Bed Bugs & Beyond
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.
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 Controlthe leather-bound bible of bug killingline 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 womanwho refuses to be named, for fear that bedbugs may be reading this article and jotting down namesgoes 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 itchnot the bedbugs themselves, whose numbers don't even quite live up to the media hype. What has yet to be quantifiedbut what has become an urban infestation of its ownis 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 bedbugmore formally referred to as a Cimex lectulariusat 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 betteras 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 bedbugger.wordpress.com 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 Octoberonly eight months laterthe 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 quarteronly 1,195of 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.
About a week ago, I met with a 58-year-old recovering bedbug sufferer from Long Island. Since April, a mere seven months ago, when the first bite appeared on her upper-left breast, her life has turned upside down. Or more accurately, she has turned her own life upside down in search of her elusive tormentor. Her new obsessionnot ever getting bedbugs againconsumes all her time. Everything elsesmall matters like work, friends, and familyhas been set aside. She spoke on the agreement that her name would be withheld. Let's call her Diane, because remember, the bedbugs are taking notes.
She's Caucasian and has light-brown hair and designer glasses. She walked into the Dunkin' Donuts, the one just off the Hicksville LIRR stop, to meet me. She wouldn't allow me to enter her home; any new person poses a threat and could lead to a new infestation. She yammered on her mobile phone as she got a Dunkin' employee to swab the table and chair I had picked with a wet rag.
"You can never be too careful," she said as the young man finished removing all traces of bedbugs from my seat.
She sat down and continued talking into the phone.
"At least when you have cancer you're dealing with doctors who are educated," she said, "and not predatory, lowlife, uneducated exterminators."
She was speaking to another bedbug suffererBugz in the Hood is his member name on the blog, but we'll get to him later. He's someone in the middle of an infestation, whereas Diane has gone five monthsclosely monitoring each square inch of her epidermiswithout detecting a bite. She was coaching him about the extermination process. Bedbug blog members do that for one another; it's part of the experience.
After hanging up, she digs in her bag and pulls out a little brown vial. She pops a pill in her mouth and swallows. "See what they've done to me?" she says. "I never had to take anxiety medication before."
Diane lived for 28 years in Melville, Long Island, until August 2005, when the market looked good and her husband decided to sell their home for $1.7 million. They put themselves up in a rental until they could find a new property. Diane had an overnight guest, and that's how she thinks the bedbugs invaded. Within days she quit her job selling ads for a newspaper and gave up her hobby of dabbling in real estate, to wage outright war on the intruders. She sent her husband and son to a hotel for a couple weeks while she stayed at the house to battle the bugs alone. She slept on the dining-room table and blasted the house with chemical after chemical. She wrapped all her belongings in plastic and put them in a storage pod, hoping that if she left them there long enough the bugs would eventually die out. But she felt she had to toss some stuff out. Out went an antique secretary, tables, chairs, large area rugs (one was a $3,000 Persian) and $3,500 worth of mattressesa Select Comfort and two Shifmans.
She exterminated the rental home four timesanother $4,000 goneand moved. She'd only seen two actual bedbugs but had suffered multiple bites. Her husband was supportive, but her son left for college in California worried that perhaps his mother had lost her mind. But is there anything wrong with devoting every action of one's life to knocking bedbugs into oblivion?
"I used to have beautiful shoes," she snivels.
Now Diane doesn't invest in nice things for fear she'll have to throw everything away again. She's wearing brown cords, a gray sweatshirt, and socks that go up to her kneesextra coverage to make sure there is less surface area for bugs to crawl on her skin. She bought air mattresses for $90, in case the pests return. Her image has changed too; when she first got the bugs she couldn't eat, and now, she says, she eats too much and has gained weight. For five months she picked up smoking for the first time. "It was disgusting!" she says. Bedbugs have also begun to stress her marriage. She's had trouble sleeping, perhaps due to the 100-watt bulbs that remain lit all night to protect her from the nocturnal nuisances. Her husband has taken to sleeping in another room with the light off. She doesn't attend or have dinner parties anymore, and a night out on the town is "inconceivable," she says. Diane will only fraternize with contributors to the blog. No one else can begin to comprehend her troubles. She hasn't told her friends about the infestation for fear of the stigma. Because of her absence, her friends think she's either getting a divorce or having a nervous breakdownshe agrees that the latter might be close. "I don't care if people think I'm crazy," she says. "I just want to kill them." She is referring, of course, to the bedbugs, not her friends.
Three young women walk into Dunkin' Donuts, each wearing sleeveless shirts and jeans. Diane scans them.
"I look on the arms and earlobes for bites," she says. "I look at everyone that way now." The three, now ordering coffee at the counter, are clean.
Diane looks over her shoulder and then back toward me. She reaches into a bag on the tableshe won't put anything near the floor, where a bedbug could be lurking. She leans forward and whispers, "Have you seen them before?"
