I’m sure you’ve not been wondering where the hell I disappeared to over the past month, as I don’t post often enough to have a readership. Still, there is a very long story behind it that I will go into now.
First a visual aid:
Take a good look at it, people, because you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it before it gets better. It’s called a bed bug, and if you think the Republican invasion of New York was newsworthy, wait until you find out about the other invasion that's going on all over the city in epidemic proportions. Pull up a chair (what are you doing surfing the internet standing?) and heed my tale.
It started in late June. I awoke, not to the usual cooing of pigeons on the fire escape or rumbling of the garbage truck hurling last night’s taco wrappers deep into its bowels, but to the incessant itch of not one, but four welts on my foot. Hmmm, must have been a mosquito. Though the windows are closed. How curious.
Next day, same shit. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain are two words, “bed bugs”. I don’t know why. I must have overheard them on some Fox News promo during the Simpsons. I have no idea what they mean, but I have a sneaking suspicion I should look them up.
I looked them up .
If I have them, I am totally fucked.
They are like impossible to get rid of. They are paper thin and live in the tiny cracks and crevices of your home, especially on or near your bed. They live in baseboards, picture frames, and, of course, box springs and mattresses. They can also lay eggs in your clothes if your clothes are, say, lying in a hamper. It doesn’t matter how neat or dirty you are. You get them from someone else who has them. Either by sitting on their furniture, or by having your suitcase next to theirs on an airplane, or by sitting on a movie theater seat that has them. They feed, of course, on your blood, but they can live up to a year without eating, so there's no going away for the summer to starve them out.
Apparently the reason I’d never heard of anyone having bed bugs before is because they were wiped out in this country around WWII thanks to the widespread use of DDT to kill mosquitoes. With the banning of DDT use in recent years, along with the increase in international travel, (bed bugs have continued to be a problem in other countries all these years, apparently), bed bugs are on the rise. And in New York City, their numbers have reached epidemic proportions.
So what do you do? First, you wash everything you own in hot water, or have it dry- cleaned. This is supposed to kill the eggs. I live in a fourth floor walk up. The laundromat is 3-1/2 blocks away. It is July. This is not fun.
Continue washing everything you use, especially bedding, as often as necessary to keep bugs out of your bed (Daily? Every other day?) I begin washing my bedding every other day. I’m still getting bit.
I call the landlord who agrees to pay for his exterminator to come down and spray the whole place. I call the exterminator who tells me to wash everything I own in hot water and strip the bed so he can spray it. I tell him I did wash everything I own.
“Did you wrap it in plastic before you brought it back from the laundromat and keep it there?”
Shit. I have to wash everything I own all over again. I think I’m starting to lose weight from all this manual labor. I’ve spent about $200 in laundry and dry cleaning and about $100 in clear plastic bags for my clothes in a span of about two weeks.
I wash everything I own and keep it in plastic bags. I strip the bed. The exterminator comes and sprays. He tells us we have to wait 15 days to spray again because that is how long it takes for the eggs that are already laid to hatch. The poison apparently doesn’t kill the eggs. We will continue to get bit, he says. But if a bug runs across this stuff, it will die instantly.
“So, I’m supposed to sleep on a bed sprayed with it?”
“It’s fine. Put a plastic cover on it, if you want.”
The day after he sprays, I come home and proceed to put a plastic cover on the mattress and box spring. As I flip the box spring over, I see my first one. It’s alive and well.
Two weeks later, we’re still getting bit. The exterminator comes back and this time we take EVERYTHING out of every piece of furniture because they really like wood and pretty much all my furniture is wood. We put everything in plastic bags that isn’t furniture. My house looks like a crazy person lives there. From lack of sleep, I’m starting to feel like a crazy person.
We make the exterminator examine every inch of the place. He says he doesn’t see any bugs.
“We’re probably almost there”, he says.
“Really? You think we’ll get rid of them?” I ask.
“Listen,” he says. “If you lived in a house, maybe, but this is New York City. They could have come from a neighbor. They could go to your neighbor’s and hang out until the coast is clear and come back. Insects have been here long before you or I and they’ll be here long after.”
Thanks for the science lesson, asshole. That’s not what I asked you.
No one can seem to tell me how to get rid of these bugs for good.
He sprays everywhere. Even our books, our luggage.
“They love zippers,” he says.
The next night, I go to sleep, hopeful. The next morning, my roommate and I both wake up with bites.
Meanwhile, my partner at work is starting to become a little paranoid, though she doesn’t let on just yet.
