Bedbugs Made Me a Real New Yorker

By Chris Gethard

Photo via Wiki Commons.

There are certain fundamental things that scream “I just moved to New York.” Things like eating cheesecake at Junior’s or heading out to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone. Or getting fucking bedbugs.

In late 2004, I left my much-maligned home state of New Jersey for the supposedly greener pastures of Astoria, Queens. I’d finally be in the mix, living off the subway line, able to go from audition to audition during the day and from late night show to late night show in the wee hours of the morning. I was finally going to chase the comedy dream for real, and I shacked up with two friends in a three-bedroom apartment that was right next to Astoria Park and owned by a nice Greek family.

For the first six months, said dream was being lived. It felt good to finally feel like I was committing hardcore to going for it. My confidence was higher than it had been in years. I booked my first national commercial. I even landed a girlfriend. Everything was looking up.

Then my girlfriend started getting weird red bumps all over her body. It only happened when she stayed at my place. We figured it must be the detergent I used on my sheets; no bumps were appearing on my body. I switched detergents. It kept happening.

One afternoon I casually mentioned this to Jamie, the roommate whose bedroom shared a wall with my room. 

“Weird,” he said. “The same thing is happening with me and my girlfriend.”

This was a real head scratcher. How did both of us wind up dating such highly allergic women? We pondered this for a few minutes and then surmised that it must actually have something to do with our apartment.

I walked into my room and pulled the bed away from the wall. I kneeled on the mattress and looked over the side. I noticed black dots on my box spring where it met the bed frame. I got up and lifted the bed and saw a handful of red bugs attached to the underside of the box spring. They scurried away from the light as I did. I had bedbugs. Even worse, my roommate and I didn't have an allergic reaction to bedbugs. This meant the problem had gotten bad, and the situation only revealed itself when we got girlfriends.

This was in 2005. I was an O.G. “bedbugs aren’t a well known plague around town yet” bedbug victim. I’m not bringing this up to try and claim that I had bedbugs before they were cool. Bedbugs have never been cool, and bedbugs will never be cool. I’m bringing this up to show I had bedbugs before it was a known thing that bedbugs were back in force, which is to say that I had bedbugs when having bedbugs meant you were regarded as fucking scum for having them.

“Why do you look so tired?” friends would ask me.

“I can’t sleep right anymore,” I’d tell them. “I have bedbugs.”

“That sucks,” they’d say. But their faces would say so much more. The sentiment that showed in their eyes was I didn’t realize you were human dirt.

Even today, New Yorkers treat bedbugs like they’re bubonic plague. And that’s with the understanding that famous hotels have had them, celebrities have had them, and that they’ve become a reviled and unfortunate chance one takes when signing up to live in New York. Now there are laws, specialists, and trained dogs that can help you solve the problem relatively quickly, but New Yorkers still boil with revulsion and rage at the idea of bedbugs.

I regularly conduct a poll during my stand-up sets that goes like this: “New York has a bedbug registry. You can punch in your address, and it will tell you if your apartment or any nearby have had bedbugs. New York also has a sex offender registry. It’s a similar thing but for sex offenders. You can see anyone who lives in your zip code who’s registered as a level two or three sex offender. Now, let’s say your bedroom shares a wall with a neighboring apartment. By a round of applause, who would rather find out that they share a wall with an apartment that has bedbugs? Now, who would rather find out they share a wall with a registered sex offender?”

If you don’t live in New York, I bet you think maybe 60 percent of the audience chooses a sex offender and the rest pick bedbugs and that it’s a funny and enlightening reaction.

Wrong. Every time, over 95 percent of the audience would rather choose the sex offender. More often than not, 100 percent of New York audiences tell me they’d choose to share a wall with a sex offender than with bedbugs. It’s only on very rare occasions that a few good souls would take the hit on bugs. That’s so fucked up. That means almost all of New York City, when faced with those options would rather hear the muffled cries of a child through their bedroom wall then have to put all their shit in a dryer. As a culture, this city thinks to itself, Let him touch who he wants, I have a one bedroom for $1,500.

And that’s in 2013. I had bedbugs in 2005. I felt like a leper. Worse than a leper. At least lepers had a colony they could go and live in with other people who empathized. I instead had friends stand up from tables and walk out of restaurants when I told them I had bedbugs, because they were afraid I’d transfer the bugs to them.