She pulls out a jar; inside is a Q-tip and three dead rust-colored bugs. A friend gave her the bugs to conduct executioner-type experiments. She's trying to find her own best method of mass slaughter. She, along with many others on the blog, believes New York's pesticide laws are too strict. DDT has been off U.S. shelves for more than 30 yearsnot even exterminators can use it. But if this woman has one thing besides bedbugs on the brain, it's the will to kill them, and in the jar is DDT. She procured the substance from a retired-scientist friend. The stuff works wonders. She said the little bastards died within seconds. Many bedbug victims from the blog believe the government should legalize the use of DDT for indoor use only. "I used to run behind DDT spray trucks," Diane says. "I'm still here. It's these bedbugs that are going to kill me." She says if the government doesn't help with the growing epidemic, she might have to seek help from higher-ups. "I'm ready to call Oprah," she says.
She puts the jar back in the bag; she pushes the top down tight so she can kill the bugs twice over, this time with asphyxiation. "Do you think anyone saw them?" she asks.
The interview is over. I have to catch a train back to the city and she has work to do. Her husband just came home from a business trip to California and she has to go spray his luggage. For someone so anxious, I would've expected her to edge back in fear of even touching me. But she shakes my hand goodbye, heartily. It's not germs she's afraid of getting; it's the bugs. As we partI toward the escalator and she toward her carshe yells out some advice. "Don't sit!" she said. "Never. Don't do it. Don't sit down!"
Naturally, there's a group of New Yorkers who've found a way to profit from the growing paranoia about bedbugs. At the New York Pest Expo, organized and sponsored by Bug Off Pest Control Center, 325 professional exterminators from the tristate area convened in November to discuss, among other things, how the bedbug brouhaha has given the profession a fresh wave of business.
The convention took place at the seemingly bug-free armory off of Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights. Company-sponsored booths hawking pesticides and an array of spraying tools ringed the red-rubber racetrack. When I stepped inside and saw all the exterminators lounging on bleachers, gazing at a PowerPoint demonstration, I couldn't help but wonder how many creatures they had collectively killed, but I tried not to hold that against themnot even the guy wearing suspenders with skull-and-crossbones designs.
The conference was a whole-day affair9 a.m. to 6 p.m.and covered everything from overcoming roach bait aversion to understanding foggers, subsoil tools, borate sprayers, and foaming equipment. Andy Linares, the coordinator of the event, saved the bedbug update for lasthe knew people would stick around for that. At 4:30 p.m. he introduced a pretty, blonde, curly-haired entomologist, Deanna Branscome, to discuss the pest that seems to have exterminators baffled, but also in awe. Some see the bug as the perfect plight to help them climb the ladder in their careers. "They don't cause disease," says Jose Colon, an exterminator from K.E.B. Pest Control, "but there's a lot of money in it." Linares says any exterminator charging less than $400 a room doesn't have a clue what he's doing.
The American Museum of Natural History's resident entomologist, who's also a licensed pest-control technician, Louis Sorkin, also pulled up a swath of bleacher. He's become a mini-celebrity because of the resurgence of bedbugsa server at a café even recognized him from a New York Times article on bedbugs when he came in to buy a muffin and coffee. He's been quoted in at least a dozen other publications. Though he's got a head of graying hair, when he was talking about bugs, he reminded me of a pre-teen who loves nothing more than to go outside, scrounge up some insects, and scare his family members by tacking them to a bulletin board.
The day before the convention, I had visited him in his office. He used to concentrate mostly on preserving and labeling spiders, but since the bedbug craze, it has fallen to him to become the pest's official media contact. His office is on the sixth floor of the museum, away from the elephants and blue whales, and crammed with boxes, bags, and paperwork. By his desk, there's a plastic bag containing a Kellogg's All-Bran cereal box that's infested with some kind of bug, waiting to be identified. He logs on to the Yahoo bedbug group every morning to share advice he's picked up thus far. He told me that lately there has been confusion between bedbugs and other little bugs: carpet beetles, bird and rodent mites, shiny spider beetles, and parasitic wasps. That confusion has fed the fears of many, he explained.
He wanted to show me the difference. He brought out a Grey Pouponsized jar filled with squirming bedbugs. He said he keeps them in his office specifically so that he can show bedbug reporters what they look like. There is a screen over the top. To keep the bugs alive, Sorkin holds his wrist to the screen for five minutes, letting them feed on him.
Sorkin went to the Bug Off convention the next day as part of his ongoing efforts to ensure that his information is the latest. As Branscome strode up, the male exterminators whistled and clapped as if she were their favorite comic-book hero come to life. The first issue she addressed is one that has mystified us all: Is it bedbugs, or bed bugs? According to this expert, it's two words in the United States and one word in Europe (in direct opposition to Village Voice style). With information like that, the $100 entrance fee has already paid for itself.
Branscome points to a slide of a multitude of bugs magnified to the size of a cockroach.
"They have a smell," she says. "Has anyone here ever smelled it?"
Hands pop up all around. Some don't wait to be picked and just shout out: Yucky! Stinky! Sweet! Like raspberries!
