Margaret decided she needed professionals to smite the insect army. She called an exterminator recommended by her building’s management company, but the crew dispatched to her apartment ended up scalding the silk-velvet fabric of a gorgeous sofa the family had purchased for their new home. When Margaret called the president of the exterminating company to complain, the man rather rudely played the class card, she says, suggesting that it was probably “the fault of one of [her] cleaning ladies.” “They simply didn’t know what they were getting into,” Margaret says. “I heard them calling in to their bosses and saying that they’d had no idea how big this apartment would be and that they were going to be late for their next appointment.”
The biting continued. Margaret learned that bedbugs tend to bite in threes—either in a line or, often, in a revolting triangle. In exterminator jargon, this pattern is known as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” One night, the parasites supped on Margaret’s husband straight across his forehead.
As night follows day, the family was going to have to move; a full-on assault was the only sure remedy. They began to prepare for a two-month stay at their weekend home. On moving day, no one went half-measures. Everything had to go. Margaret recalls a “special company wearing what looked like hazmat suits.” The men removed everything that couldn’t be dry-cleaned—rugs, books, luggage, paintings, shoes, toys, computers, even radios. Only simple, hard-surfaced items, like china and silverware (which even bedbugs can’t burrow into), remained in the apartment. Margaret’s family took just a limited amount of clothing—all of it, of course, meticulously steam-cleaned. For a time, her husband had to stay behind. “You need a human in the apartment to draw the bugs out,” she says. “They’re attracted by the carbon of someone exhaling.”
Debugging an apartment, even thoroughly, only works if the neighbors’ apartments are bug-free—otherwise the creatures can migrate and reinfest the place. The process can drive bugs into neighboring apartments, too. (To their credit, Margaret and her husband alerted everyone in the building to what was going on.) Margaret says she “felt a strange mixture of being exhausted, defeated, and paranoid that all of this wasn’t going to work.” The family had already spent about $30,000 on dry-cleaning alone and upward of $70,000 on the entire experience.
Bedbugs have been shimmying around in our sheets since ancient times. Aristotle mentioned them; Pliny the Elder thought they had medical value (they do not). Like any other force that stalks by night, Cimex lectularius are known by many names: the mahogany flat; the heavy dragoon; the crimson rambler; the Nachtkrabbler; and, most simply of all, the redcoat. They subsist on blood—human, but also (depending on where in the world they hunt) birds, cats, bats, and other small animals. They prefer to dine at night, sometimes dropping onto their victims from the ceiling, if need be, before having their five- or ten-minute “blood meal.”
When the bedbugs come for you, they inject you with two tubes: one that supplies your skin with an anticoagulant and an anesthetic so that you don’t react to what’s going on, and another to draw the blood meal. Often the welts seen on victims—like those suffered by young James—are an allergic reaction to the anesthetic. Because a female can lay 500 eggs in a lifetime, it’s axiomatic among exterminators that the definition of an infestation is a single pregnant female. A bedbug’s life span varies according to feeding habits—they can stay dormant for eighteen months but prefer to eat every five or ten days. Given the right conditions, they can live up to two years. In the first of their six stages of life, bedbugs are almost transparent, which disgusts everyone who has ever found a newborn, but as they molt and engorge themselves, they become bloodreddish, which disgusts people even more. A household can easily be infested with tens of thousands at a time.
Bedbugs are fiendishly hearty. Dogs are helpful but by no means foolproof at sniffing them out. Chemicals that work against cockroaches are only partially effective. Standard-issue foggers just make things worse: Bedbugs love to nestle in fabric and wood (plush headboards, for instance, make an ideal home), and the mist will make them scatter. Given their reproduction rates, killing some of them is tantamount to killing none of them.
Predictably enough, the citywide bedbug phenomenon has spawned a wave of exterminator chicanery. Internet predators sell bogus remedies to desperate, discretion-minded souls. Any schnook with a mutt can train it to bark, then call his cousin Larry to “exterminate” the “bugs” that the dog “found.” That scam is now widely regarded as a growth industry.