Those mysterious secretions, those unsightly brownish streaks on the sheets, evidence that something happened during the night, but what? Blood? But then I can’t make out any cuts on my body that would account for it. Stigmata must be ruled out. This happens every morning for maybe a week. Then the culprits reveal themselves. Bugs, some small, some minute, slow-moving. I’ve heard about bedbugs, read about the panic and anxiety they stir, but that was years ago when stories in the papers made them sound like the coming of the plague.  Incoming college students warned not to scavenge for cast-off furniture for their dorm rooms. Never know whether bedbugs will be lurking in a couch or a desk. People steering clear of movie theaters because of rumors that people have picked them up from seats. No place is safe, even pricey midtown hotel rooms. Guests advised never to put their luggage on the beds. But the idea that I would ever be invaded never occurred to me – roaches yes, a lone mouse, but these were easily dispatched. All the same, I didn’t think that this was a calamitous situation, one that I couldn’t somehow handle on my own. Stories sound hyped up. Couldn’t be as bad as they say. Cross the street. Inspect what’s on hand at RiteAid. Study the labels on bug sprays. I choose a pesticide that comes with a claim that it’s effective on fleas, bedbugs and other assorted vermin. Warning label not terribly alarming. No children to keep it away from. Go back home, spray. Bugs don’t like it, but it’s not as if they’re dropping in their tracks, either.  Dubious about the capacity of the pesticide to put an end to the infestation. Strip bed. Subject sheets teeming with bugs to hot water. Throw out sheets.  Realize that the stains are my blood recycled through the bugs.  My arms erupt in little red bumps, itch. It occurs to me that I’m no match for the bugs. Email management. Are you sure it’s bedbugs? Nancy asks. She’s not someone from whose lips sympathy easily flows, but I doubt that she would be in her position if she was. Sympathy not in the job description. Not sure my bugs are bedbugs, I tell her, I’m no entomologist. But I have my suspicions. What else would they be? An exterminator is dispatched. Takes one look. Yeah, he says, you’ve got bedbugs. Well, thanks for that. He closes the door, fogs the place, then announces that he will have to come back in a week to complete the eradication.  Later I learn that fogging is counterproductive. All it does is cause the bugs to go into hiding.  Why did he go ahead then? He was being paid to do something is my guess.

            What’s that on your shirt? Alicia asks. She’s a friend, often stops by. I look. It’s a bug. I try to make light of it. She’s unconcerned. Bedbugs as menace haven’t impinged on her consciousness. So she continues nap on my bed from time to time. Turns out not to be a good idea under the circumstances. A week or so afterwards, she admits that she’s been bitten, suspects she unwittingly brought some bugs home with her. (No one would wittingly bring home these things.) But she isn’t really upset, which is surprising. Neither is her husband who apparently isn’t too upset, either, and simply bombs the bedroom in the belief that he can solve the problem on his own. Bites or not, Alicia continues to stop by.


            An email from Jeanine who lives directly below me. A therapist in her seventies, she specializes in children. She admits that she also has a bedbug problem. Doesn’t know I already have one.  It’s strangely reassuring to find out that I’m not going through this alone. But she delays in getting in touch with management. Meanwhile, management has chosen another exterminating company – Green Earth. Bedbugs are their thing.  You’ll have to prep for them, management says. I think in terms of removing the mattress, pushing some furniture out of the way.  That’s not what they mean by prep at all. They email me a document called “Preparation Guide for Bed Bug Removal Services.”  Prep, it turns out, means upending your life. Here’s what the guide tells you to do: “Completely empty all clothing and non-clothing closets throughout the entire home. All nightstands, dressers, armoires, under bed storage, chests, etc. Storage chests, bookcases, entertainment centers, china cabinets, etc. Desks, filing cabinets, magazine racks, shelves, curios, coffee/end tables, etc.” And that’s just for a start. Instructions are provided for vacuuming, bagging, disposal, etc. In other words, you’re supposed to do everything you would do (and more) if you were moving out, but you’re not moving anywhere.


            This guide is accompanied by a document entitled “Over 201 Things to Know about Bedbugs.” I didn’t want to know one thing about bedbugs, let alone over 201. 

