From The Archive
Will Boisvert
No. 20  July 2012

Delusional Parasitosis and Me

  

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First, let’s get something straight: our apartment does not have bedbugs. Which is strange, since it’s hosted every other kind of vermin. Cockroaches, of course. One of the string of transient roommates who troop through our living room once left a pot of cooked vegetables sitting out for a week, and fruit flies swarmed. For a while there were mice in the shin-deep trash piled up on the kitchen floor, dumped there by Max, the thirtysomething Ukrainian philosophy grad student who holds the lease. Until I pressed the issue, Max barred me from cleaning up the mess on the grounds that there were important documents buried in it that he would need months to extricate. Meanwhile, the drifts of three-year-old magazines, students’ blue books, soiled paper towels, and mangled tennis shoes made ideal nesting habitat for rodents.

But we did not have bedbugs. No one in the apartment was ever bitten. There were no live bugs or nymphs on the bed or in the crevices of furniture and walls, no cast-off exoskeletal husks, no blood smears on the sheets to mark the path from host to hiding place, no black ink-spot fecal stains between mattress and box spring, no cloying odor of strawberries and coriander. When our landlord announced a building-wide inspection by a bedbug-sniffing canine, I felt confident.

Ramon (the super), a short, balding man with a ponytail leading a small beagle on a leash, arrived with the rest of the bedbug team. I watched the dog nose around my bedroom.

“What does he do if he finds bedbugs?” I asked Ramon.

“Ah,” he smiled. “He sits.”

After five minutes of no sitting, I relaxed. Then the handler picked him up, put him on top of the bed, and started making vigorous arm gestures, as if he were calling the dog out at home plate. Still, the dog did not sit.

He yelped.

“There are bedbugs in here,” breathed the handler. The same procedure marked Max’s bedroom as infested, too.

“But no one’s ever been bitten,” I spluttered. “I’ve never seen any bedbugs.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Ramon. “They could be hiding anywhere. Some people don’t react to the bites. And they don’t bite everyone. You could have a wife getting bitten and her husband beside her won’t notice anything.”

What the hell? I seethed, composing the rant that would take over my internal monologue in the coming days. So, a man who knows goddamned well he’s not getting bitten by any goddamned bedbugs, a man who doesn’t have a wife in bed with him (thank you very much), a man who’s never seen any bugs, which would have to be leaving his bed every night and crawling to some other apartment to bite somebody else and then returning to his bed to digest the blood they sucked—that man’s carefully marshaled evidence, experience, and informed opinion should be ignored just because some fucking dog that ought to have its snout kicked in barked?

And with that I crossed into the world of New York’s bedbug epidemic, where the verdict of a transparently coached dog cannot be appealed. Kafkaesque is an apt, but too mild, word to describe it. In his celebrated giant-bug tale, “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka imagined that a family of middle-class urban strivers would react to a son’s transformation into a cockroach by attempting a reasonable coexistence before moving on to eradication. In twenty-first-century New York, bedbugs don’t need to bite, or even make a cameo appearance, to provoke scorched-earth militance in the city’s class struggle.

Seven years of Daily News headlines—from 2004’s BEDBUGS BLITZ CITY to 2010’s BLOODY BEDBUG NIGHTMARE to last year’s BROOKLYN BEDBUG HELL—attest to New York’s panic over the species Cimex lectularius. A once ubiquitous cohabitant of human dwellings that was largely eradicated in rich countries by DDT after World War II, the bloodsucking parasite has staged a comeback in the last decade thanks to pesticide resistance and global travel. The size of an apple seed, the bug presents a truly fearsome prospect only when blown up on a tabloid’s front page: blunt-nosed and beady-eyed, spindly legs bunched up toward the head, dragging behind an enormous rust-brown belly that swells to obscene pearly redness when engorged with blood. Its bite is harmless—unlike mosquitoes, bedbugs transmit no diseases and are not likely to cause anything worse than itchy bumps. But bedbugs are annoying, and they are distinctly creepy to contemplate when lying awake at night. (A Toronto crack addict is reported to have suffered anemia from nightly blood loss to the thousands of bedbugs swarming his home.) The resurgence was real enough to provoke government concern—the Environmental Protection Agency convened national bedbug summits in 2009 and 2011—and lurid enough to spark a firestorm of Internet rumormongering, now institutionalized at the Bedbug Registry, an online compendium of unvetted, anonymous bedbug alerts and fright fests. (My building was listed there along with an apocryphal story about a bug-ridden homeless man squatting in an apartment.) Bedbug frenzy has been one of the decade’s great scare stories, winning the insects the number one spot in Time magazine’s 2011 Top Ten Evil Animals list.

