What It’s Really Like to Deal With New York’s Worst Roommate: Bed Bugs

How not to dispose of your infested mattress.
How not to dispose of your infested mattress.

It’s the middle of July, my AC-free bedroom has risen to an ungodly temperature, and with sweat dripping through my eyebrows I realize that I’ve run out of clean underwear. For the past two weeks I had been living out of a single trash bag of clothes, and now on top of the stagnant stench from wearing the same five dresses day after day, I’m walking through the Atlantic Avenue station wearing swimsuit bottoms under my clothes. Welcome to one of the several circles of hell that is bed bugs.

The little buggers decided to unveil themselves in mid-June as I was baking on a Mexican beach and my new roommate was trying to settle into our apartment. After she woke up with arms swollen into uncooked sausages, panic set in. Little did we know we would be in for over a month of emotional meltdowns, several boxes of trash bags, and roughly $500 of expenses until we were finally “bb-free.” So using our failures, successes, and surprises in dealing with New York’s worst bed-surfing subletting foe, here’s a guide to making your home bed-bug proof and maintaining your sanity.

Finding Bed Bugs & Learning Not to Panic
It would both shock and dismay you to learn how many people are unaware that they have bed bugs. A friend and fellow sufferer first discovered the pests crawling on his bathroom trash, only to confront his roommate, pull off the roommate’s sheets, and find his mattress covered in a sea of bloodsuckers. Now if this happens it doesn’t always mean your roommate is a total moron; some people aren’t as sensitive to their bites, and they can also go several months without feeding. So while you can have them for several months without any visible rashes or bites, if you do find yourself covered in itchy red spots and get chicken pox-back like you had when you were seven, better assume you have the little pests and act accordingly, instead of waiting several weeks like my neighbor whose dermatologist probably smacked his forehead in incredulity.

When checking your bed, keep in mind that bed bugs like to hide in the seams and corners of your mattress and box spring, especially if you keep your bed in a dark corner of the room. They’re pretty identifiable, round little creatures ranging from the size of pinhead to a pinky nail. Fun fact: bed bugs are initially translucent, but as they feed and mature they turn brown. When you usually find them they’re swollen and dark red from feeding on blood.  If you don’t have the chills by now, then you’re probably oblivious and already have them.

So take a deep breath, shower off the inevitable itchiness you’ll have after spotting even one of these blind little fuckers, and pull it together.  If you haven’t already bagged all bedding, pillows, etc., do so now. Quarantine your bed from the rest of your room as much as possible, and have your roommates do the same. The bugs might only be visible on one of your beds, but these sneaky guys can transport from room to room as you attempt to kill them off.

The Extermination
First things first, call your landlord or housing management. In New York, building owners/landlords are legally required to pay for bed bug treatment of your apartment. Your management should have a regular exterminator service they refer, and depending on who they use, each exterminator will have their own treatment, rules, and suggestions.

The first exterminator who came to assess my apartment was a middle-aged Polish guy, who looked slightly disoriented but equally unfazed by the situation at hand. After spraying my mattress and box spring, he wrapped them in plastic covers, briefly checked the sofas, gave us a wave of assurance that our apartment was fine, and peaced out. To this day I’ll wonder if bed bug exterminator was just a cover-up for his real job. A week later we called management to schedule a follow-up; strangely they had no record of what extermination company had come the first time (another detail contributing to my idea that the Polish man might have been, shall we say, not legit).

Finally we got real professionals to come and spray the apartment with a mild insecticide.  The process for this kind of extermination is fairly straightforward, but still perhaps the single biggest pain in the ass (other than moving in New York) in general. We bagged up all clothing and linens, in addition to all books, records, CDs, and knick-knacks and put them in the center of the room. We took everything off the walls, pulled the furniture to the center, and sealed up everything. You are permitted one designated bag that you can go in and out of to retrieve your daily needs, but everything else is off limits. The only rooms that can go untouched are the bathroom and kitchen. If this doesn’t sound annoying enough already, get ready to keep all your belongings like this for at least a week and a half until the next spraying (another week if your infestation is bad enough to require a third treatment). With no curtains, no sheets, and a single towel to use, you will undoubtedly feel like your apartment is some kind of squatters cave/zoo cage (especially if your bedroom windows face the kitchens of your neighbors as mine do), unless you’re one of the lucky few to have a significant other or wonderfully generous friend who loves you enough to hide their fear that you will spread your infestation to them.

