Faster exterminator, kill, kill! Dealing with bed bugs.

Having bed bugs is like becoming the unwitting participant in one of Kafka’s plays. Meet your new co-stars: the Landlord, the Second Landlord, the Régie, the Mover, the Exterminator, the Neighbour. Everyone is reduced to their role, and you, I’m afraid, are just the Tenant, and you are itchy and have seemingly no rights. You are the ultimate social pariah in a town, like many, where the difference between being cool and being poor and desperate is one infestation away.

Say you’ve been getting weird little bites all over your body for, oh, a month now. Surely it’s just the spiders hurrying inside for the winter, or a new crop of house centipedes. After all, your partner with whom you share a bed shows no signs of bites, whereas you increasingly wake up in the middle of the night with a distinct crawling sensation all over your naked torso. Keep it together woman, you’re obviously just crazy.

Wouldn’t that have been nice. It is amazing how a person can gaslight themselves, but on moving day nearly five years ago, I insisted that my partner lift up the bed to “check” while I stood holding a writhing kitten in the kitchen. I was too afraid to look, and after hearing the terrible noises he made in the other room, I never did. Denial feels pretty good for a while, but just like a growing bodily lump, there is bound to be a reckoning some day.

The mover took one look at our disheveled heap of things newly wrapped in garbage bags, not to mention the curbside bed, and refused to touch a thing. Looking back, it was a deeply responsible decision on his part, municipally speaking, but one that induced panic in two people so ill-prepared to move that when I later took a cab to our uninfested new apartment, our kitten rode not in a cat cage, but in my purse.

Our slumlord Eugene told us to wait for the exterminator to arrive the next day from nine till five. No one ever came. The next time we spoke to Eugene he told us that since we were moving out anyways, it wasn’t his problem. Here it becomes increasingly clear why bed bugs are on the rise, why nearly three percent of Montreal dwellings are infested. Not your problem? Then whose is it? Unfortunately, not a simple question. I’m fairly sure our bugs crawled through the wall next to our bed, but I could have brought them in myself from riding the metro, or leaving a library book nestled in the covers. Attributing your bugs to one source alone makes about as much sense as attributing a medieval fresco to a single genius.

More important than where they came from is how you can murder all those bugs and get on with your life. Now that you’re just a Tenant and not a human being, you dream bugs, you live bugs, you stand in front of the dryer and put on your clothes scalding hot, bra-clasps and jean buttons like seat belts in an Arizona car. You are, in short, unhappy.

There are two main methods when it comes to killing bugs: poison, and heat. Steve Bilodeau has been running ABC Pest Control and Extermination for 26 years, and they use chemical treatments in addition to other parts of their “arsenal,” including a specialized vacuum called the Bed Bug Sucker. Don Prashkrer of Thermapro Solutions disavows chemicals and always has, using instead a combination of canine detection and heat treatment. He has three working dogs: Sunshine, Angie and Magic Mike, all rescues purchased at a steep price from David Latimer, a professional dog trainer and former police chief in Alabama who also trains dogs in the detection of narcotics, explosives and cadavers. Angie is clearly Don’s favourite, a rat terrier who he describes as “still coked-up and running around like a wind-up dog.”

A bed-bug-sniffing dog

The use of heat is partly in reaction to the growing phenomenon of chemically resilient bed bugs, but chemicals remain the industry norm. Resilience is maybe a more frightening phenomenon than the bugs themselves. It’s part of the reason why you hear about exterminators spraying the same building repeatedly, why the landlord I spoke to first had the bugs in one unit and then another and then another.

Better yet, the same landlord got a dreaded call about roaches during the 15 minutes we spent in his office. Apparently a new tenant moved in and guilelessly announced the arrival of roaches four days later, not mentioning his stove full of them, flying out of the elements at the slightest provocation. Resilience is nothing new: back when I re-read Burroughs’ The Exterminator! for some sweet solace during my bug plight, I took thorough pleasure from the boss who brings his staff in to watch him eat arsenic, which only “brings an embalmer’s flush to his smooth grey cheek.” If that doesn’t warm the cockles of your now-arrhythmic heart, well, I guess you just haven’t had a brush with the critters (yet).

