NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–On my way to visit my sister overnight, I walked into the grocery store carrying two jumbo-sized, clear plastic bags of possessions and asked the cashier, "Where are the Ziplocs?"
"Down that aisle," he said, pointing.
I used Ziplocs not only for storing food, but also odds and ends like those in my home office. But now their role had expanded.
As I walked toward them I stopped to consider some piles of eco-friendly reusable grocery bags. Did I want one? No, I thought, I needed to reduce my clutter and didn’t want to spend the $3. I kept walking, did my shopping and at the register found the same man.
He brought out one of those eco-friendly bags and started packing my stuff in it. "Here," he said, his eyes overflowing with kindness. "I saw you looking at them."
It was then that I realized what I looked like: A middle-class, middle-aged recession victim. I suppose I sort of am, given my status as a journalist in a disappearing field, though I was not homeless as the man seemed to think. I was, however, a squatter in my own home.
I was among the legions of people in this country–and around the world–who have been forced to live out of plastic bags, albeit temporarily, thanks to a case of the bedbugs.
I had found them in my apartment about six weeks earlier after two months of unexplained hives. The actual bugs–adults are about the size and color of an apple seed–finally became visible one night on my bare mattress after a renovation jostled them out of my bed frame.
Bedbugs, or cimex lectularius, are blood-sucking insects that tend to congregate in and around beds, though they will set up shop anywhere that a person spends an appreciable amount of time–say, the couch, a favorite armchair or even the office.
In 30 to 40 percent of us they cause nasty, itchy welts. They can cost thousands of dollars to eradicate in a process that takes multiple treatments over weeks or months.
During that time you need to keep your laundered high-heat-dried clothes in plastic bags so the bugs can’t get back in. Some people throw out infested furniture, though often that’s not necessary.
Bedbugs were fairly common decades ago, but were virtually eradicated in the United States by the 1950s. A resurgence, however, is under way. Experts suspect that a combination of increased international travel, the disuse of certain pesticides and bedbugs’ growing tolerance to many pesticides, including DDT, are behind the change.
To date, no firm national statistics are available on bedbug-infestation rates. The federal government does not keep them.
But Missy Henriksen, a spokesperson for the National Pest Management Association, says that’s because the problem is relatively recent. Over the past five years, she says, the Fairfax, Va., trade group’s 6,000 members have seen a 71 percent increase in bedbug infestations, with complaints in all 50 states.
Outbreaks have been reported in New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco and Cincinnati, among other places.
Last spring, the Environmental Protection Agency organized a bedbug-related conference. Called the National Bedbug Summit, they wanted to learn more about the scope of the problem and its effect on industries, such as hospitality and housing; how the problem is spreading; detection and control tools; and government response, among other aspects of this multifaceted issue.
That happened before my run-in with the nasty critters, back when I, like most people, had only heard of bedbugs in a nursery rhyme. My low point came in that grocery store.
Unexpected Welcome Home
A few months earlier I had moved back home after seven years abroad, most of them in Mexico City. I was full of enthusiasm, ready to build a new life, get to know my young niece and nephews and fix up my adorable, sunny apartment.
Instead, I spent a chunk of my summer holed up, painstakingly going through all my possessions to make sure they were bedbug-free, and weeping copiously.
(For some reason bedbugs make you cry. A lot.)
There were boxes and boxes to go through–some from Mexico, some from my parents’ basement–that were full of books, files, clothes and CD cases. The bugs could have been anywhere, in any of it, given that they are thinner than a credit card when unfed and can crawl pretty much anywhere they want to.
After the first spraying I found one hiding in my long-neglected "story ideas" file folder–it was high time to go through that anyway. It contained but a smattering of jotted thoughts with no current story angle, and I was ready to move on.
To gird myself psychologically for what seemed like an almost supernatural task, I fired up the DVD player and popped in "Lord of the Rings," knowing I would take heart from the sight of Viggo strutting around in his swashbuckler duds. From there I moved on to a cardboard box marked, in a 13-year-old’s handwriting, "Memiors."
And down the rabbit hole I went.
There, packed away lovingly in 1975 or so, were relics from my early days as a feminist: The Gloria Steinem autograph I got in 1972 when my mother headed my hometown’s George McGovern presidential campaign and Steinem spoke; and a stack of index cards from 1977 outlining a report on "Lysistrata," the classic pacifist-feminist play from ancient Greece in which the women boycott sex until the menfolk agree to stop their warring ways.
There was also proof of one my first jobs: a neon-orange-and-yellow poufy hat–colored, I can only guess, to look like ketchup and mustard–that I had worn as a so-called Whopper Slopper at Burger King. I even came across the wooden axe I’d wielded as a red-haired, freckle-faced "Indian" in a high school production of Peter Pan.
Some of the mementos made me stare blankly. I had no memory, for instance, of being a "line prompter" in a production of "Death of a Salesman." But there was the poster, signed by cast members thanking me for saving their butts onstage, and there was the program with my name in it.
The next layer down brought me to the ’60s and quite a different set of clashing cultural artifacts: a rusty Suzy Homemaker clothes washer, some ratty doll clothes that had apparently never been washed and discolored costume jewelry.
There was my communion veil; the first and (to date) last veil of my life.
The gap between decades was bridged somewhat by the 1960s Camp Fire Girls paraphernalia and a blue-felt vest with a few hand-sewn "accomplishment" beads.
The box yielded talismans of even more time gone by, including a tattered cuddly toy that I could almost remember adoring at age 3.
I cried my eyes out looking at all this stuff without knowing why. Innocence lost? Dreams unfulfilled? In short, the usual suspects.
Oh yes, and the bedbugs. The scourge that had served as my welcome home. We cannot forget about them.
The Life-Examination Route
A bedbug infestation puts you through a mandatory encounter with every single one of your possessions–ready or not, here they come.
Many people go through them quickly or simply chuck it all. Others find ways to disinfect their things.
I chose the life-examination route.
The next day I woke up ready to divest myself of my past.
I checked eBay to make sure the Suzy Homemaker clothes washer wasn’t a collector’s item. It wasn’t. Into the trash it went.
Doll clothes, laundered (and dried a long time on "high," as bedbug protocol calls for) and sent to a thrift shop; programs for "Godspell," "Chorus Line," "Pippin" and other Broadway shows photographed and discarded; McGovern buttons likewise, along with some dolls.
Some things I couldn’t get rid of: The Steinem autograph, absolutely a must-keep, along with the communion veil and Camp Fire Girls souvenirs. I also hung on to the luminescent locks of golden-red hair that I’d saved and dated 1973, 1974 and 1976. They were part cute, part creepy, as if I had been my own stalker. (Though at least now it gives me something to show my colorist.)
A hair’s breadth from 50, I was ready to face my second half-century with the first half absorbed into my psyche, the physical traces no longer necessary.
I put what remained into a lidded plastic container and sealed it tightly. I tore up the cardboard box and put it into the recycling bin.
I could not, however, bring myself to throw out the piece of box top marked "Memiors." That is now taped onto the inside of the plastic box. One look and it takes me back.
Brooklyn-based freelancer Theresa Braine successfully banished the bedbugs and is now working on a book while she extracts her life from the plastic bags.
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