Are bedbugs really so bad?
Yes, they live in your bed; they suck your blood; and they are almost impossible to kill or get rid of. All of these can be considered negative qualities.
But play a bit of compare and contrast, and bedbugs come out looking pretty good. A mosquito can give you malaria or West Nile. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Asian longhorn beetles will destroy your trees, and termites will eat your house. Roaches live in the pantry and go to the bathroom in your food. I've never had bedbugs, and from what I understand their bites can itch badly, depending on who's being bitten -- but an itchy bite objectively pales in comparison to, say, dengue fever.
And yet it is bedbugs that have become the eight-legged bête noir of our times, skittering villainously through countless alarmist articles and local-news segments. Million-dollar bedbug lawsuits! Horrible bedbug-inspired divorces! Vicious bedbug-related Coop Board infighting!
All these stories gain their potency from the fear constantly scurrying around in all our minds: What if I get them? Please don't let me get them. Please Lord, don't let it happen to me!
People have been trying to get rid of bedbugs since they started sleeping in beds. The ancient Greeks were advised to hang the feet of a dead stag in the bedchamber to ward off the creepy crawlers. (They were also advised to eat bedbugs with wine and eggs to cure various diseases). But I would hypothesize that our current outsize fear and loathing of poor little cimux lectularius is all bound up with our uneasy relationship with the fact of city living.
We human beings like to live in densely populated areas, and demographers tell us that more and more of us are doing it every year; in 2008, for the first time in human history most people in the world lived in urban environments. Nor is this a bad thing, necessarily. As we learned recently from economist Ryan Avent in the Times, "when it comes to economic growth and the creation of jobs, the denser the city the better." When we pack ourselves closer together, we create a resource-rich environment for would-be innovators, and everyone's standard of living rises along with wages.
The problem with living close to other people, of course, is living close to other people. City living means making an uneasy peace with sleeping a hair's breadth from strangers: dirty, noisy, deranged, perverted strangers, all around us, all the time. The slamming doors in the middle of the night, the apologetic stranger who buzzes up claiming to have forgotten her keys, the friend of a friend who needs a place to crash. In the city we are always in danger of the possibility that someone else's messy existence will spill over into our own.
I think our morbid fascination with bedbugs is a way of placing our urban anxieties onto their tiny, antennae-bearing heads. What we talk about when we talk about bedbugs is our fear of being affected, of being infected, by some other person. Of getting it from somewhere: from a party guest, from a one-night stand, from that cool antique chair you dragged in off the curb. All these stories about the horror of gross, swarming, faceless bugs are secretly stories about the horror of gross, swarming, faceless human beings.
So if you should wake up tonight at three a.m. with a tiny bug crawling up on your neck or onto your wrist, don't freak out. Lift the bedbug gently on your palm and say "it's not your fault, little friend. I'm the one who choose to improve my quality of life by moving to the Big City to embrace the cultural opportunities and stimulating interactions and copious Vietnamese restaurants that are its spoils. And you, my little parasitical friend, are a small price to pay."
And then rest at ease.
Just don't come to my house.
Follow Ben H. Winters on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenHWinters