Invasion of the bedbugs

How we dealt with these disgusting little bloodsuckers; and why we still fear stigma and our landlord
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news@sfbg.com

Editor's Note: The writer has penned this story under a pseudonym because of concerns about social stigma and backlash from his landlord, as he discusses below.

More than three weeks had passed since our hike through Yosemite, so my girlfriend and I were starting to worry that the festering egg-shaped welts appearing daily on her arms, legs, and stomach weren't just a late reaction to mountain mosquitoes. We'd rationalized the problem away until now, but when a bump appeared on her face, we decided to get professional help.

"It doesn't make sense," my girlfriend told her dermatologist. "It can't be spiders or fleas because I sleep with my boyfriend and he's not getting bit. Maybe I'm allergic to my new detergent?"

"Nope," the doctor said. "You've got bedbugs."

Then he took some pictures of her wounds "to document the epidemic," wrote out a prescription for an anti-itch medicine, and sent her home to deal with the diagnosis, adding that she shouldn't freak out because bedbugs don't transmit diseases. They just make your life miserable, causing rashes, sleeplessness, paranoia, and embarrassment — which is why they're considered a health risk on par with roaches, scabies, and lice.

But how exactly were we supposed to deal with this? Neither of us had ever even seen a bedbug, and we'd never heard of anyone getting bit. We really didn't even believe in them. I mean, we'd both heard the old "good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" rhyme, but we thought it was about ticks or maybe some fantastical little boogiemen, not actual bugs that live in or near your bed. That's because, like most San Franciscans the age of 70, my girlfriend and I had grown up in a mostly bedbug-free world. But that's over now.

Bedbugs are back and they're eating San Francisco alive, sticking their blood-hungry proboscises in transient gutter punks, international travelers, homeless people, doctors, lawyers, and yes ... maybe even you. They're crawling around in our walls as we speak, scuttling from basket to basket in Laundromats, and camping out on buses and trains, waiting for new victims.

But where did they come from? And why are they here now, creeping out residents of civilized American cities that include Cincinnati, New York, and, most recently, San Francisco, where the Department of Public Health has received 307 complaints this year alone — a figure that's soon to surpass last year's total count of 327, according to DPH special operations manager Dr. Johnson Ojo.

Well, there are plenty of theories, but the truth is that nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that bedbugs are here and they are hungry. And, by the look of things, they're not going anywhere soon. As travelers, tenants, homeowners, and landlords, our first mode of action against the epidemic is to learn how to deal. We've got to know how to prevent infestations, understand our rights when they occur, and finally come to grips with what it means to live in an infested city.

Of course, to do all of this, it helps to know a thing or two about the nasty fuckers.

WHAT ARE BEDBUGS?

Bedbugs are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of sleeping humans. One of the reasons you're probably not familiar with them, the reason you might think they're a myth or some dead epidemic from the Dark Ages when nobody washed, is that bedbugs were virtually annihilated from the western world by about 1960.

"Exterminators back then were quite fond of an insecticide called DDT," explained Luis Agurto Jr., president of a local integrated pest management company called Pestec. The chemical was great because it killed every bug in sight. Unfortunately, the virulent toxin wreaked havoc on the environment, killing most bald eagles and a wide variety of plant and animal life, as well as causing cancer and birth defects in humans.