Even worse, when I had bedbugs, the laws hadn’t yet been nailed down on how to handle them. Now it’s accepted that your landlord pays for extermination. Back then, there was still debate. Should landlords be punished if people brought infected furniture into their own homes? How would the source of the bedbugs be proven? To be clear, I had brought nothing sporting bedbugs into my home—it later turned out my entire building was infested. But I had to deal with these up-and-down laws and a landlord who was previously a lovable Greek man but was now a rage fueled slumlord who didn’t want to pay thousands of dollars to clean out my apartment.

His nephew lived below me. “Try to clear them out yourself,” he told me. “If it takes more than a month I’ll convince my uncle to pay to get it done.”

I found one exterminator in New York who at the time sold a bedbug kit. It was somewhere on the Upper East Side. When I went to pick it up, he handed me a bunch of aerosol cans, powders, and one of those old timey powder blotter things that you squeeze, causing it to spray powder around. 

“Go in the cracks,” he said, with the tone of a grizzled veteran who has seen too much horror in his life. “In the edges of your carpets where they meet the walls. Look inside books, under picture frames. They thrive in the dark. In the small cramped spaces we can’t go.”

I thanked him and turned to leave. “One more thing,” he said. I turned around. “To defeat bedbugs, you have to think like a bedbug.”

I went home and started thinking like a bedbug. How would I go about completely ruining someone’s fucking life? I thought to myself. 

And that’s no exaggeration. My life was being ruined. Here are just some of the experiences I had with bedbugs: 

I woke up in the middle of the night, because I felt a bead of sweat on my chest. While sleepily wiping the sweat away, I felt it explode. I turned on the light and saw my chest was covered in my own blood and a bunch of bedbug parts. Goodbye, sleep.

One time at a Cuban restaurant with my girlfriend, I saw a bedbug crawl off the sleeve of my shirt and onto the table. I guess those friends who fled restaurants had a point. Goodbye, social acceptability.

Multiple times, I woke up to the terrified sobs of a lady who was on the verge of dumping me over this. Goodbye, comforting relationship. (Also, goodbye sex—you try comfortably having sex on a mattress where you know you and your partner are mashing your bodies into dozens of bugs filled with your own blood.)

I tried to think like a bedbug and spent hours every day spraying chemicals all over the room I slept in. I have no doubt I shaved years off my life inhaling the sprays and powders specifically designed to kill life that I coated my own bed in on a daily basis. Usually, they’d work for a few days, then I’d find more bugs. Or bug shells. Or dots where the bugs had crawled inside the mattress.

I eventually took to Craig’s List, where I posted a shady ad looking to buy the banned pesticide known as DDT. The only responses I had were concerned emails from environmentalists telling me that DDT was banned for a reason. 

One guy wrote and said that if I used DDT and was untrained to do so, I risked killing myself. I wrote back, “Sorry dude, I have bedbugs. I need DDT.” And he responded, “Holy shit, those are still a thing? Yeah, find DDT.”

Ultimately, my landlord did solve my bedbug problem. Not by exterminating them, but by trying to raise my rent about three months into the unsolved bedbug scourge. I calmly explained to him that if he thought I was going to pay him even one more dollar to live in an apartment infested with vermin that he staunchly refused to take care of, he was out of his fucking mind. He caved and said, “OK. I won’t raise the rent.” I asked, “Will you pay to take care of the bedbugs?” He said “No.” I said “Peace, stereotypical Astoria Greek landlord!” (I didn’t actually say that.)

We moved out the next week. We had about 30 garbage bags full of shit we were absolutely not going to bring into another apartment, which we had to leave in the living room, because there was no garbage area on the property and it would be impossible to fit 30 garbage bags into the one garbage can provided by my landlord. He later withheld our security deposit due to the garbage he had to clear out, and I happily took him to court over it. He showed up wearing a hat that said, “9/11 I SUPPORT THE NYPD”; the hat looked like he had it made at a mall kiosk. He also demanded a Greek translator, although he spoke English. The judge heard us out and immediately awarded me my security deposit plus interest. My landlord went nuts, turning bright red and cursing the judge in Greek while his wife muttered and gave the arbiter of justice the evil eye.

I haven’t had bedbugs since, and I pray I never will. I still can’t sleep right. Every time I feel sweat on my body, I wake up in a panic—eight years later.

Despite being bedbug free, I wouldn’t necessarily say things got better. I moved to Woodside, where for the next six years I slept in a room with no closet in a structure my friend Don Fanelli referred to as a “man sized dog bed.”

@ChrisGethard

Previously - Philadelphia Is the Scariest Place to Do Comedy 

 

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