So many exterminators in the crowd have had experiences with the pests, and yet most still don't know how to deal them a knockout dose. Is it a coincidence or a conspiracy?
Branscome explains that bedbugs don't only feed at night, although it is their favorite time to eat. That's when their prey is easy to attack, already still and unconscious. They puncture the skin and use an anesthetic so they can take their time eatingbedbugs are posh, like guests at a five-star restaurant, and they want to enjoy every molecule of the chef's daily special. They attach for five to 10 minutes, until they are fully engorged. As they scamper off, the bite starts to itch. Less than half of those whose blood gets sucked have a reaction to the bite, which makes matters even more complicated and dangerous. If you don't know you have bedbugs, then you can innocently spread them around.
Exterminators usually have to make one to two visitsat $400 per roomthough it is not uncommon for them to return. After all, exterminators explain, there must be continuous inspections to ensure complete eradication. Bedbugs are so itty-bitty that hundreds of eggs can fit on the head of a screw, and they can hole up in the smallest spacesthe crease of a lampshade, the hinge of a cupboard. And what makes them even more terrible is that they are obscenely durablean adult bedbug can live more than one year without a meal. The chemicals, such as DDT, that formerly worked are now off the market for the role they played in causing silent springs, so exterminators are still lacking an answer to the problem.The best they can do is integrate many techniques: eliminate clutter, vacuum everything, inspect, monitor, and douse the place with chemicals. Meanwhile, they happily accept their fees.
Just as the attendees began fidgeting, Branscome brought up a popular topic: bed- bug mating. Everyone perked up; that's when I found out that exterminators giggle. You might assume that bedbugs have good sex lives, given the amount of time they spend in the sack, but the name given to their mating habits debunks that theory. It's called traumatic insemination. The male punctures the female's abdomen with his appendage; too many punctures and mating can be fatal.
"That's why they're tearing us up," said one exterminator in the front row. "Those girls are mad!"
Anti-Viagra: That's what Linares calls one of his most promising bedbug-fighting pesticides. The pesticide was originally used for cockroaches; it freezes them in an adolescent phase so they never could mate. But Linares found the substance does something different to bedbugs. It shrinks their appendages, making them unable to harden up and penetrate. I didn't ask what the substance does to bipedal mammals.
Bugz in the Hood is his moniker, but let's call him Paul because he's the Paul Revere of this battle, warning the public with his alarm: The bedbugs are coming, the bedbugs are coming! Because of their red color, bedbugs were referred to as "redcoats" by an earlier generation of neurotics. If there's no action to minimize their numbers, Paul envisions these little creatures as the cause of the next economic meltdown, causing multi-million-dollar lawsuits and the closure of five-star hotels. Even air travel would come to a standstill (planes are, after all, one of the likely explanations of how these bugs travel so fast from place to place). He refuses to be named, for fear of stigma and out of concern that contractors will use his bedbug problem as a reason to condemn his apartment, which is in the heart of the swanky neighborhood around Columbus Circle. Because much of his time is consumed by bedbugs, I wonder if he's given them a nickname: motherfucking sons of bitches? "It's longer," he says, "but easier to get out."
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?
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 himI learned it at the conferenceis 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 citizenryhe 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 himin 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 themround and lifted with no little dot in the middle. Eisenberg told her how to prepare for the first extermination and sold her a vacuuma $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.
The prospect of a bedbug infestation enveloped Mitrovich in shock. She'd assumed she just had spider bites. Eisenberg offered her some initial recommendations: He suggested that she go nude around the house so as not to spread the infestation and advised a bedtime cocktail to help avoid a sleepless night. Eisenberg's advice appeared sound; as Mitrovich and I finished our coffee and walked to Staples to buy preparations to prevent more widespread attacks, she seemed perfectly well rested.
We entered Staples but found no end display labeled "Bedbug Prep." Mitrovich, who otherwise seemed quite benign and even-tempered, took on an air of malicious glee as she selected a roll of duct tape and a box of plastic bags. "Clear," she said, of her bag choice. "I want to be able to see them when they die." Her mom bought an emergency red-eye ticket from California to help with the effort. She would arrive the next morning. They needed to bag and wash all her clothes in hot water. Mitrovich worried that her wardrobe might shrink; her jeans barely reach her ankles as it is.
Luckily Mitrovich's landlord has lived up to Article 4, "Extermination and Rodent Eradication," Section 27-2018 in Chapter 2 of the Housing Maintenance Code. In other words, he has agreed to pay for the extermination fee, which by New York housing law, he's responsible foreven though many try to squirm out of the duty. So that's one load off, but I kept asking her questions: Will you change how you live from now on? Will you ever have people over again? Do you feel itchy even when nothing is there? Are you going to tell your friends?and the questions helped the realization finally sink in: She has New York City's nightmarish bloodsucking creatures living with her.
Mitrovich began to freak out, and so did I, because her sweater just brushed up against my purse, which is made of natural fibers. Bedbugs love natural fibers. I wished Mitrovich luck, and we parted ways, quickly.
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