Part of what complicates heat treatment is just how much more resilient bed bug eggs are than bed bug nymphs and adults. Considering that an adult female bed bug can stay pregnant her entire adult life and can lay up to five eggs a day, or, as Don put it, “shake off eggs like a wet dog,” you really, really want to kill those eggs. A 2011 study on insects suggests that whole-room heat treatment reach 48˚C for 71.5 minutes. Yet, there is no single answer to the heat question. Urban Pest Management suggests 50˚C as the “minimum threshold temperature,” and PackTite, a commercial manufacturer of bed bug heat tents, instructs you to let it reach 48.8˚C for one hour. There is a range of target heats that exterminators offer, so if in doubt, ask your exterminator.

Don’t rely on your landlord to deal with the situation for you, but be as present as you can be so you can ask questions. Are they treating just your unit, or others as well? If the adjacent building is owned by a different landlord or association, ask if they’ve been notified and if they’ve done an inspection. Your tenant rights don’t extend to adjacent buildings, but knowing whether or not your neighbour’s landlord is pro-active could well be the determining factor in whether you chose to stand your ground at your apartment or take flight.

Several tenants I talked to, while they knew they had cause to lodge a landlord complaint with the Régie de Logement, spoke of being so beaten down by the bugs themselves that they no longer had the energy to undertake a parallel bureaucratic battle. One particularly dogged personal friend, however, managed to successfully self-represent against her landlord’s lawyer, receiving damages of $4,599.67 (for moving fees, loss of material items and physical and mental duress) in the fall of 2017. The success of her case, which lasted two years, hinged on her meticulous research and, perhaps even more critically, her documentation and communication with other tenants. Let this be a lesson to you. Take photos of bugs, take photos of bites, correspond with your landlord by email, even a text — anything other than a harried exchange in your infested hallway. A claim with the Régie is like a claim in any other court, and you need proof.

Despite my friend’s successful suit, she was forced to borrow a not-insignificant sum from her parents, put her belongings in a storage unit, and move in with her boyfriend’s parents in the ‘burbs for four long months. She purchased a used PackTite heat unit from, you guessed it, me. When she came to pick up the boxes I was too afraid to hug her, and she knew it. I remembered being an ostracized tenant-cum-leper, but there I was a metre away nervously looming down from my steps. The PackTite unit had been a Christmas present from my strange and doting parents during my Year of the Bug. Financial stress looms large when it comes to bed bugs, and my parents’ gift, one I never could have afforded, was an enormous boon during a trying time.

Each and every tenant I spoke with for this article suffered financial losses. Some paid for everything out of pocket, some had parental help, others none at all, and the usual range of landlord-tenant relationships, but even in cases where the landlord paid for the extermination, the purchase of an array of cleaning and storage supplies always fell to the bedraggled Tenant.

In the end, my Bug plight, I have to admit, used no exterminator. Just the PackTite, a laundromat’s enormous industrial dryers, a steamer rented from Lou-Tec and a complex triage system involving a massive deep green boating tarp and a pretty fetching garbage bag two-piece. Between my partner and I and our self-sacrificing friend whose clothes we dried while he also stood by in a garbage bag ensemble, we treated and organized belongings about 12 hours a day for a week. It was one hell of a way to move in.

Maybe I would have done it differently now. There is, thankfully, a wealth of information online, a lot of it surprisingly cogent. From Bedbugger.com, the Reddit for bedbugs, to the interactive map of Montreal’s declared infestations, to the Bed Bug Registry, where you can look up your current or future address. There’s a “Bed Bug Bootcamp” held in New Jersey, but if you don’t have a few grand to drop on a new entomological hobby, you’ll have to content yourself with the many instructional videos from the boot camp’s founder, Jeff White, the internet’s go-to bug expert, or “guru,” as one Jersey website refers to him. The YouTube series, amazingly, is just called Bed Bug TV, and hosted on bedbugcentral.com. If you’re in a dark mood, you can catch him on both The View and Dr. Oz.

If you have bugs, you will have a trying time, but Steve, in a comment that I found oddly comforting, pointed out that since insects have been around for about 400 million years, it’s not that you might have ants, but rather that “vous êtes chez les fourmis.” In other words, it is not shameful or bizarre that you have bugs.