New York was the plague’s epicenter. Bedbug violations issued by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development rose from 82 in 2004 to 4,481 in 2011, and exterminators tell of exponential growth in bedbug jobs. According to the press reports, the bugs are everywhere—driving people from their apartments, crawling through theaters, restaurants, and subway stations, braving the Brooklyn DA’s office, and infiltrating the chic headquarters of the Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency. The summer of 2010 was a watershed, with humiliating infestations of high-end stores like Niketown and Victoria’s Secret, and a sighting at the Waldorf-Astoria that resulted in a lawsuit by a bitten Michigan woman. Sensing a threat to tourism and retailing, the Bloomberg administration mobilized against the menace by setting up a Bedbug Advisory Board and issuing stern new regulations. Hair-trigger overreaction became the order of the day: Kings County Hospital closed and fumigated its emergency room after a single bug was discovered in an ambulance parked outside.

But while there’s clearly a bedbug problem, there’s also a major dose of hysteria inflating it. Bedbug numbers are notoriously squishy; they are based either on municipal hotline calls that swell after each wave of media hype or on surveys of pest control companies that have a financial interest in trumpeting the plague (and finding bugs where they may not exist). In a 2009 community health survey, nearly 7 percent of adult New Yorkers answered “yes” to the question, “During the past twelve months, have you had a problem with bedbugs in your home that required an exterminator?”; but that’s a question I would have to answer “yes” to now, even though my apartment doesn’t have bedbugs.

In reality, there are no objective estimates of bedbug prevalence, says Richard Pollack, a Harvard public health entomologist who runs a pest consulting service. Of the insect samples sent to him for confirmation as bedbugs, 90 percent turn out not to be—many of them from homeowners who have already paid thousands of dollars for bedbug eradications. Sightings reliably follow sensational publicity, he observes; “after one of those [bedbug] stories appears in the news the red light on my phone starts blinking enough to give someone a neurological disorder.”

Bedbug paranoia is a major cause of a psychological disorder—“delusional parasitosis,” a morbidly exaggerated fear of parasites—that is markedly more dangerous than the insects themselves. One North Carolina woman who couldn’t shake the feeling that bedbugs were crawling all over her swabbed her skin with Hot Shot Bedbug and Flea Killer, and then “soaked her hair in pesticide and put a plastic bag over it,” the New York Times reported. A few days later, she died of respiratory failure.

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From amid the paranoia over bedbugs it’s possible to detect a corollary anxiety over biting. If the biting-and-sucking fetish carrying today’s vampire movies suggests a cannibalistic consumer culture in the grip of regressive psychology, then bedbug mania does much the same. Still, it is the invisibility of bedbugs—“secretive” and “cryptic” are the le Carréan entomological descriptors—that worries us most. Their flat bodies can squirm into the tiniest crevices and knotholes, hide in bed frames and wall sockets, be everywhere while seeming to be nowhere. Exterminators warn homeowners that they can have a major infestation without knowing it, and even professional inspectors often miss them.

The solution to this conundrum couldn’t have been simpler or cuter: domesticated dogs (that is, dogs that don’t bite) whose superhuman noses are trained to identify the bug’s telltale odor with phenomenal keenness. Studies seemed to prove their effectiveness; one widely cited paper by University of Florida entomologists put the accuracy of canine bedbug detection at 98 percent under controlled conditions. Dog teams proliferated and became the detection method of choice, able to conduct in just a few minutes an inspection that would take a human with flashlight and magnifying glass hours. New York Times profiles toasted dogs as the loyal, nontoxic mascots of the anti-bedbug crusade, nature’s friendliest creature guarding us against one of her nastiest.

