Will bedbugs bring down New York? I wonder, after reading Sara Faye Lieber's lovely piece about the pests in a recent issue of Guernica. And yes, I meant to say lovely—though her beautifully written essay is, at times, a bit vivid for the squeamish reader. After the critters infiltrate her apartment, Lieber sets out to learn everything she can about them, for example: Did you know that bedbugs prefer to bite women and children? That they can live in your books for years? Or that months in a freezer will not kill them? (Did you want to know these things?)
Lieber channels her obsessive research into an interesting argument about the threat these hardy insects pose to cities (particularly New York), where secondhand furniture and dumpster-diving are ways of life.
“If city dwellers are unable to acquire and sell used things, they will be unable to furnish their apartments, fill their bookshelves, clothe their bodies, continue to build their rare record collections and create the comfortable and eclectic habitats that are the cornerstones of bohemian or at least somewhat affordable city living,” Lieber writes. “These practically invisible pests constitute an assault on anyone who believes in the value of the old, of sacred objects culled from bargain bins, of rare books found on shady street corners.” For example:
Whoever says kids these days aren’t into books has either never been to Brooklyn or is getting their information from an unreliable source. After I had salvaged eight plastic bins of my most beloved books and papers, my sister helped me lug the rejects out to join the rest of the tainted garbage on the curb. Because the bags were black, we used thick masking tape to make impromptu labels on the outside, on which we again wrote and illustrated the most ferocious warnings we could think of in both Spanish and English. My sister and I went inside to gather up the next batch of garbage bags. When we came back outside, the bags we had previously lugged to the garbage heap were already ripped open and little Dominican boys and girls were running away with the salvaged booty. We yelled after them in Spanish, “NO! NO! NO! LOS LIBROS TIENEN INSECTOS!” But they did not listen.
We chased after them, in some cases all the way to their doors, where we explained in Spanish to their parent sitting on a stoop why bedbugs are to be taken seriously. This was not an easy thing to convince them of in the face of a bounty of free books for their children. Even in Spanish, the name “bedbug” sounds like a punch-line. By the time we returned to the garbage pile in front of my apartment, new children had arrived. For what are a few measly bugs to an information-starved eight-year-old when right before her is the entire, lushly illustrated, multi-volume encyclopedia of animals or dance or space exploration? My sister stood guard while I went inside and got a bulk bottle of dish detergent, then poured it over the tainted bags of books the way I had seen my babysitter do more than once with the offending second-half of a dessert she felt too fat to finish. The green slime trick works every time. I didn’t feel triumphant depriving these inner city kids of their loot though. I felt like I had gone over to the dark side.