Bed Bugs & Beyond

An outbreak of paranoia (and lint) sweeps the city

A woman in her mid-fifties walks through Jeff Eisenberg's office door. She's got a blond bob and cherry lipstick on. She's out of breath; hyperventilating might be the better word for the way she's respiring. Her mouth hangs slightly open, her face contorted in panic. She extracts two Ziploc sandwich bags hidden in the pocket of her black wool coat. She believes the media predictions of nightmarish bloodsucking creatures taking over New York City might be coming true in her bedsheets. She fumbles and trembles as she lays the contents on the desk of her neighborhood exterminator.

"These two black things," she says, pointing. "See? Are they . . . are they . . . ?"

Eisenberg whips out a loupe, a tool of his trade, magnifying the tiny dots to eight times their size.

 Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.
illustration: Bill Mayer
Cimex lectularius, not to be confused with bunnyex dustus.


See also:
When the Bedbugs Bite
Those little red bumps are the least of it
Photo gallery by Mara Altman

An uneasy silence follows. She bites her lower lip in anticipation of his verdict.

"Well, this one's a piece of dry skin," Eisenberg says, at last. She exhales at this news. He nudges the other fleck. She tenses again. "And this one," he rules, "this is a carpet beetle."

Her eyes roll back as she looks toward the dingy ceiling of Eisenberg's Upper West Side office, the world headquarters of Pest Away. She raises her arms above her head and shakes them in exultation, as though she has completed a marathon. Her knees are weak at the wonderful news.

She doesn't have the scourge. She won't have to bag all her possessions or be shunned by all her friends.

"They're not bedbugs?" she asks, to be reminded of her good fortune, and presses her hands to her chest. "Thank God!"

Eisenberg's three-room office is cluttered with papers and canisters of chemicals. Books like Six-Legged Sex: The Erotic Lives of Bugs and The Handbook of Pest Control—the leather-bound bible of bug killing—line the shelves. Tacked-up receipts and yet-to-be-returned phone messages take the place of wallpaper, blanketing the area. Eisenberg, with a round face and round wire-rim glasses, settles back into his rolling chair as the woman—who refuses to be named, for fear that bedbugs may be reading this article and jotting down names—goes out the door.

After she leaves, Eisenberg explains her want for anonymity to me another way: You don't talk about your bedbug problem, or possibility thereof, for the same reason you don't go to a singles bar and say, "I have gonorrhea, want to buy me a drink?"

In a city where people already depend on Ambien for a good night's sleep, the thought of bedbugs has wreaked havoc on circadian rhythms from homeless shelters to $2 million loft apartments. The thought of them is making people itch—not the bedbugs themselves, whose numbers don't even quite live up to the media hype. What has yet to be quantified—but what has become an urban infestation of its own—is the paranoia that the bedbug craze has produced. It turns out, perhaps no surprise in a city as neurotically obsessed as New York, that something as small as a bedbug can grow colossal in the minds of millions.

The stigma alone is enough to make hardened city dwellers cringe and cry on Eisenberg's shoulder. He begins each office visit by walking new clients over to a sliver of mirror around the corner from his desk. "Repeat after me," he says as he forces the victims to study their reflection. "I'm not a dirty person." Then he offers them a shot of scotch from a bottle he keeps in his filing cabinet. It's an equal-opportunity bug, he explains. The bugs find a 40-year-old pediatric neurosurgeon on the Lower East Side equally appetizing as a 27-year-old comedian in midtown. In the world of bedbugs, a big-time entrepreneur on the Upper East Side has nothing on a twentysomething unemployed actor. A successful movie director on the Upper West Side shares equal ground with a 22-year-old starving grad student. All the bugs are looking for is a drop of blood, and each of us has about five liters. In a city of 8 million, that's 10,566,882 gallons of bedbug food. Is it any wonder we're terrified?

A bedbug—more formally referred to as a Cimex lectularius—at its biggest is smaller than a watermelon seed and is the thickness of a credit card. Though their bites don't bring disease and we, outsize mammals that we are, could squash them using our thumbs, bedbugs have transformed the lives of thousands, if not millions, and not at all for the better—as would easily admit the victims, who spend much of their time spreading noxious chemicals on all their belongings and sporadically checking in with the Bedbugger blog to see if a new cure has been posted. Even the youngest of our species, accustomed to getting a good deal by furnishing their homes with free street-side wares, have given the practice a second thought.

Getting rid of bedbugs is quite a fight, but the fear that comes along with an infestation has grown even harder to exterminate. No spray exists to eradicate paranoia; no home-visit fee has yet been tailored to quell anxieties. The Yahoo Bedbug Support Group had 27 postings for the month of February; for October—only eight months later—the number went up by 55 times, to 1,494 postings. Out of Eisenberg's 100 calls a day, at least 15 percent are wrongly self-diagnosed rashes or lint balls. Carmen Boon, the spokesperson for New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, reports that of 4,638 calls about bedbugs in fiscal year 2006, about a quarter—only 1,195—of those, upon inspection, were actual infestations. That's up from two complaints in 2002. That's an increase of 231,800 percent (not to mention a 25,000 percent increase in bedbug articles in newspapers and magazines). Fiscal year 2007's count has already gotten off to a good start, Boon says. There were 2,133 complaints within the first three months, which resulted in 546 violations.

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