This February in Baltimore, a mysterious rash appeared on my arms and chest. I showed it to one of my graduate school classmates, who said: “bedbugs.” I spent the following weeks searching through hundreds of images of bugs and bites and stained sheets (a crushed bedbug leaves behind a bloody mark that resembles felt-tip pen) and shed exoskeletons (they look sort of like peanut skins). Some of these photographs linked back to weird communities where people posted their stories and self-appointed bedbug gurus dispensed wisdom. The fact that bedbug bites can manifest in many different ways―some people don’t react at all―combined with how difficult they are to eradicate makes them of particular interest to hypochondriacs and the generally obsessive. “No, this time it really looks like felt-tip pen,” I’d tell whoever was foolish enough to answer my call. When they hung up, they got to go back to living in New York; I, on the other hand, was stuck in front of my computer in Baltimore. I had stumbled onto the internet in its purest form, the place where the degree to which it seemed useful correlated most directly with its actual uselessness. Is that a bite? All I could do was check another website.
For centuries, bedbugs were largely seasonal pests, their numbers dwindling during the colder months. Centralized heating changed all that, and by the 1930s they infested an estimated one-third of all residences in major American and European cities. The only way to prevent bedbug infestation, a USDA brochure warned, was “eternal vigilance.” By the mid-‘40s, another solution had been found. The government deemed DDT “the perfect answer to the bed bug problem”: it was cheap, easy to apply, and annihilated bedbugs completely. For decades, the United States was essentially bedbug-free. Then, a few years ago, they started showing up again.
Reports of bedbugs are especially common in Southeast Baltimore, which is home to a large percentage of the city’s Latino population. A man whose apartment had been infested several times told City Paper that bedbugs were “a Latino issue,” identifying row houses overcrowded with recent immigrants as the source of the problem. Many residents could not afford mattresses to replace the contaminated ones they left on the sidewalk, never mind exterminators. Baltimore housing law meant they couldn’t compel their landlords to cover the costs of fumigation, either: while the city holds owners of multi-family residences responsible for pest eradication, owners of single-family residences are not required to treat infestations, no matter how many people actually live on the premises. My house, for instance, was classified as single-family despite the fact that it contained three unrelated roommates. This meant my landlord was legally allowed to ignore my pleas, which he did. It turned out not to matter: whatever was causing my rash, it wasn’t bedbugs.
Last April, the city released a report that noted that bedbugs were more “expensive to eradicate” than other pests, and called for a program that would assist low-income families whose homes had been infested by providing them with, among other things, vouchers for new mattresses. A year later, no vouchers had been issued, but my thesis was complete. I skipped graduation and returned to Manhattan. Soon after, one of my friends in Baltimore spread the word via Twitter: her house had bedbugs.
By the time I moved to Williamsburg two months later, it seemed as if they were following me. 311 was fielding tens of thousands of bug-related inquiries, more than twice the number received in 2008. Bugs were spotted all over the city, including at the 311 call center itself. Reporters and bloggers called it an “epidemic.” Thousands of New Yorkers reported their infestations on bedbugregistry.com, which is searchable by location, and where I spent hours searching for addresses I knew. In July, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer informed the New York Times that bedbugs were a problem even for Mayor Bloomberg: “He told me, ‘Gale, all my friends have bedbugs; what am I going to do?’”
What the mayor did was announce an “attack strategy,” the central element of which was a bedbug “portal,” where New Yorkers would be able access information about the insects. (The website was conceived in the image of the city’s “rat portal,” which includes a searchable map of rat sightings. While you wait for the map to load, a cartoon rat taps its fingers.) In order to implement this “strategy,” the city set aside $500,000, less than the median cost of an apartment in Williamsburg. (In Manhattan, the median is something like $900,000.) Renting a studio in the same neighborhood cost, on average, about $2500 a month. That was more than what I paid for my sublet, but even a room in someone else’s apartment was beginning to seem unaffordable on my assistant’s salary. At the very least, it was a luxury, a statement rather than a necessity. In October, I moved back to my mother’s apartment on the Upper East Side.
From this vantage point, bedbugs began to look like foot soldiers in a class war, soldiers who struck New York in its suburbanized, gentrified heart. By the end of the year, bedbugs had besieged some of the city’s most valuable properties, including the Time Warner Center and dozens of flagship stores like the Hollister in Soho, whose entrances are guarded by shirtless young men with zinc-covered noses. A few days after Hollister got hit, its sister brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, reported an infestation at its Water Street branch, which, along with a dozen other other chain stores and one of Manhattan’s two indoor malls, stands on the site of the old Fulton Fish Market, which sold its final fish a few years ago. Even Goldman Sachs had bedbugs, albeit in their Jersey City offices. New York ran a feature about “the silent community” of wealthy Manhattanites suffering from bedbugs (one woman spent $30,000 on dry-cleaning). Unlike Baltimore’s better-off, New York’s rich live, for the most part, like everyone else, which is to say in apartment buildings and townhouses. It is no trouble at all for a bedbug to cross a hall, or the East River: the city has the highest rate of public transportation use in the US. Even taking a cab is still taking on some risk. (In September, Howard Stern found bedbugs in his limo.) Bedbugs proved that while the poor could be priced out of Manhattan, the rich could not cut themselves off from the rest of the city entirely. If the sunblock on a shirtless young man’s nose was the ointment, bedbugs were the flies.
But bedbug sightings are like kidnappings: rich, white victims get more attention. Most of the people bedbugs bother can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars at the dry cleaner. The media’s emphasis on luxury retailers diminished the scope of the story and established an extremely low threshold for what constituted bedbug news. More items meant more pageviews, and more pageviews meant more money, or at least attention. If it was spotted somewhere glamorous, a single insect could produce hundreds of links. The bedbug story is as well-adapted to its environment―which is not any city, but the internet―as the bugs are to theirs.
In my memory, Maryland is suffused in bright, grainy light―the light from my laptop, in front of which I spent many hours. Its gray glow recalls the haze of an overcast day, but it is not sunlight, and it persists even at night and in storms. It is the weather all over the universe. If I saw bedbugs everywhere I looked, it was because I was always looking in the same place.