Volume 79, Number 14 | September 9 - 15, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

Bugs in my bed and in my mind; E. 5th metamorphosis

By Marianne Landré Goldscheider

In Central Park the other day I was talking with an acquaintance about my recent visit to Vermont. The conversation shifted to an article on bedbugs that appeared in The New York Times real estate section on Sun., Aug. 23. 

“Of course I read it,” said my interlocutor. Then she looked at me suspiciously, adding, “Don’t tell me you have them.” 

I nodded. Thereupon she jumped up with a cry of horror and in an anguished voice called from a distance, “I have so much clutter, if I ever get them I’ll die.” She examined herself anxiously and, choking up, said that she couldn’t talk to me anymore.

My first experience with bedbugs — wanzen is what we call them in German, with great disgust — was during the Second World War in Prague. I was a child and I had no idea that I am one of a good number of people who are completely insensitive to their bites — no marks, nothing. I remember my mother accusing the upstairs neighbors of shaking their bedclothes out of the window. I don’t remember how we got rid of them. There were much worse things happening.

The critters are nocturnal, so you rarely see them. When in New York, weeks after 9/11 in 2001, one was crawling over the Village Voice I was reading, I squished it, saw blood, was disgusted and had no idea what I had seen. It became horrifyingly obvious a week later, when a friend and I picked up the wonderful king-size futon I had recently purchased. We will never forget the sight.

Instantly, we decided to remove futon and frame. I had to call to our assistance a maintenance man in my new building. We dragged the scene of horror to the basement. I hurried to hardware stores asking for bedbug killer and was told that, “There are no bedbugs in New York. All we can give you is roach spray — good luck.” 

That was 2001. We sprayed the area and I assumed that would be it. Since the evidence had been exposed, I had to speak to the manager. She calmly told me, “Our cleanest tenants have them. Don’t worry. I’ll send the exterminator.” Casually, he came. Alas, before too long one was crawling along the yellow part of a sleeping bag; I’d bought a foam-rubber mattress and was now sleeping on the floor. A Dutch friend stayed with me and was bitten. I realized that I had a problem. 

I was 69 then. A good friend who knew that bedbugs have been in New York for a long time promised to help. I went away for the summer. Only recently did he tell me of the heroic, labor-intensive measures he took. I didn’t see one again until June 16, 2009. I squished it, saw my blood, smelled its sickening odor, recoiled in horror and decided to believe it was one deluded specimen venturing out in daylight, which of course they are not supposed to do.

The more rational part of my mind knew better, but the other part did not want to know. I was sleeping on a futon again. My good friend of yesteryear was not available. I saw nothing. 

Then the present manager slipped a note under the door: “Bedbugs have been sighted. We’ll be placing strips. If you see one, notify us immediately.” 

Two white strips were placed — one under my bed, the other in the living room. Ostrich that I am, I could not face checking them myself. In the middle of August I again lifted the futon and again recoiled in dismay. It was Friday. I decided to give myself until Monday before announcing them to the manager. All weekend long I could only think one thing. I spoke to no one about it, being keenly aware of the disgust they cause even among those who don’t itch and develop welts. 

Since early childhood, books have been my refuge. A dissertation could easily be written on “Bedbugs in Literature.” In Germany they are associated with World War II. I have read countless accounts of the war, and bedbugs loom large.

Monday, my day of disclosure, came. 

“Are you sure?” asked the manager. “I’ll send the super tomorrow to verify.”

“I’m sure,” I said in a very small voice.

Then, she said cheerfully, “You’ll have to wash every last stitch in your house, remove futon, frame and bedding. And bag all books, anything in drawers. Do you have family to help you?”

My two sons, living in western Massachusetts, hardly have the time to rush to my assistance. 

The manager smiled: “Don’t worry, don’t panic, we’ll help you to find help.”

Crestfallen, I returned to the scene of infestation — a war zone now! I would have loved to head for the hills, but I had to face the disaster. I had to face my errant ways of not dealing with it on June 16.

On Wednesday the super came. I was at my most contrite, ready to confess every last sin. He brought black garbage bags. In went my pillows, my blanket, sheet, all I’d been wearing recently. The bag was sealed and I was told to wait for a man to remove it. I was shaking. 

Then the manager came with the exterminator. He saw me trembling, and looked at my beautiful photograph of an egret. He told me he was a nature boy and to please stop shaking. 

“Leave your books on their shelves, I’ll be back in a week,” he said. “Wash everything, bag all you can and stop worrying.” He would be back twice more in two-week intervals. I rushed out of the house. 

Help came in the form of a lovely young woman from the Midwest who I have known for several years. My subsidized housing on E. Fifth St., the best New York provides for the aged, has a laundry room with seven washing machines and four driers. I have never done so much washing at one time. I am an old European with two peasant grandmothers. 

My house guest cheerily encouraged me to get rid of all the clothes I never wear, books I’ve read and will never read again, and the endless tomes I’ve written in the past nine years that no one will ever read. Clothes, books I’ve read, I have no trouble discarding. My writings would be harder to part with.

The super and two of his men came, dressed in protective plastic suiting, to remove the futon, my very last ever! They disassembled the frame. That is where the bugs were crawling. The super held a can of spray in his hand. When they left my floor was a sea of spray. As quickly as I could I fled once again to my oasis in New York: Central Park. 

Then I bagged and bagged and bagged. I now live surrounded by more than a dozen black plastic bags. I documented the scene with my video camera. For a week I had lived in fear and trepidation of not doing all I could. I did not sleep the night before the exterminator came. I wrote in my notebook from 7 a.m. until he came at noon. My “cooperation” earned the approval of the manager. I breathed a sigh of relief, asking a last question, “When can I un-bag?”

“In six weeks,” said the exterminator. I began shaking once again when he threw in, “But you can take out a few things you urgently need.”

Bedbugs are still on my mind. I’d love to find an entomologist who could tell me all there is to know about the behavior of these tiny creatures that are the source of so much consternation.

 

 

 

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