            This is No. 3:

             Bed bugs can last a long time without feeding. Some references indicate bed bugs can survive about one year without feeding under ideal conditions. Of course we are dealing with live entities and longevity is based upon local conditions. As such, your mileage may vary.

Here’s No. 8:

              We found that adult bed bug “ground speed” on smooth poster board is from about three to four feet per minute. This means that a determined bed bug, if a bed bug can be characterized as “determined”, can cover a significant distance, up to twenty feet in just five minutes, if need be to seek out a host while we’re sleeping.

And No. 21:

              Immature bed bugs maintain their reddish color for as long as they have remnants of their blood meal within their gut. As the blood meal is digested over time they become more and more translucent again.

              What’s required is so daunting that the idea of doing the preparation myself seems impossible. Look around. It’s a New York City apartment. Full of stuff. Hundreds of books. Should have tossed most of them away long ago, but still…Not surprisingly, businesses have sprung up to deal with just such a situation. Call Tiffany at Prep4Bedbugs, advises Chelsea who’s the bafflingly chipper voice of Green Earth. That’s what I do. Set up an appointment. They will bag and crate and vacuum, and treat clothes and papers with heat  using what’s called a tight pack (110 degrees plus is supposed to kill off any bugs). A few days later, Darius and his crew of two arrive. Very friendly and efficient. Provide me with a plastic crate to store important papers and valuables. Everything else will be sealed. This process takes nearly eight hours. Along the way, Darius asks if I want to try to save the mattress. It’s full of blood and bedbug feces. It takes no time at all to decide. He’ll wrap it up, make sure disposal is done safely.  (Even throwing something away that might be contaminated is a procedure.) So I trundle off to the nearest Mattress Firm store on 17th Street. Try lying on several mattresses. Select one that seems comfortable enough so long as I’m not being attacked by bedbugs creeping out of the walls. Set a date a month off for delivery. Turns out I’m too overoptimistic.  Cost of new mattress: $1100. Another $100 for the cover. Cost of prep: $1700. Bedbugs are good for business. They drive commerce.


            Jeanine isn’t pepping. Claims she can’t afford it. She can afford it. She just doesn’t want to pay for it. Ivan in 2RN is furious. He fires off emails to management and various city agencies, pointing out that Jeanine’s inaction is threatening everyone in the building.  Ivan has been in the building for decades, longer than I have. If Ichabod Crane wasn’t already a fictional character Ivan would play him in the movies. He has the looks of a scarecrow on the warpath. His wife, Brittany, is a terror.  There’s a story that she was once a Las Vegas showgirl. Did Ivan find her in Vegas? Not sure. They have a three-year old daughter named Ellie. She’s cute but to hear Maggie, her neighbor, she’s a budding sociopath, accusing her parents of beating her though there’s no reason to believe her. You can hear her screams from two floors up. But in public, everyone dotes on her. Trish makes a big show of indignation. Anything untoward happens in the building, her child’s life is at risk.  Maggie says that Ivan and Brittany don’t believe in getting their girl vaccinated. So I guess it all comes down to what your definition of risk is. 




            This building, one of half a dozen owned by the company on a desirable block in a desirable and increasingly expensive neighborhood, is a converted tenement, dating back to the 1890s. Usually I can’t complain: heat is reliable, hallways are regularly cleaned, plumbing problems dealt with quickly. But there are holes, fissures, cracks, lots of places that a bedbug on the move can exploit to its advantage.  Later, it develops that the company’s building around the corner is also infested. Then there are rumors that the building next door is as well. Does that mean that the infestation occurred simultaneously in three buildings or is it possible that with only brick walls separating them, the bugs have traveled from one to another, settling down whenever it suits them and there are enough bodies around to milk.


