George Orwell had bedbugs. Down and Out in Paris and London opens with the owner of a hotel in Paris hollering a reminder at one of her patrons not to squash bedbugs against the wallpaper. They bothered him all over Paris. He eventually stumbled upon a remedy, though not before going hungry one night after knocking a bug into a half a liter of milk on which he had spent his last eighty centimes. One of his friends recommended sprinkling black pepper all over his sheets. Pepper didn’t kill them, but it kept them off his bed.
Chekhov also had bedbugs. A house he bought was infested, I learned by reading The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. They worked their way into his writing. A character in “The Steppe” (translated by Ronald Wilks), wears “a velvet waistcoat with a pattern of reddish-brown flowers resembling giant bed-bugs.” And in The Cherry Orchard (translated by Jean-Claude van Itallie), Trofimov, the eternal student, makes a speech against intellectuals, who “philosophize while workers are badly nourished, sleep thirty, forty to a room with no real beds, with bedbugs, foul odors, dampness, and in moral degradation.”
Bob Slocum, the narrator of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, has “visions these days when I am lying alone in strange beds in hotels or motels, trying to put myself to sleep, of being assailed by filthy hordes of stinging fleas or bedbugs against which I am utterly inept because I am too squeamish to endure them and have no other place to go.”
The eponymous character of “Big Boy Leaves Home,” a story by Richard Wright, is told by his friend that he is “crazys a bed-bug!” It turns out this is a fairly common expression, although I have no idea what it means. I don’t think of bedbugs as crazy, unless they’re crazy like a fox.
Maureen came to New York in December, and we went to Atlantic City for a couple days. I read Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, on the train, and when I got to this part—"’What does [the junkie] care for the atom bomb, the bedbugs, the cancer rent, Friendly Finance waiting to repossess her delinquent flesh’"—I nudged M. and told her not to read this book. She examined the offending passage and pretended to be nonchalant. I kept on reading, and when I got to this bit—Doc Benway had “‘a job as ship’s doctor on the S.S. Filariasis, as filthy a craft as ever sailed the seas. Operating with one hand, beating the rats offa my patient with the other and bedbugs and scorpions rain down from the ceiling’”—I didn’t share it because by this time she had developed a few Maureen bumps, those faux-bites she gets that look just like bedbug bites but only last for about twenty minutes, and was busy taking pictures of her neck so she could examine the “bites” more closely. There are a couple other mentions, including this sample menu from Chez Robert: “The After-Birth Supreme de Boeuf cooked in drained crank case oil, served with a piquant sauce of rotten egg yolks and crushed bed bugs.” Mouthwatering, I believe is the word you’re looking for.
David Foster Wallace alludes to them in Infinite Jest. That Big Indestructible Moron Don Gately has an early-morning second job as a janitor at the Shattuck Shelter for Homeless Males, where “[t]he barrackses’s cots reek of urine and have insect-activity observable.” The word “bedbug” appears nowhere in the book, but Wallace explicitly mentions lice on more than one occasion, so an argument could be made that he was really referring to lice, but in that case the insect-activity would be observable on people’s heads and beards and, you know, other areas. It seems more likely that the active insects in question are bedbugs, or cotbugs, in this case.
Dizzy Gillespie went to the Laurinburg Technical Institute in North Carolina. His education and room and board were free, but his dorm was overrun by bedbugs. “One night I woke up in my room in the dormitory screaming,” he writes in To Be or Not … to Bop. “They had chinches, bedbugs, running rampant around there in the mattresses, and they used to have a feast on my back.” He solved his problem by placing the legs of his bed in sardine cans filled with kerosene (water would have been just as useful) and making a new straw mattress free of bug eggs.
In the riot scene in Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, a man named Scofield, one of a party of tenants preparing to burn down their apartment building, comes to his apartment and says, “‘And ain’t the bedbugs going to get a surprise!’”
In Episode 14 of Firefly, Kaylee says good night to Simon, with whom she is smitten and a little awkward, and adds, “Don’t let the spacebugs bite.”
A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, talked about the appeal of zombie movies in a video commentary he did for the Times website on Night of the Living Dead. Zombies are multifunctional. Liberals can watch a zombie movie and identify the zombies with brainwashed, conformist Republicans, he said, and conservatives can identify them with “the forces of political correctness trying to suppress every expression of individuality.” Bedbugs also go both ways. A Republican, if he’s also really twisted and a mite stupid, could use bedbugs to signify recipients of social benefits like food stamps or unemployment, although, unless you want to get your ass kicked, this really isn’t the time to do that. One of those tea party clowns could make bedbugs stand for Big Government sucking the lifeblood, through taxes, out of all good freedom lovers. So far I’ve only seen bedbugs used with any kind of social purpose by serious people like Ellison and Chekhov and Claude McKay. Ray and Jake, characters in McKay’s novel Home to Harlem, are part of the crew on a train that runs between New York and Pittsburgh. They can hardly sleep because of the bedbugs. “A loud snore from the half-naked chef brought him back to the filthy fact of the quarters that the richest railroad in the world had provided for its black servitors.” What Ellison, King, Chekhov, McKay, and a few other folks are pointing out is that bedbugs are a fact of poorness. Rich people can get bedbugs almost as easily as poor people. The difference is that poor people can’t get rid of them. Bedbugs are underutilized metaphorically, but they’re as versatile as zombies. They’ve been used to demonstrate social disparity, but we could also use them to signify social parasites like corrupt politicians, lobbyists, rabid capitalists, certain corporations, certain C.E.O.s, the military budget, etc.
We now have our first bedbug-inspired album. Small Vampires, the debut E.P. from Canadian musician Char2D2, was produced by Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara and was inspired by the musician’s bedbug infestation, according to a friend of Char2D2 (or Charla McCutcheon) who e-mailed me.
The furniture-for-sale section of the New York City Craigslist is always full of bedbugs. Usually someone’s selling a sofa bed and promises she’s never ever had bedbugs. Sometimes it’s a mattress company advertising its superior, bedbug-free wares.
I e-mailed the person who posted the following ad on Craigslist but haven’t heard back. I must be a lowballer. If anyone has any idea what this means, please let me know.
I am selling 7 Bedbugs that I have found living in my apartment. Don’t worry, they were already dead, so this item is fine for purchase by Vegans/Vegitarians/Flexitarians. I currently have them stored in a small film case filled with alcohol to preserve them, I hope this does not affect your plans for them. If you need ones that are not preserved, please contact me and I will see if I am able to assist in this regard. Price is negotiable, but please be aware I know what they are worth and will ignore lowballers. Delivery is available to anywhere in Brooklyn, Manhattan or Queens for a modest fee beginning any day starting next Monday. Thank You.