It started with a handwritten sign in broken English on the front door of our brownstone, which is the black sheep of our pristine, historic block. The sign read: “We are bedbugs in the building! Disinfect apartment now!” “Oh, my God. Is it true? I am freaking out! I would rather have gonorrhea than bedbugs!” wailed my neighbor Mary. Or was it Jane? In my decade of living in the building, I’d never really spoken to her—or any of the other tenants.
We stared at the sign together, slack-jawed.
“I’m Lisa, by the way,” she offered, raising her hand, but then, on second thought, awkwardly taking it back.
“Is gonorrhea the one where you go blind?” I casually asked.
“No, that’s syphilis.” She followed me inside and up to my apartment like it was something we did all the time.
“I heard you can have them for months, even years,” she said, growing frenzied about our infestation. “You thought it was hard to get a date to come to Brooklyn? Try having an apartment with bedbugs. We’re going to die alone!’ Immediately, I began to yearn for the water bugs and 2-inch roaches of the past. I started to panic and did the worst thing possible: binge-Googling.
My searches generated a macabre Pu-Pu platter of information. When it comes to ending a bedbug’s life, there are plenty of choices: You can steam them, freeze them or marinate them in chemicals. The only catch is that you have to find them first. I crawled into bed that night fully clothed and clutching my flashlight, running its beam over the mattress until I passed out.
The next morning I called my landlord, whom I had never met in person. He cheerily informed me that not only did our building have bedbugs, but we’d had them for months.
That same morning, we had an emergency meeting in the foyer of our building. Besides Lisa and myself, there was a woman I called Ketchup because she was always buying Heinz from the bodega next door; then there was Mr. Santori, who lived on the top floor and seemed to be in his late eighties; “The Stomper,” a Latina woman who (though she probably weighed about 92 pounds) made an awful lot of noise coming up the stairs; “Random Girl,” who I always thought I would see around, was infrequent enough that I was never quite sure if it was her; and there was Gene, a Joe Pesci-lookalike.
Our building is aesthetically challenged amid prime Cobble Hill real estate. In the entryway, there is a dirty frame with a rose print in it next to a 2003 calendar. The rug, which feels more like Astroturf, is stained, and has been there as long as I have. While the exteriors may be unattractive, the apartments inside are a different story. They have great light, lovely molding, 14-foot ceilings, very affordable rent and a prime location, which is what has kept all of us here for so many years.
As the meeting started, a huge truck pulled up outside. For a moment, I got excited, thinking, Maybe it’s some sort of hazmat-style bug elimination team!
But then I realized it was ABC Carpet and Home, delivering Norah Jones’ (who lives nearby) new furniture.
“It’s that singer girl’s fault,” said Gene.
“This street was clean before she moved in and started digging up the whole block for her fancy pool. They wake me up every morning with all that noise! We gotta do something about that!” I too would have happily blamed Norah for our bugs. After one blinding morning of construction, I took her “featured local artist” CDs at Starbucks and hid them in the mug clearance section.
But we were brought back into the moment when Random Girl finally addressed the subject we had all been avoiding: “We had them about two months ago. I had bites all over my body. The treatment is nasty; you have to live in plastic bags for weeks and put all your clothes in the dryer cause that’s the only thing that kills the bugs. And that’s just the beginning. They have to come spray you every few weeks. It’s awful,” she said, looking down at the floor.
There was silence. I wondered why this was the first we had heard about having bedbugs in our building.
“If you find one, put it on a piece of tape so you have evidence. I brought a picture of one that the exterminators gave me so you can see what it looks like,” she said, holding it up. There was a round of ooohs and eeews from the crowd, kind of like the time in 4th grade when Joey Nacker showed all of us girls his penis after art class.
“Well, I have them, and I think I got them from somebody in this building who gave me a piece of his furniture! I itch like crazy!” said The Stomper with a defiant scratch.
She glanced accusingly at Mr. Santori. “I heard he threw out a table and she put it in her apartment,” Gene whispered in my ear.