            Faced with Jeanine’s resistance and eager to take action, management reluctantly agrees to pay for her prep, but makes it clear that she’s a one-off. When I ask why I haven’t received compensation for what I’ve already laid out, Nancy informs me that the company’s policy is not to pay for anything apart from the extermination itself. So I’ve been penalized for doing what I was asked to. Nonetheless, Jeanine and I are now in regular communication, exchanging bedbug sightings. Jeanine reports finding one in her bathtub and another in the kitchen though Green Earth has stated uncategorically that they don’t treat either kitchens or bathrooms evidently because bedbugs aren’t supposed to inhabit these places. Unlike ants or roaches, they don’t seem interested in food unless it comes from human veins. That is why Stephan the super says that the apartment occupied by Martha Lewis who lives directly across from mine is ‘clean.’ Martha hasn’t been there all summer long – before the infestation began. (While she occasionally phones Ivan or Stephan, she never says where she’s gone or why she’s been away so long and is cagey about when she’ll be back.) No human presence, no bedbugs. That’s the theory anyway. But couldn’t they be hiding out?

              Adults of the common bed bug are reddish to dark brown in color with flattened bodies. They are about the size of an apple seed, ¼” tall. They cannot fly but they can run very quickly. The white eggs are small enough to be hard to see glued in seams and cracks. The newly hatched nymphs look like walking poppy seeds.

               Steps to Stop Bed Bugs in Multi-Unit Housing

              A friend says that he watched a program in which experts on the subject agreed that bedbugs fill no obviously necessary ecological niche nor could they think of any evolutionary purpose they might serve. (They included ticks in this category too.) I’ve read articles in which scientists argue over whether mosquitoes, for all the illness they’re responsible for, should be eradicated because the disappearance of the species might inadvertently have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. But no one I know of has ever made the case that the environment might be inimically altered if bedbugs were wiped off the face of the planet.

            Maggie and Alison move out. Except for the bed, they’re putting everything in storage. Alison is already at their place in Minnesota (where they both grew up and met each other). Maggie has only come back for a few days to supervise the move. She is aghast to discover that her wall cabinets were removed by Ivan without permission. She demands to know what possessed him to take them. Ivan apologizes and says he’ll return them without, however, offering any explanation as to what possessed him to take them to begin with. Maggie says that they’ll be back once the storm has passed.

            A few weeks later, Ivan is packing up. He plans to put as much as he can into storage. He’s not going anywhere, he insists, but he accepts as inevitable the likelihood of an infestation so better safe than sorry. He takes no assurance from a canine inspection that found no bedbugs in his apartment. He assumes that sooner or later, they’ll attack. Don’t get complacent. Keep everything bagged up. It’s like a horror flick. The monster is only temporarily vanquished. It’ll be back sooner or later. Maybe it never left.

            Now I’m surrounded by green plastic crates and transparent contractor bags. What’s where? I have no idea. I’m sleeping on a mattress pad on the floor. I pack away the bedding in a bag every morning. I keep clothes, underwear and socks that I’m going to wear in one bag and my laundry in another. Things are arranged (if that’s the word for it) so that I can get from my desk to the bathroom and the kitchen.  To use the shower I need to move a pile of crates out of the way.


            Bad news: Green Earth won’t treat my apartment for another two weeks – 30 days after the exterminator fogged the bedroom – on the grounds that the earlier pesticide might neutralize the one that they intend to use. They are adamant: 30 days, no exceptions. Even pleas from management are unavailing. This means that the process is likely to extend through much of the summer. Two treatments a week apart will be necessary before I can unpack.


              What are the signs of infestation by bed bugs?

              -Red, welt-like bites that itch usually appearing in lines or clusters

              -Live bed bugs, eggs, molted skins, and dark brown or rusty spots (feces) on the bedding, mattress and box springs beginning at the head of the bed and then outward to include all furniture particularly sofas, carpeting, drapes, picture frames, baseboards, electric outlets and electronic equipment.

              Steps to Stop Bed Bugs in Multi-Unit Housing

              But maybe unpacking won’t ever be possible at least not if I take the long view. Karen, for her part, says that she’s been living out of bags. She has a big welt on her leg and her son Simon also seems to have an allergy to the creatures though her husband and daughter seem to have escaped the worst. They use sleeping bags. Karen is reluctant to enter her bedroom despite the fact that the bedroom takes up nearly half of the apartment. We’re living in a slum, she says, but it’s a price she seems willing to pay so that they can live in the West Village.


