It may be the nature of the alliteration, or the cuteness of the nursery rhyme, that makes it hard to discuss bedbugs as a profound urban crisis. It is perhaps the nature of New York: Sure, bedbugs are a growing bother, and there’s a certain schadenfreude that they’ve made it into a Victoria’s Secret
store, but, along with cockroaches and compared to rats…what’s a bedbug?
The New York Times did a piece
the other day about bedbugs, a kind of good feeling civics lesson in how well-intentioned people deal with the lesser maladies of city life. This on-the-job administration has earmarked a half-million dollars to educate people (apparently it will build a website) about what the Times
affectionately calls “blood-sucking critters.”
This is earnest government, but far from any understanding of the existential and apocalyptic nature of the beast: You can’t live with them; you can’t get rid of them. That may only be revealed when they come into your family.
My daughters, sharing an apartment 18 months ago on the Upper West Side, got bedbugs, at 229 West 101st, Apt 7E—in a building owned by Heller Realty. If you live there, you have bedbugs, as did the tenants before my daughters, and surely the tenants since. (No disclosure, of course, on the part of the landlord.) My daughters are suing, as are previous tenants (and, I would bet, successor tenants)—but suing a landlord seldom gets you satisfaction. (The gentlemen from Heller Reality, even among landlords, are a particularly low, scheming, and brutish bunch.)
But here’s what bedbugs get you: With them, everything else in your life becomes meaningless. There is no other priority; there is no respite from them, no defense; night falls and they eat you. Of all the means to eradicate them, nothing, save DDT, which is illegal and harmful to humans as well as bedbugs, works. Not dogs, not fumigation, not cryogenics (that’s one purported method of killing them: freeze your possessions for a long period), not enclosing your bed in special bed bodybag.
You can only flee, finally. (The gentlemen from Heller Realty are counter-suing my daughters for running out on their lease.) Perhaps home to your parents—who won’t want you if you’ve had bedbugs. All your possessions must be sealed and stored for several years. (Actually most possessions will have to be tossed: air-conditioners, TVs, books.)
I now see the signs: flatbed trucks piled high with mattresses, like corpses in Europe’s great plague; more and more mattresses discarded on the street (cross to the other side if you see one).
There are neighborhoods with bedbug reputations—the Upper West Side, Williamsburg, the East Village—but no neighborhood is safe.
Some economic strata, though, are safer than others (though bedbugs have crossed over to the Upper East Side). The Times
story quotes Mayor Bloomberg telling Councilwoman Gale Brewer, "Gale, all my friends have bedbugs; what am I going to do?"
Well, this is not true. I dare say the mayor does not have a friend with bedbugs—not yet. Nor do the mayor’s daughters have bedbugs.
But they will. And then he won’t take them in.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
I have lived through the breakdown of law and order, the crack epidemic, suburban flight, financial meltdowns (several), blackouts, riots, gentrification, and real estate booms and busts (several), all of which have seemed to threaten New York’s way of life. But perhaps not as much as bedbugs.