Back at the ranch, we decide, fuck this poison shit, we’re going natural. There’s a spray I’ve seen on the internet. It’s made of natural enzymes that break down the bug’s exoskeleton on contact. I order the biggest jug. It arrives on a Friday afternoon—broken and spilled out all over the box. Like the bottle, I am gutted. I look inside, there’s still about a 10th of the bottle left. I pour it into the complimentary spray bottle and guard it with my life.
This spray is so safe, you can wash your sheets and clothes in it. You can even bathe in it. It kills bed bugs, lice, and mites. It sounds perfect. My roommate and I wash everything in it that day. I read on the internet that if you put the legs of your bed in glasses of water, the bugs can’t climb up. I do that and go to bed. I wake up bite free. My roommate does not. This goes on for a week. Me, no bites. Her, lots of bites.
Finally, my partner at work, who knows about everything, breaks down.
“I’m terrified you’re going to give them to me,” she says. Our work calls for us to sit in each other’s offices all day.
“I don’t blame you,” I say. “I can’t promise you I won’t give them to you.”
“I think you should move,” she says.
“I’ve considered that,” I say, “But it would mean leaving everything behind. Otherwise, I’d most likely take them with me.”
“My boyfriend,” (who’s very well off), “will lend you any money you need to move,” she says.
“What?!” I’m humiliated. Not only do I feel like a leper, now they’ve gone and thrown my financial situation into it, too.
“Well, we’re building the new apartment and if we brought those things into it,” she doesn’t have to finish. I understand her concern. It just feels cold and callous.
I go home feeling dejected. The incredible pressure I put on myself to try and keep this situation under control and not spread it to my friends is taking its toll on me. I have been losing sleep due to my anxiety over getting bit coupled with the need to wake up about 6:30 every morning to wash my bedding. I’m ready to throw in the towel. I bring up the possibility of moving to my roommate who is far poorer than I am. She becomes hysterical, crying. She can’t afford it and she refuses to leave all her things behind. I now feel caught between both of their needs. I’ve hardly had time to consider my own.
I call my dad who helps me realize that I can’t let anyone else pressure me into a decision. I have to do what is right for me. I dissect my anger at being pressured into moving from my knowledge that moving would be the best thing to do.
I’m almost one hundred per cent decided when a bed bug runs across the TV table while my roommate and I are watching. The lights are on. The TV is blaring. This is the first time we’ve seen one be so ballsy. It isn’t the last. Five minutes later, another one runs across the TV table convincing my roommate to move, too.
I call the landlord. He agrees to let us out of the lease and give us each a glowing recommendation to any potential new landlords. He will refund our deposit and most of August’s rent. He also agrees to dispose of our stuff for us since we don’t want to put it out on the sidewalk.
The next day, I go out and look for a new apartment. My roommate and I have decided to go our separate ways, partially because she refuses to get rid of a few things. For fear of carrying eggs to my potential new apartment, I go to Old Navy first and pick out some new clothes without trying them on. I am headed to my gym to shower and put the new clothes on, when a broker returns my call. He’s right around the corner and has an apartment to show me. I decide it will be safe not to shower, but simply to change clothes. I go into a nearby Whole Foods and ask for the bathroom. The lady says she must escort me to the bathroom. It’s their policy. She looks at me up and down since I don’t have any groceries, but takes me to the back anyway. She waits outside the door as I change into my new Old Navy jeans and t-shirt. The jeans are way too tight, but I have no choice. Fortunately, the shirt is baggy. I stuff my old clothes in the trash. This will be the first of many that will go in the trash in the coming weeks. I feel like a homeless person or a refugee. I walk out of the bathroom and catch the lady doing a double take as she realizes my clothes are different. She must think I’m homeless.
The six apartments the broker shows me are all shit holes. The foundations are literally slanted. The floors are soggy (?). There are huge leak bubbles in the ceilings. They rent for $1800-$2000 a month. More than double what I was paying when I had a roommate, but I am afraid to have a roommate now. I need to cut down on all the bed bug variables I can.
The day turns out to be one of the hottest of the year. The tight jeans and cheap t-shirt I purchased allow for no breathing. I go to my office at the end of the day with chafing on my thighs. I call my mother and cry for the first time about the whole situation. I bawl like a baby.
I decide to spend the night in a hotel because I can’t face the bed bugs. Not tonight. The cheapest room I can find that still feels “safe” is $200 before taxes. That night I feel awkward as I check in carrying nothing but the plastic bag from Old Navy and one from Popeye’s. Comfort food.
The hotel is completely dead and there’s no one else for the front desk staff to focus on but me.
“Where are you from?” the jovial bellhop asks.
The desk clerk is holding my ID. I can’t lie.
