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Bedbugs in the Duvet

Following World War II and the advent of DDT, bedbugs were contained if not virtually eliminated. For a time, the pests were almost quaint. A generation of dermatologists could barely recognize the bites; they’d never been schooled in anything so antique. Exterminators, too, had rarely trained for such an eventuality. But DDT was eventually banned, and besides, the bugs had begun to adapt to it, and now bedbugs are back in force. Man plans; bedbugs laugh.

Jeff Eisenberg was the man who finally brought the hammer down on Margaret’s problem. To her, he was wartime chocolate. Eisenberg, who owns a firm called Pest Away, does a lot of work on the Upper East Side. The neighborhood, he says, is teeming with bedbugs. Eisenberg knows that city statistics indicate otherwise. In 2004, there was one violation reported to the community board that covers the Upper East Side. One. In fiscal year 2009, there were thirteen. Those numbers are a joke, Eisenberg says. The uncomfortable truth, noted by Eisenberg and confirmed to me anonymously by a city Housing Department official, is that only renters call 311 to report bedbugs, mainly to create a paper trail they can use to pressure their landlords into fixing the problem. But if you own a brownstone or a co-op, or even if you’re just reasonably well off, you tend to handle the problem yourself—and thus go uncounted by the city. “Believe me, most people on the Upper East Side don’t call 311,” Eisenberg says. “[Margaret] didn’t. She called exterminators.”

Pest Away, Eisenberg says, receives between 50 and 75 calls about bedbugs from the Upper East Side every week—and that’s just one firm. His clients include movie directors, hospitals, white-shoe law firms, high-end schools, and “titans of Wall Street I can’t name to you or they’d crush me.”

Eisenberg likes to tell a story about a grand building on East 94th Street. Having received a complaint, he went to the relevant apartment, where he and the super knocked on the owner’s door. The man was wearing a baseball cap, Eisenberg says, and a bedbug actually crossed the top of it. “I was thinking, ‘What, am I on Candid Camera?’ A minute later, another one crossed over the hat. I asked if I could look inside it—and they were crawling all over. I thought, ‘There cannot just be bedbugs inside one cap.’ We got into the apartment, and the walls were moving. Before we could treat it, we had to vacuum for two weeks, just to bring the population down.”

Another Eisenberg tale involves “a very, very high-end building on East 92nd. Very well known. A super called me and said, ‘We’ve got some bedbugs on a glue board.’ But that didn’t sound right to me. Bedbugs tend to avoid glue boards, so if that was the case, the whole building was probably infested. Lo and behold, the place was loaded. It turned out there was a guy living there who only left every five weeks to see a doctor. Once, he went downstairs to pay the rent and two bedbugs fell off his arm as he passed the envelope. Four staff members were standing right there and saw the whole thing, and two and a half minutes later, I get a call … That’s one way they spread: hitchhiking. You get a hundred guys like that walking around the city like Pigpen—to a movie theater, wherever—and that’s how it goes. I’d say that every third or fourth building up there has a guy like that.”

In still another Upper East Side building, Eisenberg says, a woman with 400 or so first-edition books refused to admit that she had a bedbug problem. Her apartment turned out to be so infested that the walls, floors, and ceilings had to be removed to get rid of the 100,000 or so bugs that were living there (the building eventually sued her).

The Upper East Side bedbug plague has even made it to prime time. Just about anyone you meet in the uptown bedbug community knows about “the bedbug episode” of 30 Rock. In it, Alec Baldwin’s character, an Upper East Side resident if ever there was one, has an infestation and is eventually seen lumbering in a subway car, pouring out his soul to the hoi polloi by announcing, “My name is Jack Donaghy, and I have bedbugs!” at which point a homeless man sitting nearby subtly inches away from him.

What makes the Upper East Side an enticing home? To a certain extent, it’s no more or less inviting than any other neighborhood. The whole city is in the midst of a bedbug epidemic; it’s just that Upper East Siders have kept their troubles disproportionately under wraps. Some of Eisenberg’s clients even experience a kind of personal denial. The first thing people tell him is that they can’t have bedbugs—that it’s got to be something else. “They tell me how clean they are, how many times a day they shower, how many cleaning ladies they have,” he says. (Margaret made a point of telling me that, if anything, she has always been “a little OCD” about cleanliness, and has her sheets cleaned and ironed three times a week.) “The stigma is, ‘You’re dirty, you’re poor. God knows where you’ve been.’ ” But bedbugs have nothing to do with dirt, Eisenberg says. “They only want the blood meal.” Sooner or later, the same clients who insisted they didn’t have a bedbug problem call Eisenberg back, asking for help. To cater to his clients’ privacy concerns, Eisenberg often operates incognito. “We go after-hours and pull up in unmarked vans. The guys put on leather jackets, to look like plumbers or regular guys, and sneak into the buildings. They change into their suits up in the apartment.” Because co-op boards and management companies often take pains to deny that their buildings have bedbug issues, the word bedbugs is now a regular feature in Upper East Side real-estate contracts.