Saturday 24th July

| BY Max Blagg

Home Invasion: Max Blagg Writes About Unwanted Guests

I found my true home in the world when I arrived in New York City a hundred years ago, immediately convinced that this must be the place. Everything felt familiar, partly because I had been living on a diet of the New York School poets since the previous summer. Their various invocations of the city guided me as I threaded my way through downtown.

This town was brimming with impurity, humming to the music of a thousand motors turning over, the subway vibrating beneath your strolling feet. SoHo and Tribeca were one vast Empty Quarter, dancers on the rooftops and empty lofts below. After a brief sojourn on the Lower East Side – first on 10th Street between Fear and Trembling and then the slightly less perilous St Marks Place and Avenue A – I found my fixed abode in a former Linotype building on the Lower West Side, two blocks below the bustling medina of Canal Street.

Recently, this home of many years was invaded by a pest I had never confronted before, that tiny but rapacious vampire, Cimex lectularius. I had read about bedbugs infesting the lodgings of the poor, but had never encountered them myself, and knew no one who had. I soon found out that was because the first rule of bedbugs is you never mention bedbugs. Just recalling our struggle against these beasts makes me want to go and lie down on the couch, but alas our capacious, superbly comfortable couch was one of the many casualties of this home invasion. As our attempts to quell these appalling invaders began, we were totally ignorant of the toll it would take on much of our furniture, linens, clothing and even some of my precious books.

Until the bedbugs moved in, I had never had much truck with insects. I didn’t kill spiders as my mum had warned me it would bring bad luck, and I never suffered the indignity and shame of having head lice in school, which, even though often unavoidable for both rich and poor, was shameful and always associated with a lack of hygiene. Bedbugs have the same aura of dirt and neglect attached to them, even though, as I was assured by more than one exterminator, “Rich folks get them too.” Indeed, many four-star hotels suffer continual infestations, eliminated in the dead of night on a monthly basis by a small army of trained technicians.

When I left home for college, my first lodging was a bedsit in Muswell Hill, which I shared with another Retford lad, Mick W. After a few weeks there I was subject to an infernal itching in my pubic hair. I had no idea what ailed me until my roommate informed me that, hayseed northerners that we were, we had caught the crabs without actually shagging anyone. Probably from our bedsheets. We both had recently signed up for the college football team, and were subject to much ridicule after practice when we entered the communal shower with our private parts shaved clean. We boiled the bedsheets and poured on the Kwell and soon the crabs were gone.

After that episode, a long, clean break from insect fear, until last year. I had never even had cockroaches in my loft, due in part to the solidity of the steel and concrete building. One summer night, my wife, whose name in this account will be Osey Dee, woke me to say she had been bitten by something. She had the marks to prove it: three small red dots in a neat line along her forearm. I was unmarked. The bugs perhaps did not like the taste of my O-negative blood. I slept soundly while they feasted on her, and she never felt their touch, since an ingenious Creator supplied the bugs with an anaesthetic they administer to their victims before commencing. Not yet panicking, we consulted the internet for the most efficient treatment.

To avoid toxic chemicals, we opted for a heat treatment, despite the obscene expense. You can look it up. The team arrived in an unmarked truck with their massive generator on a trailer behind them and proceeded to heat the apartment up to unbearable temperatures, guaranteed to kill any and all bugs in the place. We breathed uneasily for almost exactly 30 days, which was the span of the guarantee. By which time the surviving bugs, having waited for its expiration, had hatched a new brood and returned to feed on us again.

As the battle became a war, we learnt certain repulsive facts about bedbugs. Fact: if you find them in your bed don’t immediately vacate and sleep on the couch, because they will follow the trail of the CO2 you emit and find you there. But if you’ve thrown out the bed, you have to sleep on the couch… By this time we had moved on to toxic spray treatments. These also failed to totally eradicate the pests.

During our nightmare voyage through this entomological hellscape, we met various denizens of bug world: men with trained terriers and beagles that, for $400 a pop, would allegedly sniff out any bedbugs that might be present in your home. We found out later that these K9ers often worked in tandem with pest-removal companies, not always to the benefit of the client. And various grifters posing as exterminators, including one pair of likely lads who seemed to be casing the place as they looked around and, after a cursory inspection, quoted us a price of $2,000 to eliminate the problem. Half in advance, cash only. After Osey cross-examined them on what bug-spray combos they would use, a subject on which she had become quite expert, their responses convinced us they were con men and we disrespectfully declined their services.

