Bed Bugs & Beyond

An outbreak of paranoia (and lint) sweeps the city

Paul wouldn't stick out in a group of middle-aged men on their way to golf 18 holes. He wears a blue polo shirt and jeans with a brown leather belt. He has more pepper than salt in his hair, but both seasonings are receding. Just three months ago, Paul's life was mundane. He'd lived in this doorman apartment building for 20 years and was actually in the midst of a remodel. The 57-year-old worked eight-hour days at home, editing court transcripts for a living. His girlfriend would come to spend the night. He'd visit his mother at her senior home in New Jersey on the weekends. Now he devotes his day primarily to bedbug matters. He researches the science, writes to new victims, always responds to posts on the blog, and checks his favorite Google alerts: "DDT" and "bedbug." He's even tried inventing bedbug jokes:

Q: Why can't two bedbug victims have an affair?

 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

A: Because they're too busy searching for bugs.

Don't blame him for that one; he's tired from waking up every 20 minutes during the night to shine a flashlight on his body, looking for bugs mid-bite. When I visited him, he was prepared to tell me about life on the front lines. But first I had to reach the front lines. Big plastic bags and Rubbermaid bins blocked my path at every turn as I crossed his apartment. A layer of white powder coated everything in sight; there was even a bit of it smudged into his jeans, as if he'd just had some giant bake-off in his living room. It's NIC 325 or desiccant dust, and it's supposed to dehydrate the bugs, leading to their deaths. I peeked into his bedroom: He had disassembled his bed frame and stacked it against the wall in pieces.

While the infestation continues, Paul sleeps on a massage table in the middle of his living room. Six-inch risers hold up each leg; the risers get coated in Vaseline. What he doesn't know and I don't tell him—I learned it at the conference—is that bedbugs have something akin to a GPS system set to blood as their destination. When facing a roadblock, they've been known to reroute, crawling up walls and dropping from the ceiling onto their victim. He keeps the weapons he uses to fight the war alongside his "bed." They include a loupe, a flashlight, a jar, Saran Wrap, D-Force HPX pesticide spray, a razor, and a cleaver to hack infested furniture apart.

For the most part, Paul has quarantined himself. He doesn't go to Starbucks anymore to do his work, for fear he'll start an infestation in their chairs. At home, he works in a Herman Miller chair that's covered with black garbage bags because he doesn't want to lose it to the bugs like he did his green leather Italian designer sofa and 1920s Persian heirloom rug. When he does go out, he only takes plastic bags with him. He brings along his razor blade so that if he finds a stray curbside mattress, he can demolish it before any passersby unsuspectingly take the Trojan horse into their home. The practice of picking up secondhand goods, Paul believes, should be seriously questioned. He fantasizes about creating stickers, free to the public. They will say: "This is infested with bedbugs." Boston already uses the stickers, he reports; why can't we? People would use them to put on their thrown-out goods to warn street-side scavengers. Paul suggests to anyone who is planning to visit a hotel to bring a magnifying glass, put clothes in plastic bags, and keep your suitcase in the bathtub.

"I'd have myself locked up for saying that a year ago," he says. Paul further demonstrates that among obsessed victims, exposing oneself to toxins and risking having a two-headed-monster child suddenly seems to become a good idea, if it means keeping the bugs at bay.

Even when the bedbugs get completely wiped out from his living space (not that he's seen one in weeks), Paul says he's going to continue to aid his fellow citizenry—he sees himself as a permanent avenger of bedbug sufferers everywhere. Thus far, however, his plans have been stymied. He recently tried to give a bedbug-awareness lecture at his mother's retirement facility, but she wouldn't let him—in fact, mother and son haven't seen each other since he became a diagnosed carrier. She refuses contact. "She has a son with the bugs," John says. "She doesn't want her friends to know."

As I go down the elevator, I feel itchy all over. I regret not doing snow angels in his death powder.

Andrea Mitrovich, a 27-year-old bedbug victim, doesn't use an alias because she doesn't know how the stigma works yet; she just got diagnosed with bedbugs the day before we met for coffee last month. She's a former American Ballet Theatre dancer, thin with big blue eyes. The layer of makeup she wears shimmers in the sunlight. She towers over me; with her three-inch boots, she reached at least six feet. But when she came into Eisenberg's office, she looked less like a Swan Lake ballerina and more like a rare red-spotted leopard. The welts had "bedbugs" written all over them—round and lifted with no little dot in the middle. Eisenberg told her how to prepare for the first extermination and sold her a vacuum—a $150 Oreck that can suck up a 15-pound bowling ball (he'll show you if you ask him)—to remove bugs from nooks and crannies before a big flush of chemicals.

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