“Here,” I mutter.
“Oh,” the bellhop looks like I just slapped his hand. I feel the need to explain. I start to.
“I just couldn’t stay in my…” I trail off with the sudden realization that they probably think I’m like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy, fleeing in the middle of the night with nothing but a few spare things in a plastic bag.
That night I find it hard not to think of the fact that the number one way to pass bed bugs is through international travel. How many foreigners do you think have stayed in the average Manhattan hotel room? I manage to fall asleep and sleep the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. The curtains in the room are heavy and the room is so dark that I don’t even know it’s 9am when I awake to the sound of my cell phone.
“I’m moving back to my parent’s on Long Island,” my roommate’s voice informs me. “I’ll be out of there tonight.”
That’s it. It’s just them and me. Alone in that godforsaken apartment.
I can’t do it. I decide I will never sleep there again and I will never wear any of my old clothes again. This is the beginning of my life as a bed bug refugee.
That day I go to work like everything is normal, but I sneak out to spend the day apartment hunting—to no avail. That night, I call two of my oldest friends who live in the city to see if I can crash with them. The hotels in the city are just too expensive to keep up for more than one night. One of my friends tells me he’d be glad to put me up, just not now. He’s expecting weekend guests. (It’s Thursday). He’ll gladly put me up Sunday night, but then, only for a day or so. His boyfriend has a deadline and needs quiet in the apartment. My other old friend who knew nothing about the whole bed bug thing calls me back and says he is afraid to put me up. He doesn’t know enough about the bugs and feels worried that I’ll bring them to his home. I fight back the urge to cry or get angry with him. How can I blame him? He’s absolutely right and I’d feel the same way. I tell him not to worry about it.
I stand on a street corner, holding my cell phone, mentally going down the list of friends who don’t have cats. (I am deathly allergic.) I can’t believe I’m actually without a place to sleep. I feel like a leper.
I know who to call. My good friend from work, Ben.
“Ben, I’ve decided never to sleep in my place again. I’ll understand if you don’t want to put me up, but I assure you I’ve taken every precaution. All my clothes are new. I’ve thrown out my old bag.”
“Sure. Just be careful,” he says.
Ben, have I told you lately that I love you?
The following week gets better. I buy pants that fit. The weather cools off. And I find a kick ass apartment in the neighborhood I’ve always wanted to live in—the East Village. I also, (and this is for another post), managed to have a job interview and get a new job during this whole drama. So, I am able to move into a sizable apartment in the East Village thanks to the salary boost. The last day of my old job, Ben and I go see Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan in concert in a minor league baseball park in Fishkill. On that same day, my old landlord sends some men with a dump truck to our old apartment to dispose of all my earthly possessions. As the sun sets over the concert, Willie sings “Living in the Promised Land” and I identify with the refugees in the song more than I could have ever imagined.
I plan my new job start date far enough away so that I can go home to my parents in Texas for a week of much needed r and r, simultaneously alleviating Ben from his lifesaving duties. I return on the 21st of August to my new apartment, which is completely empty. Moving in consists of simply walking in the door with the (new) clothes on my back.
I start my new job on the 23rd and spend the first week going back and forth between work, the new apartment, and Bed, Bath and Beyond. I have only three shirts to wear to work. Out of fear of carrying luggage on the plane from Texas, I bought only enough clothes as I could fit in a small duffle bag, which I kept on my lap. On the 29th, while liberals march through Chelsea with anti-Bush signs, I run from Rockaway Bedding to Jensen Lewis to find a platform bed made of steel. I tell the saleslady at Rockaway that I am glad I found a steel bed.
"Bed bugs?" she asks. She knows.
It arrives tomorrow between 8 and 12. In the meantime, I am sleeping on an air mattress on the floor.
At the end of my first week back, I make one final trip to the old building to pick up the cable boxes I’d left in such a hurry. It turns out the cable company will charge me $200 a box if I don't turn them in. I wear one of my parent's old t-shirts which I brought with me from Texas especially for this day. I wear some new Addidas shorts, which I am sad to part with. I meet the landlord there. He gives me the boxes. I turn in my keys. I go to the cable office in my t-shirt and shorts and turn in the boxes. I go to my gym, throw away my t-shirt and shorts, shower, and put on one of my work outfits and go to work. I can't believe I never have to set foot in that place again.
The next day is my birthday. It feels more like a rebirth day.
“I’m starting over in a new apartment, with a new job, with nothing,” I tell my friend Margaret, an immigrant from cold-war Poland, herself.
“Like a baby,” she smiles at me.
Yes. Like a newborn baby.