Your life changes. My favourite habit, scouring used bookshops for first editions, was suspended sine die. And clothing was definitely out. On eBay one day I spotted a very tasty topcoat, a fine navy barathea, 44L, new without tags. Osey intercepted the package, insisted I open it in the hallway and then make haste to the dry cleaner without even trying it on. But Osey, dear, the price of cleaning will equal the retail price of the coat! The whole point of shopping is to find bargains like this!

By this time, all of our remaining wardrobe had been placed in large, clear plastic stor- age bags after being subjected to the Bugzapper, a large canvas box attached to a heater ($250, plus shipping), which cooked everything to at least 120F, and then put away until some future date when she could safely declare the all clear. I had no clue at the time just how distant that day might be. Strange new habits became customary. Arriving home, I would strip naked in the lift and hop into the shower before putting on a new batch of sterilised clothing. The washer-dryer ran 24/7. My socks were pilled, shirts and chinos faded within a fortnight. Each time we thought we had cleared the place, minute traces would be discovered on the bedsheets, little brown or bloody splashes – apparently, if they are disturbed while feeding, they will excrete on the run… Oh, the horror…

Osey decided they had now spread into the kitchen. I came home one day to find every cabinet dismantled and placed in not one but two extra-heavy-duty rubbish bags. We replaced our ageing but perfectly serviceable cabinets with stainless-steel restaurant equip- ment from Chinatown, shiny disinfected surfaces upon which no insect might wander undetected. The couch – did I mention the couch? After much futile resistance, because I loved that couch and it was a very expensive couch and it had recently been reupholstered in a very attractive fabric, I agreed it should go and got the permit from the sanitation department to place a large household item on the street. Osey wrapped it in about 400 layers of plastic sheeting, since she did not want any of the bugs to escape and latch on to unwary passers-by. At midnight we carried the couch to the elevator and found to our dismay that it was too long to fit. We struggled to get it out onto the back stairs, seven floors up from the street. Maybe we could slide it down to each half-landing. When the full weight of the downward facing couch was on my back I realised this object might easily carry me into the landing wall and crush me.

We got halfway down one flight but I needed extra hands. I went to the all-night bakery next door and asked the manager if he had a couple of guys who might, for a small reward, help me get a couch down some stairs. He brought out two workers (who looked at me suspiciously) and said, “By the way, they’re both deaf-mutes.” Oh, OK then! Up we went to the seventh floor, where I tried to explain what I wanted them to do; since they were deaf and could not speak, I wasn’t sure if my message was getting through. We began the perilous descent, and for some reason, since the bakery manager had mentioned they were from the Ivory Coast, I began issuing instructions in my fractured French. “Glissez, glissez!” I hissed, trying to show them how I wanted to slide the heavy couch down to each landing. But they did not hear, much less understand my glissy hissing, and were careful to keep the couch elevated. Down we staggered, floor by floor. They were strong lads and my gratitude towards them and to the gods of furniture removal was intense when we actually arrived at ground level. Their puzzlement was complete when we set down the well-wrapped couch amid the rest of the rubbish waiting for morning pick-up. My relief at getting the couch downstairs was tempered by the fact that there was no longer anywhere to recline. A week later we bought two poolside chaises longues and watched Netflix on plastic lawn furniture.

The months passed, Osey had become an expert on the life cycle of the bedbug, consulting entomologists, astrologers and her late guru on ways of eliminating this horror from our lives. By this time we had repainted the entire loft a glistening shade of white, and she spent many days and sleepless nights in Holmes-ian scrutiny, examining every tiny black dot with an expensive magnifying glass, while rapidly discarding, piece by piece, home furnishings, clothes, shoes, etc, until we were living in a nearly empty space, quite charming in its minimalism but with strict hazmat rules. After months of monthly treatments, the bugs finally disappeared, from our premises if not from our minds. Just in time for Covid, whose restrictions synched perfectly with our bugged-out protocols. Now the virus is all around, even less visible and much more dangerous than mere bedbugs. I hope one day to flâneur about in my fine barathea, lounge on a cushy couch with Osey and the dogs. But right now, I have no more fucks to give. I just want to breathe and live.

Photography by Max Blagg. Taken from Issue 53 of 10 Men – NO PLACE, LIKE, HOME – is out NOW. Order your copy here.

@maxblagg