About 3 or 4 months ago I ran into R., a Columbia University librarian who had been reassigned to a much more stressful position under the impact of budget cuts. R., something of a kidder, was in a bleak mood. He hated his new job and complained about a number of illnesses associated with growing old—he is about the same age as me. But worst of all, he had been devastated by a bedbug invasion of his apartment that had forced him to get rid of many of his belongings. He sounded practically suicidal.
I was reminded of R. recently when I got an email on the New York Film Critics Online listserv about a press screening being moved to a new location. The original one—AMC 25 near Times Square—had been closed because of bedbug infestation as AP reported:
Bedbugs have attacked a popular movie theater in Times Square as New York battles the persistent pests. The AMC Empire 25 in Times Square was sprayed overnight and reopened Wednesday. A guest at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 theater also reported a bite in late July.
Spokesman Justin Scott said all AMC theaters in Manhattan were inspected. He said the chain takes every report seriously and acts to ensure the health of guests and employees.
Unlike some other calamities that are visited disproportionately on the poor, the bedbug does not make class distinctions as a New York Magazine article pointed out:
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.
Some blame the outbreak of bedbugs on immigration. A November 27, 2005 NY Times article stated:
In the bedbug resurgence, entomologists and exterminators blame increased immigration from the developing world, the advent of cheap international travel and the recent banning of powerful pesticides.
VDARE, the anti-immigration website, has an article on bedbugs with this bit of nativist trash:
So, I would suggest that it is not a coincidence that bed bugs have returned with a vengeance in Southern California, with its millions of poor immigrants, living sometimes three or four families to a dwelling and going out daily to clean our hotels, and motels and our wealthier private homes.
In terms of international travel, perhaps it is the globe-trotting wealthy who are more to blame than the poor, citing the New York Magazine article once again:
Insisting that there’s not a problem—that bedbugs only happen to other people—may actually contribute to the problem. The longer you avoid the issue, the more the bugs proliferate. The number of large, multi-unit apartment buildings is another factor, Eisenberg says—it’s easy for the bugs to hop from one apartment to the next. He also says travel may make well-heeled families uniquely susceptible to infestation, as families jet around the globe and carry back bloodthirsty hitchhikers.
Catherine and her family live in the East Seventies (like Margaret, Catherine doesn’t want her real name used). Her family’s problem started about two years ago. “I noticed some marks on my arm,” she says. “Then we went to the Caribbean, and when we got there, I noticed bites on my baby’s face.” When the family got back home, Catherine noticed dark dots on her baby’s bed. Her pediatrician recognized the bites right away. “Do you want the real nitty-gritty disgustingness?” she asks, referring to her daughter’s bed. “The dark dots were the bugs going to the bathroom. It was excrement. You could also see drops of blood. When you move, the bugs think you’ll discover them—so they spit out the blood and run.”
The other thing you hear in media reports is how the ban on DDT is to blame. In a variation on the dubious sympathy for Africa’s poor emanating from Spiked Online and other anti-environmentalist sources, we are led to understand that a wave of the DDT wand will fix everything.
But as is the case with DDT, you are dealing with insects that develop resistance to the pesticide with truly alarming results. On the authoritative website New York Versus Bed Bugs, you can read a useful article titled No DDT, thanks, we’re good . It debunks the arguments made for DDT both against malaria and bedbugs. With respect to bedbugs, it has a link to an article in Pest Control Technology, an industry publication, titled Insecticide-Resistant Bedbugs: Implications for the Industry. The facts are not reassuring. Using a dose 10 times the norm, insect populations in New York State and elsewhere were rated as having zero percent mortality. That’s ZERO.
This is a serious public health problem. While bedbugs do not spread disease, they can make your life a living hell and incur major expenses to exterminators and for clothing/household goods replacements. It requires a massive campaign to isolate the bugs and spread public awareness about how to prevent their spread. Does anybody expect the Obama administration to spearhead such a campaign? I don’t.
The longer I am witness to late capitalism in its senescence, the more I am reminded to the USSR in the 1980s. This is a society that is falling apart at the seams and that lacks any kind of bourgeois leadership to resolve the most pressing problems of public health, infrastructure, etc. Perhaps a visitation of bedbugs into the Obama household will shake things up, but after seeing this feckless president in action for the past two years, probably not.