Mr. Santori picked up on the notso-veiled accusation. “I cleaned my apartment! It’s fine! No bugs! I got rid of them months ago.”
“Yes, but, if you had them, we’ll all get them, unless we have them professionally exterminated,” said Lisa.
“No, I clean it myself! No bugs no more!” he insisted.
I looked at my watch. I was bored with bugs and my neighbors.
“Why don’t we sleep on it?” I said, opening the door for the first of many “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” jokes to come.
next morning, a new sign appeared. “Your building is infested with
bedbugs. We want to help you clean it up. Call us now!!! From: the
building next door.” The snooty tone of the sign, not to mention the
brownstone where it came from, was way more Upper East Side than warm,
fuzzy Brooklyn. Plus, they had a major problem with exclamation points.
I left the building, a blond woman in Tory Burch flats was camped out
on the sidewalk, pretending to fish for her keys. She tapped my
live in that building? Do you know you have bedbugs?” she asked
accusingly, pointing to my apartment window with disdain.
you put up that sign in our foyer?” I was quite intentionally
defensive. I might have lived in a bughouse, but it was my home.
“Well, we just didn’t know if you knew you had them,” she said haughtily.
just found out yesterday! “I’d close my windows if I were you,” she
continued. “I saw some lady shaking her sheets over your fire escape the
“The Stomper?” I asked, horrified.
I couldn’t believe The Stomper tried to dump her bedbugs on me.
Later on, I returned to my building to find Lisa and Ketchup in the hallway, holding another flyer.
“Is that another sign from one of the buildings?” I asked. “Some woman from next door was stalking me this morning.”
spoke first. “No, it’s for the annual block stoop sale this weekend!”
“Everybody knows what’s happening on this block, half the buildings have
them. I think that shit is done, don’t you?” Ketchup replied.
Fortunately, there was promising news.
had received a voicemail from the landlord. “We’re all getting our
apartments checked for bedbugs on Tuesday morning!” he said, tossing a
high five at me.
Victory was sweet, except it happened to be scheduled for the same time as an important doctor’s appointment I couldn’t move.
Gene reassured me. “Don’t worry. We’ll make sure they check out your place.” I was touched; bedbugs had united us.
The day, though, ended with doom: a three-word email from the neighbor directly below me: “I found one.”
I was now the meat of an infestation sandwich, all the units above and below me had bedbugs.
night before the inspection, I was emotionally and physically drained.
My pre-bug life seemed very far away, especially when I got “good luck”
emails from Lisa, Gene, Random Girl and Ketchup.
my way out the next morning, I ran into the King of Bugs, who was in
charge of apartment inspections for the pest control company.
look so sad. It’s very treatable if you have it. You’ll be fine!” he
said cheerily, sounding an awful lot like a gynecologist.
were on the brain the next day as I sprinted home from the doctor’s
office. Entering my building was a little bit like walking into the
elimination ceremony on Survivor, but with really bad overhead lighting instead of tiki torches.
exterminators just left. Lisa and I stayed while they inspected your
apartment and you don’t have them!” Gene said, patting me on the back.
“The only person who does is Bill downstairs, but we should all be okay.
They think the critters got to him because he’s on the ground floor
near the garbage!” “We’re clean! Can you believe it!” Lisa said, hugging
Gene, then leaning in to embrace me next. For a second, I retreated.
(Seventeen years in New York—it’s a habit.) But then I went with it.
After a decade of living together in the same building and not even
knowing their names, I was in a full-blown group hug with my neighbors.
“We should get drinks to celebrate!” Lisa said, with an instant look of regret.
I stepped back, as did Lisa and Gene.
There was another awkward pause.
we could go to the bar down the street, sometime,” Gene said, inching
toward his apartment, slightly terrified. I didn’t blame him. We’d never
had a conversation about anything but bugs.
“Maybe next week?” I said, heading up the stairs before anyone got any more crazy ideas. It was time to go home.