It was too good to be true. Gradually, reports surfaced of embarrassing canine detection gaffes, false positives as well as false negatives. The University of Nebraska spent $400,000 treating 197 dorm rooms in which dogs alerted to odors, but physical bedbug traces were confirmed in just eighteen cases. Field studies of working dogs indicate that mistakes are the rule, not the exception. A Rutgers entomologist invited seven commercial dog teams to inspect New Jersey apartments that had been rigorously vetted for bedbugs. The results were nothing to wag tails about—false positives ranged up to 38 percent. “We’ve never seen a dog that does not give false alerts,” the entomologist, Changlu Wang, told me. Lots of things can throw them off: food odors, residues from pets, or just a bad day. One dog with a perfect record the first day dropped to less than 50 percent accuracy the next. Even more disconcerting, correct detection rates—dogs alerting in an apartment that definitely had bugs—averaged only 43 percent. Three heavy infestations were missed by all the dogs.

Those results aren’t controversial. Philip Koehler, a coauthor of the University of Florida study, told me that training standards for commercial dog teams are uneven and that a visual inspection that finds physical evidence should be mandatory after a dog alert. (My dog handler did no visual inspection.) He’s heard that some dog companies deliberately manipulate their dogs into alerting in order to drum up business. (My handler was employed by the company that does the exterminating, an obvious conflict of interest.)

Then again, sometimes it’s the dog that manipulates the handler. The training regimen is all too simple: the dogs are made to hunt for hidden vials of live bedbugs and are fed only when they correctly alert to them. Sounds foolproof, but out on a job a savvy, hungry dog might reason as follows: if I don’t alert at this bed, I won’t get fed; if I do, I might get fed. That logic holds up even if the dog smells nothing in particular, especially if the handler doesn’t visually verify; in that case, Koehler warns, “the dog eventually outsmarts the handler to get a reward.” Mind games can dominate an inspection. Here’s how one handler posting on Bedbugger.com described his moody relationship with his partner:

I attribute [false positives] to elevated stress levels (mine) that induced self-rewarding behaviors (hers). Something like I was allowing her to use her brains (watching me, tension on the leash, etc.) during the inspection not her nose. . . . False negatives I attribute to me, again under stress I would tend to change my pace (typically going too fast and not allowing her to go where she needs to go).

Far from a straightforward litmus test for bug emanations, a dog inspection is a tangle of subtle mutual influences—stress, pacing, leash tension, eye contact—biased by powerful psychological forces: the handler’s greed, perhaps; the dog’s hunger, for certain. Strict training is supposed to counteract those distortions, but the demands are onerous. To keep the dog sharp—and honest—the handler is supposed to make it sing for its supper by finding hidden live bugs before every meal. (Purists feed their bedbug training colonies from their own veins.) “No matter what else is going on, Holiday dinners, Superbowl parties, Vacations, we train every day twice a day,” wrote Bedbugger’s handler, lamenting the “lifestyle change” required by his trade. The temptation to slack off, to use dead bugs instead of live, to give the pooch (and oneself) a break with an unearned bowl of chow, to let considerations beyond the dispassionate parsing of scent sway an inspection, must be enormous.

Combine a tired dog at the end of a long day, a handler eager to make quota, and a crummy hovel that fits everyone’s idea of a bedbug haven, and a false positive is almost a foregone conclusion.

We received the treatment plan a week after our inspection, and it was a bombshell. Even before spraying could begin, we had to undertake a draconian “preparation” protocol that would turn the apartment into a cross between an isolation ward and a labor camp. All closets, shelves, nightstands, bookcases, drawers, armoires, and entertainment centers were to be emptied of their contents. Clothes, bedding, towels, and miscellaneous fabrics were to be washed and dried at high heat, then sealed in plastic bags. All books—hundreds of books, in an apartment with a grad student and a professional book reviewer—were to be individually inspected for bugs and eggs, then wrapped in plastic. Furniture, picture frames, paintings, and mirrors were to be vacuumed and piled up in the middle of the room, leaving a sixteen-inch open corridor around the walls. This regimen was to persist for weeks through several treatments, during which our belongings were to stay sealed in plastic. Meanwhile we were to vacuum every surface and crack in the apartment every day, being careful after each vacuuming to wrap the vacuum bag in plastic and throw it in an outdoor trash can.

