Search View Archive

Sleep With Your Mouth Closed

*Please note: Some of the names in this article have been changed so that our sources won’t be blacklisted from your parties.

No one really knows how they got over the border. Some say a mattress truck from Staten Island. Others fault the upstairs neighbors, who look like the type of people to dumpster dive in Queens. One victim blames a sleepless night in a hostel in L.A. But whether on the guests from Vermont or the used mattress picked up off the curb in Long Island City, bed bugs have arrived in Brooklyn—and bed bugs suck.

“We went over to hang out in our neighbor’s adjacent apartment and strangely one of the roommates was gone—mattress missing, all clothing and personal effects in sealed contractor bags. One of the other neighbors said, ‘Oh yeah…We got some sort of bites a while ago but they seem to be fine now,’” says one Bushwick local who goes by Frustrator. “Mind you, I’m getting bitten [next door] at this point—not sleeping, freaking out, and scratching myself to death.”

Bed bugs generated a rash of attention last summer—skin-crawling stories in the New York Times and the Daily News, cries of paranoia outbreak in the Voice, even talk of a Bed Bug Task Force among the more squeamish of City Council members. Complaints to the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development went from zero in 2003 to 4,638 in 2006.

But the attention being paid to the blood-suckers got squashed, perhaps bested by the warm winter weather or news of the Ratner infestation in downtown Brooklyn. Meanwhile, bed bugs have continued to raid real estate all over the neighborhood.

“Brooklyn is a hot spot for activity,” says Andy Linares, owner of the Bug Off Pest Control Center in Washington Heights. “There’s a lot of migration going on, let’s call it that, in Williamsburg and Park Slope and other areas. That new influx and mobility invites the possibility of bringing in what we call ‘hitchhikers.’ It’s a real hotbed of activity.”

About the size of an apple seed and as flat as a penny, the brandy-colored nesters are like stealth nocturnal ticks. When they’re fat from dinner, you might mistake one for a lady bug, but there’s nothing ladylike about them. At nightfall, they’ve got a limited window of opportunity, as Linares puts it, to “get a blood meal.”

“Bed bugs are going to be on or near where you sleep or rest,” he says. “They need to be close enough to get out there while you’re sleeping, without bothering you, before going back to the cracks and crevices where they nest.”

Sleep doesn’t come easily to Deirdre, who has been fighting off the red coats in her Brooklyn apartment since August. “I have become a social pariah. One of my friends just moved into a new apartment and will not allow me to set foot in her home until I am free of bed bugs. She also refuses to see me…well, anywhere,” Deirdre writes on the What’s That Bug? website.

“The crazy thing is how easy it will be to spread this at parties. You know how everyone puts their jackets on the bed? That’s pretty much a sure shot for spreading them,” says Frustrator.

Social lives around the borough are being disrupted by the parasites, and intimacy is being ambushed. But in their confined and overcrowded living conditions, bed bugs don’t have much room for romance either. The pests are known for a unique method of copulation called “traumatic insemination,” which—to be brief—involves dagger-shaped genitalia, the female’s abdomen, and sperm migrating south. Skip the courtship.

Early on, the wingless nymphs (as they’re known in their maturing stages) can be difficult to identify. Hatchlings are about the size of a poppy seed, and as they grow, bed bugs can vary in color from translucent to burnt sienna. “Under a microscope you can see the details, the eyes, the antennae, the bow tie—it’s what separates the head from the body. It’s a tell-tale sign of a bed bug,” says Linares.

The bed-bugged speak of going to sleep at night with an arsenal of fly tape and sticky mousetraps deployed at the foot of their beds. Awakening to find no catch, they resort to aerosol, bug bombs, or insecticide fogger, hoping to avenge the culprits of their swollen, reddened skin.

“We got lots of ‘great’ suggestions from the guys at Home Depot, and whatever the old-timers were telling us sounded good at the time, but none of it worked—boric acid, putting carpet tape all over the place. In retrospect, these guys probably put DDT around their cupboards to keep ants out,” says Frustrator.

Most victims end up calling in the professionals, who unleash a torrent of bed bug venoms. One is Suspend SC, a spray that leaves a clear residue on surfaces for bed bugs to scuttle through and pick up, eventually causing nerve damage and death. You can buy Suspend SC on, but the site won’t deliver the spray to New York State—the insecticide concentrate isn’t registered here, customers speculate. (The website does offer a New York Bed Bug Kit, “ideal for 1 or 2 bedroom apartments.”)

The professional-grade chemicals can be harsh, however, replacing a skin rash with a sore throat, asthma, and nausea. The toxic residue can also be worrisome for pet owners, despite labels that say “safe for children and pets,” as though your kid sister is going to lick the countertop and sleep on top of your stereo.

The alternatives—steam cleaning, duct tape, and peppermint extract—might seem weak. But in a recent study by Virgina Tech’s Department of Entomology, in which a South Carolina strain of bed bugs was reared on a diet of blood obtained from human volunteers, one over-the-counter eco-friendly spray (EcoBugFree) caused “rapid knock down and mortality” of the bugs, with an 82 percent kill rate after 24 hours, toxic-free. So there’s hope for your cat.

There’s also hope for your stuff. Despite common misperception, the discovery of bed bugs doesn’t mean you have to burn your clothes and dump your mattress back on Staten Island. While you may have to dismantle the bed frame, tear out the baseboards, and check inside your alarm clock, hunting for eggs like it’s Easter, chances are a consultation with a professional will save you buying another bedroom set.

“Don’t throw stuff away,” says Frustrator. “I mean, it’s good to purge the stuff you don’t need out of your life, like the 100 unfinished art projects or box of 8-track tapes. Unless you have a mattress that a professional says is a problem and needs to be thrown out, you shouldn’t, because you can not only spread the problem, but you might not have to.”

The pros can be expensive, though, and while landlords are obligated to keep their properties free of bed bugs under the City’s Housing Maintenance Code (Chapter 2, Article 4), if the housing authority thinks your building is still a tar-paper factory, chances are you don’t want to invite them over to find out otherwise.

Even long after bed bugs have moved on (or next door), victims sometimes continue to suffer from delusional parasitosis, or phantom itch. Some take up permanent residence on yoga mats, traumatized by what the folds of their mattress might be housing. Others suffer from the shame and humiliation of what a bed bug infestation implies: bad housekeeping, poor hygiene, freeganism.

“Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed,” writes Lara from Williamsburg on “The first round of this I kept secret from my friends and family. Now, I’m telling everyone…Bed bugs have nothing to do with cleanliness or class. We did nothing to cause them.”


Marjory Garrison


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

All Issues