Waiting for the Exterminators

photoBrendan Bernhard

Today on The Local East Village, it’s all about cleaning house. First, from Brendan Bernhard, the second and final chapter of his harrowing tale about fighting bed bugs. And later, a professional organizer tells how you, too, can make a clean sweep.

If you thought bed bugs were bad enough (I certainly did), wait until you deal with exterminators – bed bug exterminators, that is. Let me tell you, they (or their bosses) are a demanding lot.

Evil sneaky blood-sucking nocturnal mattress-and-sofa infesting predatory vamps-without-glamour they may be, but bed bugs, unlike exterminators, don’t make you wash, dry, and dry clean every article of clothing in your possession. They don’t insist you empty your closets, drawers, file cabinets, and bookshelves, clean the contents therein, and then box them up in airtight containers before they will deign to submit your apartment (which must also be spick and span) to blasts of steam followed by potent doses of poison. In short, those foul vampiric insects that have infested New York do not force you to upend your life and take a good hard look at all the stuff you have accumulated despite spending half your time throwing things out in the interminable war against clutter.

But exterminators do force you to do these things. They make you move all your possessions into the kitchen and bathroom and when you run out of space there, into the hallway or even onto the fire escape. Worse, they force you to decide what is junk and what isn’t, what is of value, what is of “sentimental value,” and what is merely sentimental. The quandaries multiply.

Here’s an example: Formerly taking up most of one file-cabinet drawer but now temporarily in a box in the hallway is the entire correspondence between my mother and stepfather (voluminous not only because both were avid letter writers, but because my stepfather was the captain of an oil tanker who was away at least nine months of the year). I have glanced at their correspondence – hundreds of long, handwritten letters – but not read it. Somehow I can’t bring myself to – it would feel uncomfortably like voyeurism. The mere thought of it makes me squirm. At the same time, how could I possibly throw those letters out? They’re the past – obliquely my past, too – made materially manifest. There is no other record of it.

Still, for the most part the Exterminators don’t leave you much of a choice. Although I can hold onto certain remnants of the past, many have to be discarded. Without a lot of money, you can’t live a 1.0 life in a 2.0 world. Not in New York, and definitely not in one of those East Village tenements whose picturesque facades and zigzagging fire escapes are an artful distraction from their carious insides. If they were teeth, a dentist would pull them.

If there’s a silver lining to be discerned in the proverbial cloud, it’s that preparing your apartment to be treated for bed bugs entails the Mother of all Spring Cleanings. If you’ve accumulated far too much stuff – if you’re even a tiny bit of a pack rat or simply too overwhelmed to empty your drawers and cabinets except under duress – then this is your chance to reimagine your living quarters and start afresh, afresh, afresh.

In my case, the argument for doing so is particularly compelling because, as it turned out, there were no bed bugs in the apartment. There definitely had been bed bugs, but they were gone. I’d got rid of them myself. In other words, minus the spring cleaning, the whole exhausting process was a complete and utter waste of time.