This rigmarole promised almost as much upheaval for me as it did for any bedbug. But as fearsome as it sounds, this show of force masks the weakness of the anti-bedbug arsenal. With pesticides either banned due to toxicity concerns or waning in effectiveness because of resistance, dustings and fumigation seldom resolve the problem and often exacerbate it when the bugs simply decamp for neighboring rooms. Temperature extremes kill bugs—there are portable bedbug ovens for heating small items, steam cleaners for mattresses, and equipment that heats an entire room to the requisite 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but in well-insulated nooks they may survive. The holdouts can last months in a hiding place without feeding and then creep out to reestablish an infestation. Exterminators therefore prefer to talk about establishing relationships rather than eradication. The website at BedBug Central, a high-profile pest control outfit, envisions “an ongoing effort that may require numerous visits,” but reassures readers that “the number of bugs and bites experienced by the homeowner should be minimal.”

The bugs’ tenacity has shifted the focus of bedbug programs from management of the pest to management of the host. The bedbug community is obsessed with the problem of “clutter,” which essentially means any trace of human presence. Clothes, furniture, stuffed animals, electronic appliances—they can all shelter bugs and eggs and pose an obstacle to extermination. Clutter can be heated, frozen, fumigated, and sealed in plastic, but it’s best if it is simply not there; the New York City health department’s bedbug website recommends “putting nonessential belongings into storage until the bedbugs are gone,” which could well mean forever. But while clutter control, which extends to the wholesale discarding of furniture (several times over if infestation recurs) is the primary cause of resistance to bedbug treatment protocols, it can also function as a form of therapy. Bedbug literature harps on the theme that the pests can plague even the tidiest homes, but the stigma of having them is still deeply humiliating; the maniacal cleaning and purification rituals demanded by treatment protocols help homeowners reestablish their claims to middle-class cleanliness and respectability.

In n my apartment, the issue of clutter turned the bedbug treatments from an annoyance into an existential threat. My bedroom was just orderly enough to make the prep routine conceivable. Max’s clutter occupied a different quantum state entirely—all-encompassing, unwrappable, immovable. He had never cleaned or thrown away anything in his life, and his hoard of junk filled up his bedroom, all four hallway closets, the kitchen, and the vestibule with books, old clothes, broken computer parts, wooden African totems, headless mannequins, and bubble wrap. The treatment plan recommended a prep-cleaning company, but at $135 an hour we couldn’t afford one—and even if we could, there was no way Max would allow anyone to excavate his midden, stuffed as it was with memorabilia and hidden information and obscure speculative use-value that only he could discern.

My irate phone call to the pest control company led swiftly to a confrontation with the building manager, a beefy man with the commanding air of a cop. Brushing aside my bleated request for a visual inspection—that would cost $700—he edged his way inside. The vestibule was shrouded, cut off from the light of the windows by the reef of clutter that formed a makeshift partition enclosing the living room. The place felt claustrophobic and derelict and insane, and I could see why the manager would consider Max, who was always months behind on the rent, more of an infestation than a tenant. He peered at the chaos, then turned to me.

“We’re not playing around here. You’re not on the lease, and we will have you evicted if you cause trouble. This apartment has to be prepared when the exterminators come. Will it be prepared?”

“Well . . .” I stammered.

“WILL THE APARTMENT BE PREPARED?”

I shrugged helplessly. It was perfectly obvious that, with two days to go, the apartment would not be prepared.

“Everything has to be cleaned,” he said on his way out. “We have cameras in the laundry room, so we’ll know whether you washed your clothes. If you don’t, we’ll take you to court.”

Such clashes over bedbugs are growing more common in New York, where everything eventually boils down to trench warfare between landlords and tenants. The conflict sharpened in 2011 when the Bloomberg administration imposed stringent new regulations. Landlords are required to respond immediately to bedbug complaints on pain of a Class B housing violation. When a bug is found, they must elaborate a building-wide action plan, inspect contiguous apartments, and inform current and prospective tenants. Housing activists have hailed the new measures, and fight-the-power stories about bug-ridden tenants winning rent reductions from outraged judges have sprouted in the press.

