By all accounts, the bedbug front keeps getting scarier. See “Sick Fucks Now Promoting Bedbug-Infestation as a Revenge Tactic.” But what, really, is the state of the bedbug? Is all this talk just a bunch of fear-mongering? Or is the city’s battle over bedbugs just beginning? We caught up with Maciej Ceglowski, the man behind the Bedbug Registry, which compiles user-submitted bedbug reports in cities across the U.S. and Canada. (Next up: the UK).
Maciej, how did you end up starting the registry?
I’d just moved to San Francisco and was staying at a hotel while I looked for a place to stay. My girlfriend at the time, in New York, had told me bedbugs were inundating her building, so I was aware of them. I felt kind of itchy that night in the hotel, but thought I was being paranoid. The next day I saw what I thought was a tick in my room…after researching, I realized it was a bedbug, and I also saw how difficult it was to get rid of them and how easy they could spread. Also, I noticed there was no centralized place on the Internet to find out where bedbugs had been reported.
What did you do at that particular hotel after you saw the bedbug?
I put the bug in a cup and carried it around with me. I think I even waved it at the manager. I checked out after one night, but I didn’t demand a refund or anything, I felt bad. I went to the laundromat and put all my stuff in the dryer to kill any bedbugs. The thing with bedbug bites is, they can can take a while to show up. They’re also distinctive from person to person.
So you started the site as a place to centralize information for people? What reactions do you get from the hotels listed?
I’ve gotten cease and desists, most recently from the Comfort Inn in Utica, Michigan. They’ll send huffy letters from the manager saying things like “It’s our policy not to have bedbugs.”
Do you screen or check submitted entries?
I read everything as part of my lovely morning routine. I try to write back to people who post a negative report to make sure they didn’t have the wrong branch and that sort of thing. If it’s about another insect or it doesn’t have a valid email address, I take it down, and I edit to remove proper names. With hotels I’m more strict about requiring photos, multiple reports, etc.
Where do you think we are in the bedbug crisis?
It seems that there a few stages places go through. New York is kind of ahead of everyone else. People are very aware of what’s going on with their neighbors, and nobody’s that surprised to hear about bedbugs. New Yorkers don’t think, for instance, that you can just throw out or cover up your mattress and have them be gone.
What else has changed since you started the site in 2006?
Hotel chains seem to have more of a bedbug policy, or at least the national chains are talking about how to deal with it. The day after a post goes up about a large, national hotel, I’ll often get an email from them — I’ll post those with their permission. If the infestation is disputed, I’ll say it’s disputed.
What about reporting other infestations, like in stores or apartment buildings?
People are reporting some of the stores, but the system only accepts street addresses, which not everyone knows. People have reported movie theaters, and all the big news in the press — Conde Nast, etc.
Where do you think the bugs will head next?
Cruise ships. They’re not there yet, or at least, I haven’t seen it in the press. When you go on a cruise, you typically stay in a hotel for the night and then go on the boat — it’s clearly going to happen soon there. Airlines are the same way.
Are you numb to all of this at this point, or totally paranoid about your world being taken over by bugs?
I’m completely paranoid and terrified about what’s going to happen next. It’s basically like prophecy…I’m waiting for the Seventh Seal to open. I’ve talked to some entomologists and, well, they don’t see any sort of pesticide on the horizon that could deal with them. What’s missing is a residual pesticide that the bugs could walk over so it would continue to kill them. Right now there’s no obstacle in the path of bedbugs. There’s a pesticide that they use on golf courses; it’s effective, but the EPA decided it was too dangerous in homes. There will be a black market of people selling DVDs and pesticides in New York!
How’s the site been doing?
The last month and a half have been crazy. We had a big surge in traffic toward the end of July and mid August. The media has gone through the stages of, first, “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” then “the big business of bedbugs,” and now, “is it fair to people to report places online”? I’m now working on a UK registry as well.
I’ve heard bedbugs compared to STDs. What do you think about that?
It’s a very good comparison with STDs. Something like 28 percent of the population has herpes, it’s really common, anybody can get it; but there’s a huge stigma and it can’t be cured. There’s nothing about you that makes you more or less likely to get it — or bedbugs — but people will still shun those who have them. Human instinct is to get away from disease.
Did you break up with your girlfriend in New York because of her infestation?
No. And in the time since I started the site, my girlfriend at the time, my current girlfriend, all these people in my circle have had them…I’m a computer nerd; it just tells me that everyone will get them.
What are the craziest things you’ve heard?
There are things that really stick with me and are heartbreaking. We have a lot of SROs where people are indigent, elderly, or alcoholic in San Francisco that are completely infested. In Canada there are some reports of people getting eaten every night and wearing suits to bed. There are hundreds of thousands in global populations just living with this. These are people who can’t live anywhere else.
There are also some hotels that seem incredibly poorly managed, and are actually aware of the problem but not really doing anything. They’re incubators for bedbugs. Or people who live on the Upper East Side in fancy coops but their neighbors say they see bedbugs on their clothes when they come downstairs. It’s a ticking time bomb.
Where are the worst spots in New York City?
The really big hotels around Times Square. Also, 248 McKibbin in Brooklyn. Bedbugs are just running riot, and people move in and out very often.
What, if anything, is going to fix the situation?
I think what will fundamentally change is when they become common in public spaces. There used to be a big to-do about never putting a coat or bag on your bed; you never hear about that now, but it will probably come back.
A lot of people are asking, Where can I stay that’s safe? I think people are going to see a situation where every hotel has a bedbug report, which will make people more aware of how to travel, how to inspect for a bug, and a less panicked and more effective population of travelers. I think at some point there will be huge pressure for cities and high level government to react. There has to be a coordinated response. It’ll be recognized as an international problem.
Do you make any money from the site?
I make enough money off of it to keep it going. It pays for some of my time. My day job is as a computer programmer.
And do you ever stay in hotels anymore?
Reluctantly. I’m traveling to Orlando for work; it’s a hotbed. I keep the suitcases in the tub, and I travel with stuff I can throw in the dryer afterward. What I can’t handle is the idea of trying to get them out of my apartment.
According to the Bedbug Registry’s users, the top-reported hotels for bedbugs in New York are the Hotel Carter (declined to comment), the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, the Sheraton Manhattan at Times Square, and the London NYC (Sheraton and the London have not returned our calls for comment).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2010