However, even if you don’t have bugs, you do have a responsibility to help stop the spread. I thought I was excessively prudent until I spoke with Don, who described immediately stripping down and washing his clothes after coming home, same as he would after a day of work. Maybe you’re not ready to make that part of your after-work routine, but if you ever purchase second-hand clothes, do as this paranoiac does and stick them directly in the dryer on high for an hour. Buying second hand books? Good good, a moral consumer choice, but they can happily wait a week in your freezer before you read them. We are all responsible for containing the spread of bed bugs. Mile Ex store Ex Voto freezes all used clothing items before their sale as a preventative measure in the larger city-wide struggle.

Discretion and calm truly seems to be the aim of the exterminators, and Don and Steve both emphasized the tremendous psychological aspect of their work. Every day they speak to people having a terrible day, in a state of monumental and mind-altering panic. Don directed me to the story of Louise Fafard, a Montreal woman suffering from mental illness and a gambling dependency, for whom the additional strain of bed bugs proved to be untenable. Her apartment had been treated before, but when “the vampires” returned, in 2009, she jumped to her death from her 17th floor apartment. Bedbugger.com has a detailed and conscientious user policy, and one of the first items insists that anyone expressing suicidal ideation on the user forum is immediately relayed to a professional help line. Anyone who’s brushed up against the world of bugs knows just what an incredibly exacerbating strain they can have on anyone already coping with mental illness. In much the same way, bed bugs may not discriminate between the rich and the poor, but they do disproportionately impact already marginalized people. Prompted by this discrepancy, one study based in Winnipeg asks the pressing question, what if bed bugs were treated as a city-wide health crisis instead of an individual’s personal burden?

People are irrevocably changed by the bugs. I heard about a friend-of-a-friend trying to get rid of his bocce balls out of an irrational fear of their contamination. Another friend describes a string of harrowing dreams featuring massive talking bugs that continued long after living in an infested apartment. Don, for his part, when I asked him about the book he was writing, just joked that he’s going to start from his own suicide and work backwards. He told me he works seven days a week, spending between 100 and 120 hours monthly on the phone with clients. Describing constant calls from panicked customers, he likened it to calling someone 13 times for the same pizza. He talked about wanting to help people, but also about experiencing burnout. He called his job a “weird business” and a “weird world.” As the heat guy, he is an outsider in a chemical world, and laughed when I asked if he had exterminator friends he could commiserate with. Despite the stress, an altruistic streak seems to run deep in the exterminator set. When I texted one exterminator who goes by Debbie Expert, asking for an interview (which unfortunately didn’t take place — Debbie, like every exterminator I spoke to, is very busy), she wrote me, “Yes definitely if this can help the people!”

Once our belongings were triaged and we had grown accustomed to dozing off in our sleeping bags on the softer (slightly rotten) kitchen linoleum than on the hardwood everywhere else in the apartment, we held what you could call a house-warming. We wore our garbage bag suits, and one bottle of chartreuse and a drag on a cigarette later I crawled out of my sleeping bag to vomit all over my partner and innocently snuggle back into my own bag. My Id had spoken.

Do you remember that pundit character in Starship Troopers who suggests the potential for a “live and let live” strategy before being brutally gouged apart by a bug? I certainly do. Starship Troopers was the very first movie we watched in our new place (laptop sitting in a wide rimmed baking dish lest anything crawl out of it). I know, I know, there’s all those co-ed nude shower scenes to wade through before you get to the real meat of the matter, but from then on it’s just an hour and a half of bug death, and it is beautiful.

We splurged on a new bed, from which I sat, painting my nails and watching Road House alone. Months passed and I who the bugs previously adored and fed upon had smooth bite-less skin. It was an eerie feeling and I grew mushily sentimental about Patrick Swayze’s death. Some time after, we were once again invited to dine with friends. Years later when I see a mattress on the street I will cross the road to avoid it, for now I am paranoid, but free.

To those of you who are in the midst of your Time of the Bug, take a deep breath. Call a friend, take a bath and take comfort in knowing your rights.

Head & Hands Legal.

Free legal aid for youth (12-25) with additional legal aid for adults.

The MILE END Legal Clinic as well as the Centre de Justice de Proximité also provide free legal services and consulting.

The Régie de Logement is the main body governing your tenant (lessee) rights. You can find detailed information about your rights and obligations as a lessee, as well as information about filing a hearing in the Régie’s court, should that become necessary.

Good luck! ■

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