Margaret is an attractive woman, mid-thirtyish, possessed of all the happier contradictions of 21st-century noblesse. She’s elegant yet unpretentious; driven but in a laid-back sort of way. You would recognize her surname. Her husband, she says, laughing, “is one of those vilified bankers.” She is a career woman herself, expert in the field of marketing with a wealth of international experience, proficient in several languages, speaking mainly French to her young son. Her family’s apartment is in the East Eighties. It is large, immaculate, and well appointed. Margaret, barefoot, wiggles her toes as she sits beneath a Richard Serra. Works by other notable modernists hang elsewhere.
Margaret and her family moved here from Tribeca last fall. The place was just what they wanted—newly renovated and much closer to their 4-year-old son’s school. But within a few weeks, Margaret’s son (let’s call him James) woke up with welts on his chest. Margaret wasn’t alarmed; she figured it was a rash or virus, the kind of thing kids get every day. But when the welts lingered, then more showed up—on James’s back and arms and legs—Margaret took him to the pediatrician. The doctor initially regarded the marks as an atypical form of chicken pox. In the following weeks, however, after James’s welts became infected and began appearing in still more places, Margaret took him to a pediatric dermatologist. That doctor diagnosed the problem as mosquito bites, and recommended the family “bomb” the apartment. Not long after, Margaret and her husband began noticing that they, too, had bites. That’s when Margaret inspected her son’s bed. “I saw these minuscule black creatures,” she says. “I’m squeamish, but I reached out and squashed one. It was filled with my son’s blood. And they were all over. I turned the headboard around and saw all the eggs. At which point I screamed.” Margaret did some Internet research, then called an entomologist. When the bug expert conveyed his conclusion to Margaret, she was horrified, disgusted, and not a little concerned for her family. And although she is no snob, Margaret couldn’t repress an uncomfortable thought: that people who live in multimillion-dollar apartments in the tonier precincts of the Upper East Side are just not supposed to have bedbugs.
The recent citywide resurgence of bedbugs has been well documented. In 2004, the Health Department tallied 537 complaints and 82 actual violations. Last year, those numbers ballooned to 10,985 complaints and 4,084 violations (given that the problem is thought to be significantly underreported, the notion that there aren’t far more cases is daylight madness). What is less well known is that, contrary to the popular stereotype, bedbugs aren’t found only in lower-income neighborhoods. Margaret, in fact, is part of a mostly silent community of wealthy Upper East Siders suffering from the scourge. Like all bedbug victims, she and her neighbors are appalled and revolted. At the same time, they face issues that are, well, uniquely their own. Not that anyone ever brags about having bedbugs, but because of the creatures’ low-rent reputation, well-to-do bedbug sufferers tend to be especially reluctant to let on that they have a problem (hence Margaret’s unwillingness to reveal her real name; she doesn’t want to become known, in her phrase, as “Queen of the Bedbugs”). That wealthy bedbug victims tend to own their homes—expensive homes that might end up far less expensive were a bedbug infestation to become public knowledge—also promotes heightened discretion. Exterminators who service the neighborhood trawl around in unmarked vans and are sworn not to divulge their clients’ identities. Co-op boards and building superintendents engage in strict denials. High-priced specialists are enlisted to quietly rid Dior couture gowns, Porthault linens, and Aubusson silk rugs of their insect invaders. For those who appreciate irony, and perhaps a touch of Schadenfreude, there is this: Long-held ideas about bedbugs and poverty aside, wealthy people may in some ways be more prone to infestation. Bedbugs are equal-opportunity pests.
As Margaret tells her tale of woe, James is clambering around the apartment, making lots of kid-type noise. He has a friend from upstairs to help. The two have taken to banging a tray in the kitchen, and it sounds like they’re destroying the place, as a nanny looks on helplessly.
Identifying the problem was just the start of Margaret’s troubles. When she wasn’t crying or searching the apartment at 4 a.m. with a flashlight in hand, she was reading books about how to help get James to sleep. The boy, once a solid sleeper, now frequently came into his parents’ room, afraid of being bitten. “He’d want to sleep with us, but I’m pretty strict about that,” Margaret says, suddenly not smiling. “In hindsight I feel terrible. I was sending him back into the war zone, back into the room where he was being devoured. Even when we went to the country house, he was still having nightmares.” The bites were unsightly and itchy, and Margaret began to worry for her family’s health. Although bedbugs don’t spread serious diseases, she didn’t know that at the time.