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Someone Else’s Neuroses

This is going to be one of those posts I might oughtn’t to write on the modern Internet, now that everyone is here and knows where you live and won’t accept your unborn children to Choate because you once blogged that the school’s name bears a resemblance to slang for an otherwise unnamed part of the male nether regions — I did so prefer the Internet before you-all got here, GIA — but I started this blog to write on noteworthy experiences in New York City. The training I chose as an undergrad was formal, written ruminating, in the tradition of Rousseau. And I’d like to think that if Rousseau had bed bugs, he’d have written about the experience of getting rid of them, because it gives one pause.

*goes to google whether Rousseau wrote about bedbugs*

*finds google’s results to be roughly the quality of bed bug feces*

I have bed bugs. Had, past tense, hopefully, if yesterday’s treatment took. No shame in it. Everyone gets ’em these days. Upper East Siders. Department stores. Trump, I think. A former roommate who is also an EMT and who had them herself admonishes that it’s not an indicator of lack of cleanliness.

But god, will it ever make you feel like you have social herpes. All over your face. You mention it to people, and they quietly inch away from you. For a while I didn’t even want to go in to school, just so I wouldn’t pass bedbug detritus on to anyone else. Nobody’s coming over for dinner — I’m just not going to invite anyone until the course of treatment is run and they really seem to be gone. And here I’d just made a resolution to have people over more often, because I wasn’t getting enough social time last semester.

That was really what hit me first: that I couldn’t have people over. I’ve had a handful of friends now who’ve had the bugs, and I was also concerned that, like them, I might go bloody crazy, sleep in the bathtub, move as far from the center of town as was humanly possible.

What I didn’t know was why they went crazy. I don’t think that for most of them it was about getting bitten mercilessly while they slept. I did see them get anxious about contamination issues. I thought that wouldn’t happen to me. I’ve never been a particularly anal person about cleanliness.

But the process of preparing for the exterminator is contradictory, complicated, and exacting. The instructions: Wash absolutely everything you own. On high. Dry it on high. Put it all in Ziploc bags. Open the bags, close the bags — not clear which from the Internet instructions; each exterminator and poison has its own demands. Don’t vacuum. Vacuum. Anything under the bed must come out. Don’t move anything.

Cardboard boxes are bad. It is said the little bastards really like living in them, and certainly the boxes under my bed contained a few that I saw. So it was off to Target to pick up a forkliftload of clear plastic tubs.

I had a few bits of plastic storage crap in college, but when I graduated, I swore I’d never intentionally purchase any ever again. I’ve actively avoided plastic even at the small scale; given the choice, I prefer small wood or metal organizers and tchotchke boxes, often secondhand. I hate thinking about how plastic is going to stay around forever in landfills; I hate how it looks, and I hate how it breaks.

If I wasn’t depressed enough by the social herpes, I was certainly meeting some clinical definitions as I stood in front of Target’s aisles of plastic tubs. Aisles. So many plastic tubs; so much plastic furniture. Meaning there was so much demand. (The size of the store in Marble Hill was already getting to me; I’ve been shopping in tiny local stores so long I’m not steeled to withstand mass commercial throughput.) It barely mattered if I spent a couple hundred dollars on plastic tubs (and I did; the things are fucking expensive, as well, and it’s irritating to think of how much more cheaply they are doubtless manufactured); everyone else around me was already generating demand for hundreds of these things a month. Every time the checkout person at a local store tries to hand me a plastic bag, I make a point of wondering aloud, “Where do they go when you’re done with them?” Now I’ve started wondering why I bother.

I probably could have picked up tubs at the local Goodwill. But I have cause to suspect that my willingness to pick up used furniture could be why I had bed bugs in the first place. I’d really been lackadaisical about it. Once we started hearing bed bugs were making a comeback in the city, I developed some sort of willful magical thinking about my scavenging habits. Nobody put a sign on that chair; surely it can’t be infested. It looks clean enough. Goodwill wouldn’t sell anything they hadn’t inspected and cleaned, would they?

Probably this dubiousness of secondhand furniture and clothing is why there’s historically been a stigma against buying anything used. But I didn’t know that, not viscerally. My parents were thrifty, saving money so that they could pay for our education instead. We shopped at secondhand stores for much of my childhood. We had a sort of defensiveness about it. Perfectly good, was the phrase. (A girl in one of my writing workshops at school hung an entire essay on her mother’s tendency to use that same phrase about bruised fruit and dented cans. That girl’s good; she’s since been published in Harper’s.) There’s no telling quality from the objects you surround yourself with, now, is there? That’s what we always clung to.

What I’m saying is, standing in those aisles at Target, filling my cart with sucking black holes in my budget, I was reminded how I do define myself through my relationship to stuff, just not by buying the newest, best stuff. I re-use cardboard boxes. I try not to cause much in the way of new packaging or new consumer goods to come into existence on my account. I’m branded with the motto on my father’s old office wall: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. And this whole bedbug experience has torn up all of that.