There’s no question that these regulations are necessary to prod do-nothing landlords into dealing with genuine infestations. But in a climate of alarmism, misinformation, and rampant pest control scams, they also lend themselves to abuse. They have an authoritarian side—the city’s Bedbug Advisory Board report recommended “evaluat[ing] current housing court procedures . . . to compel compliance and access to ensure effective bedbug management”—that stokes landlords’ most fascistic impulses, licensing them to surveil and dictate tenants’ personal lives to an unprecedented degree, right down to their housekeeping and laundry practices. And since you can’t prove you don’t have bedbugs any more than you could have quashed a witchcraft charge in Salem, the bugs furnish an excuse for open-ended harassment of any tenants that landlords would like to be rid of. On a larger scale, while the bugs clash with the Bloombergian vision of a pristine, upscale metropolis, they also offer a fine pretext, potent precisely because it is invisible and ineradicable, to regiment, marginalize, and evict the stubborn remnants of a downscale, impoverished New York.

Because bedbugs—or at least bedbug treatments—have always been seen as a problem of the poor. In centuries past, bedbugs preferred the rich, who slept in warm rooms on beds with plenty of cracks to hide in, to the poor, who slept in frigid rooms on straw that was periodically burned. “In the King’s bed, too, there are yet more bedbugs waiting for their share of blood, for His Majesty’s blood tastes no better or worse than that of the other inhabitants of the city, whether blue or otherwise,” José Saramago reminds us in Baltasar and Blimunda. But servants, a population of semi-homeless poor people circulating among wealthy houses, have always been an indispensable vector. “If you have occasion to change Servants, let their Boxes, Trunks, &c. be well examin’d before carried into your Rooms,” warned the 1730 edition of John Southall’s A Treatise of Buggs, “lest their coming from infected Houses should prove dangerous to yours.” The preoccupation with the poor continues today. The bedbug establishment tiptoes around this truth, carefully emphasizing that the bug bites rich and poor alike. And it’s true: luxurious co-ops and four-star hotels have infestations, while the crummiest, filthiest apartment—my apartment—does not. But when health officials and social workers gather at bedbug conferences, their presentations don’t focus on the Ritz-Carlton or Abercrombie & Fitch, but on the Boston housing project, the Toronto homeless shelter, and the Manhattan SRO. It’s the poor, they’re sure they know, who have the bad habits and dysfunctions that bedbugs thrive on, who pass through squalid communal housing, who buy infested secondhand mattresses and refuse to throw them out, who lack the funds to hire companies to prep their clutter, and who have no choice but to sublet rooms from psychotic hoarders. It’s the poor who have to be gently nudged, or firmly coerced, into compliance. And it’s the poor who end up dispossessed and out on the streets when a ginned-up bedbug panic gets rolling.

By treatment day I’ve been up for two days straight, laundering and packing and sealing and fretting. Max has roused himself and is busy shifting clutter from one spot to another and aimlessly scrubbing bared patches of floor, but this makes the totality even worse. A showdown with the exterminators and the building manager seems inevitable. With an hour to spare before they are scheduled to arrive, I log on to Craigslist to scan the roommate ads to see where I might land if they proceed to eviction. The last time I moved, when I was thrown out of my apartment because I couldn’t come up with $560,000 to buy it with, finding a new place was a nightmare—Max was my last option. It’s worse now, sky-high rents for tiny cells inhabited by suspicious, demanding people, with me somewhere near the bottom of the great chain of parasitism that is the New York housing market. After paying first month’s rent and a security deposit, I’ll be flat broke with no money to hire movers. If I’m forced out, I’ll be able to take along only the bare essentials: no trunks, and only the boxes I can carry. The bulk of my clutter—a few sticks of furniture, my books—I will have to leave behind.

When the exterminators come, they pay no attention to the clutter and go about their main task of punching holes in the wall and spraying in insecticide. Exiled for the day, I take the subway to Midtown and sit in a park, exhausted and raddled, watching numbly as dogs, the universal enemies of mankind, frolic everywhere. A film crew from a cable show called Paranormal Paparazzi picks me out of the crowd for an impromptu interview, probing me for my opinions on the supernatural piffle of the moment. The interviewer instantly realizes her mistake when she hears my hoarse, bitter mutterings. She’s looking for genial credulity; I’m giving her Mel Gibson on a bender. I’m in no condition to summon up any fear of unseen things—neither ghosts, nor voodoo curses, nor the Mayan apocalypse, nor the mysterious booming noises that have been heard in the state of Wisconsin. What I fear is the landlord’s men, pounding on the door.

Will Boisvert is a critic and journalist in New York.

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