When You Have Pets
Some treatments require you to leave your apartment for a couple days, others just overnight, and ours was just for four to six hours after treatment. Now, if you have the above-mentioned significant other or fabulous, supportive friend to stay with, this won’t be so bad. But things get complicated when you have a pet (or child, I assume) that requires more attention than a fish. For my roommate and I, two spraying treatments meant moving my two slightly neurotic, fairly dumb cats Jack and Iggy, to some uncertain location. The only cat clinic I knew of charged $25/day per cat (reasonable), plus a $60 per cat, mandatory doctor’s visit before their stay. Well roughly $150 for four to six hours seemed both unreasonable and stupid, so thankfully I convinced close friends (and experienced bed bug advisees) to house us and the kitties for a few hours. So with twenty-pound Jack in the kitten-sized cat carrier, and Iggy stuffed into my Herschel backpack that I was wearing like a baby papoose, we took a cab over. We retroactively realized that shushing a creature in a backpack large enough for a small toddler might not look the best to passerbys—or our cabbie, who shot questioning glances in the rearview mirror.

Post-Extermination & Future Prevention
At this point you’ve more than likely cried at least once, broken something in frustration, and yelled at yourself for all the shit you’ve collected and now must deal with. But once the sprayings are done, you’ll be greeted with an energized sense of relief and excitement to have your home back, or at least almost. But before you try to remember the exact placement of your perfume bottle collection or posters, there are a few steps you can take to make sure you keep any kind of blood-sucking creature away from your apartment (insect-wise that is; no promises for vampire bats).

Go to a hardware store and pick up a bag of what is called Diatomaceous Earth; it’s basically a very finely ground rock that is non-toxic to humans and pets, but is deadly to bed bugs, cockroaches and any of those shelled bugs. It’s hard to explain the overwhelming hatred you’ll feel towards bed bugs, and this innocent looking powder slowly tears their exoskeleton off them as they walk through, giving you a gleeful sense of accomplishment and vengeance. Spread the powder around the perimeters of the room, rubbing into cracks, wall outlets, and the crevices of your mattress and box spring. Since it’s completely safe for humans, you can spread the powder over your mattress each time you change the sheets, if you’ve been traumatized like my roommate.

Perhaps one of the most tedious parts of bed bug treatment will be washing all, yes ALL, of your clothing and linens after the spraying. You want to get this done ASAP because bed bugs can live in the bags of clothes before migrating back to your bed. So set aside a day to spend at the Laundromat, and do load after load on the hottest possible wash and dry cycles (the extreme temperature is what will kill them). If you own any kind of nice, expensive clothing (or are virtually any woman), you probably have at least a couple things that can be washed and dried. You can either get those dry-cleaned, or rent a steamer. A steamer can be used for rugs, coats, and anything you’re worried about washing normally. Here is the possible opportunity for another emotional breakdown, when you’re six trashbags of steamed clothes in, with ten more to go and have the urge to make a bonfire of them instead. Keep calm, carry on, and whatever you do, don’t give it to a service that offers to clean all of your clothes for some ridiculously low price (they will take all your clothes and never call you back).

Other things you can do to keep the buggies out is caulking any cracks in the flooring or walls. If you live in a building that’s any more than twenty years old, there are probably gaps between the molding and floor. The caulking prevents bugs and rodents from getting in through those crevices. Another important prevention tool that’s good even if you’ve never had bed bugs is to buy a cover for your bed and/or box spring. They’re basically plastic body bags that suffocate any possible bed bugs, or prevent them from getting in. You might feel like you’re on grandma’s plastic-covered floral sofa, but in our experience, a subtle squeaking as you roll over is well worth it.

All of the registered bed bug locations in NY from the nationwide Bed Bug Registry.
All of the registered bed bug locations in NY from the nationwide Bed Bug Registry.

The Upsides (Yes, There Are Some!)
At this point, hopefully you’re placing the final picture frame on your desk, and beginning to feel slightly more relaxed. Despite all the hell bed bugs put you through, they also force you to deal with the often ignored aspects of your apartment. In the month and a half since we first found bed bugs, our entire apartment has been mopped, vacuumed, sanitized, and caulked. I probably threw out a trashcan’s worth of old papers, dusty empty boxes, and crusty relics of shitty roommates past. As I’m alphabetizing my records and reorganizing my closet, my room feels better than it did even before the bugs. It’s the forced opportunity for a fresh start, which I took full advantage of with an Ikea shopping spree. Take this horrible inconvenience as time to replace the duct-taped curtain rod, finally hang those stoop sale bull horns, or toss out the broken coffee maker your last roommate left with you.

So did bed bugs make my summer a living hell? Absolutely. Would I wish them upon anyone? Never (besides the aforementioned shitty roommate, who I suspected might have brought them in, though I have no reliable proof). But is it the worst thing I’ve gone through in New York? Probably not. Bed bugs are gross and infuriating, but getting rid of them made me feel tough and self-assured. This is one of the many challenges hurled at New Yorkers, and if you can survive it, you’ll have an invigorating sense of power over the (literal) pests of this city.

So while bed bugs might be on the decline in NY, they’re not gone yet, so know how to deal with them. Because who knows, now even your N train might have them.

Follow Brie Roche-Lilliott on Twitter @BrieRocheL


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