Dear Neighbor: I am your worst nightmare
Living next to a bridge & tunnel club: KY Jelly wrestling, all-night noise, no regrets