Practical city living, #2

If the roach stories aren’t enough to deter you, please be aware: that discarded Ikea sofa you’re tempted to pull off the street could be riddled with bedbugs. Especially if you live in my neighborhood.

Last week I spent several days wringing my hands after reading Sean Wilsey’s terrifying and exceptionally well-written New York City rats piece, which appeared recently in the London Review of Books and doubles as a review of a recent book on the subject. Wilsey’s article emphasizes the horrors of large, toothy, plague-carrying rodents.

Not to diminish these horrors — rats, evidently, would eat you if they could — but they’re only slightly more frightening than the stories one of my friends tells of finding bedbugs in her Upper East Side apartment. She called ineffectual exterminator after exterminator, bought a new mattress, and then threw out 90% of her stuff and moved to Jersey City, only to carry the bugs with her to the new place.

She was reduced to sleeping in a sealed tent with a flashlight and dealing with a new round of exterminators who implied that she was imagining the whole thing. Finally she threw out everything she owned — every last thing — and moved into another apartment, leaving the bugs behind.

Since I’ve heard her stories, and read independent warnings about the horrors of bedbug-infested hotels, I’ve become a bit neurotic about checking floorboards, sheets and towels of my hotel rooms while traveling. All it takes, says my friend, is one pregnant bedbug in your luggage, and you’re screwed.

The last time Sister and I visited my mother’s place in Asheville, we hightailed it the hell out of town at 9 p.m. and didn’t stop until we reached upstate Virginia. I insisted upon checking the room while Sister stood in the hallway with the luggage. Then, satisfied that it was bedbug-free, I gave the all-clear.

No sooner had we nestled into our beds and turned on some vapid reality show than I saw a little bug moving on the table between us. Sister and I stared at it, mesmerized, as it made its way toward my bottle of water.

“That’s an ant, right?” I said.

She hesitated. “I think so.”

It stood at the edge of a pool of condensation gathering at the bottom of the bottle. “But isn’t it a little big for an ant?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

We went on like this for some time, watching the bug, wondering if we should ask to be moved to a different room, but fearing retaliation for being, to all appearances, picky Northeasterners. My fake southern accent would be of little use to us, since the clerk had my Brooklyn address on file. Maybe, I hypothesized, they would intentionally put us in a room with bedbugs if we complained.

At last I called up Mr. Maud and coaxed him into looking up a photo of a bedbug online.

He was, of course, delighted to be roused from bed for this purpose. But he did it, describing the thing you see depicted throughout this post. Satisfied that the bug was an ant, rather than a bloodsucker, we flicked off the light, only to wake in the morning and find the entire nightstand, our water, and part of my pillow, covered with ants.

But they didn’t bite, and we didn’t carry them home with us.

Anyway, we’re all totally screwed.

But at least those guys from the Department of Homeland Security are keeping the subways safe.


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