I have thrown away things — furniture, clothes, pillows — over the past few days which I’d normally be loath add to some landfill, knowing how long they’ll stay there. I’d usually give them to Goodwill, but I don’t want to perpetuate the cycle of infestations. The experience has been useful as a purgative, though, a good excuse to get rid of stuff I’ve been carrying around uselessly forever. The contents of my sock drawer have been halved. Finally got rid of an awful, cumbersome plastic file bin which has been the bane of my existence for the past few moves. A few ancient stuffed animals finally bit the dust, always the hardest thing for me to do; long before any awareness of PETA, I had a hard time throwing out anything that had a face.

This whole experience has made me feel like I’ve somehow taken on someone else’s neuroses. Standing in the laundry room putting everything into ziploc bags and pressing them so the air comes out, I want to tell the neighbors I’m not normally like this. I’m not normally concerned with what I leave on the floor. I don’t feel compelled to wash my hands over and over. People who do that seem sick to me. Suddenly I’m one of them.

Then there’s the poison, which aggravates my own cleanliness anxieties. In my shell-shocked tweets over the past few days I’ve been unable to remember its specific name: pesticide. I came home last night, after the exterminator did his work in the morning, to find everything in chaos. Boxes everywhere — I’d left them that way — but all the pictures were off the wall; my bed was disassembled, the mattress in the hall. Something still dripped from the bed’s upraised legs. Everything in my room was covered with a white, chalky, spotty film of what I can only think of as poison. It looked like permanent damage to the finish on all the furniture. It was on my accordion case, my alarm clock, my shoes. The floor was covered with dried puddles of varnish, poison, and dead bug bodies, which when handled indelicately would leave blackish-red smears of gore on the pale flooring. Bed bug freaking Vietnam.

This was the climax of three days of nonstop trips to the laundry room, the change machine around the block, the drugstore for housecleaning supplies, Target, and the cat sitter’s place, all of this under what seemed to be bronchitis and, outside, impending snow and freezing temperatures. It was ten o’clock at night. The next day promised still more laundry and running back downtown to get the cats again (one of whom would, of course, shit the carrier before the taxi ride was over). Somehow I’d hoped the exterminator would come and it would all be over. I would have collapsed immediately and given up, except that in my newfound anxiety about leaving anything on the floor, I’d left myself not a single horizontal surface to collapse on. Except, of course, Apocalypse Now bed bug territory.

I woke up this morning with poison still crusted under my bed, garbage bags of ziploc bags of laundry and pillows strewn around my apartment like the macro-larvae of American consumerism, gorged on Chinese manufacture.

As of now, everything’s clean again. I vacuumed and mopped every inch of floor in this apartment more thoroughly than I ever had today. The cats are back, and I’m praying there’s not enough traces of pesticide left on the floor to make them sick. Tomorrow I might actually have a chance to go to work. I don’t think there’s anything more that needs to go in the laundry.

* * *

As they say on the Internet, LFMF, apartment-dwellers. There’s really nobody to blame for bedbugs — like I said, it’s not about cleanliness — but there’s things I wish I had known sooner, so let me share them with you:

  • Cardboard boxes are not your friend for under-bed storage, particularly if you scavenged them from someplace when moving.
  • There’s a reason your grandmother told you never to have a mattress or box spring resting right on the ground. I’m pretty sure that having bed legs makes it harder for the little bastards to find their way to you. Certainly having a mattress right on the ground makes it easier for them to hide.
  • Bed bugs are not so small that you can’t see them. Full-grown ones are large enough that they could be mistaken for small cockroaches. And, in fact, I think I did a couple of times, thinking bed bugs would be nearly invisible (perhaps because when our parents spoke the childhood goodnight rhyme, they had to assuage our fears by explaining that bed bugs couldn’t really get you anymore; in other words, they were imaginary?) Acquaint yourself with what they look like before you know you have an infestation, so when you do get an infestation it won’t get as far before you notice.
  • Likewise, acquaint yourself with what bed bug poop looks like. On sheets, it will look like someone made a dot with the tip of a black or brown fine-tip permanent marker (and it may wick along the threads of the sheet so it looks like a little star or cross). On hard surfaces, it will look like small raised black bumps in a cluster.
  • I heard bed bug bites were like spider bites, which kept me from identifying what I was getting. Some people don’t react to the bites at all. Mine manifested like a diffuse, light rash which I confused with my slight allergy to wool.

Teh Moar U Know ====-* More complete information and advice on bed bugs can be found at BedBugger, which my former roommate referred me to.


  1. Itamar wrote:

    Urgh. That sounds terrible 🙁

    Here’s Rousseau, spending 21 days in quarantine:

    (Not clear if it’s lice, bedbugs or something else, though).

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  2. Chuck wrote:

    Ugh. Good luck, Gustopher!

    …if sock puppets get bedbugs, do they call it lice?

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  3. cup wrote:

    Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  4. Hey Gus! I think I’m doing something that the subjects of your dissertation did, but hey, whatever works. We’ve met at HOPE a couple times and I have a friend who would like to get in touch with you about a fairly intriguing opportunity. It’s one that I’m taking advantage of, so you can be assured that it’s not the contents of an abandoned West African bank account, for example. Can you get in touch at your earliest convenience and I’ll give you some more detail? Thanks, and hope you’re well!

    Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  5. admin wrote:

    Cup, it’s been forever — why the sudden reappearance? How does this haiku relate to this post?

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

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