            I go off to Spain for a week. When I return, the mess is, if anything, worse than when I left. The residue of the treatment – a white powder that looks like spilled flour and gives off a suspicious, faintly toxic scent – is scattered over the floor with a sprinkling on the furniture. No sense trying to wipe it up since the exterminators are due back in a week to conduct the second treatment. Move into an Air B&B, conveniently located a couple of blocks away. My home away from home costs $1400 for the week while I’m paying rent on an apartment I can’t live in. The day before the next treatment I leave again this time for Edinburgh.


              Bed bugs eat only blood. The common bed bug prefers to feed on humans, but can feed on a wide range of warm-blooded animals including household pets….After feeding, they will not take another blood meal for about 1week. Adults can live more than a year without a blood meal.

               Steps to Stop Bed Bugs in Mult-Unit Housing

            Is the second treatment successful? Hard to know. Green Earth says that you might see bedbugs up to fourteen days after the treatments. The toxins have driven them out of their lair and that’s why you’re seeing more of them. Expect to get bitten, they say. No consolation there. Though they recommend that clients sleep in their own beds, I hold off, postpone mattress delivery yet again. The mess seems worse now. More disruption. If I had any idea in which container or bag things were before, I don’t know now. The containers and bags have been moved, piled up in odd corners. Bottles of water have exploded in the freezer. What were they doing in the freezer? Why would anyone put them there in the first place? I’ve no way of knowing who has been in and out in my absence. You can’t sleep there, my friend Maddie says over the phone as I’m on my way in from JFK. But where can I sleep? I’m unable to secure a nearby Air B&B again.  She tries to carve out some space near my desk where I can sleep on a cot. Or try to sleep anyway.

            What happens is that you begin to see bedbugs in the periphery of your vision. Something suspicious is moving. A bug? Could be. But then you look and there’s nothing there. It’s the visual equivalent of an itching sensation.  You itch, too. You study your skin. Is that a bedbug bite? A mosquito bite? No bite at all? Get up in the morning, study the sheets. What’s that spot? No, it’s not a bug, it’s just fuzz, it’s just a speck, it’s nothing at all.

             A war of words breaks out in the building. Ivan fires off an indignant email to Martha, CCing other tenants, fulminating over her absence and taking a swipe at the other Jeanine in 4FS in the process:


Do you know your apartment is infested with bedbugs and by your absence this landlord will not treat your apartment? Every single day you are not active in rectifying the bedbug proliferation the entire apartment building can not be cleared.

We will get re-infested, every apartment. And this could go on for years. If you simply google you’ll find that I’m not making this up. We are bound to be re-infested for years. There are hundreds of infestations like this all other the city that prove if you don’t treat the building as a unit, and quickly, clearing it often takes years.

By doing nothing you are affecting the health and wellbeing of all of us. Ellie just turned 3 years old. If you want to bestow blessings on my family as you did in your email, please do your civic, active duty as a forwarding, caring participant in our small but vital eco-system and make this landlord get into your apartment. 

Jeanine Silverberg was living with bedbugs for an extended length of time, the exterminator said. 

I reserve the right to learn what my neighbors are doing when their neglect can harm my family. She is an example of this:

Her apartment was badly infested. She was being bitten for a lengthy time, and she did nothing to reach out. When she finally did, the infestation was verified. Management told her to prep the apartment.  They are mandated to do that, and not mandated to pay for the prep. 

She refused and told them they have to pay for and conduct the prep for the infestation treatment themselves. This is not unlawful, but it’s unconscionable and unethical. By her unwillingness to take responsibility by acting immediately, the bugs spread even quicker. 

Because of the severity of infestation in her apt, and the heat treatment management paid for in Leslie Horvitz’s apt where the infestation began, her reluctance to prep affected the standard of living and safety of every tenant in this building by allowing the bugs to spread quicker. Jeanine told management that she would hold out for a year until they agreed to prep. Management in fact did become culpable because they are mandated to eradicate the infestation, but her deliberate stand cost the rest of us more time, more money, more frustration, lack of sleep and pain, and the bugs are still here.

It’s true the exterminator told me Leslie’s apartment may have been infested for up to a year, but he acted swiftly and cooperated by taking responsibility for his own prep when the infestation was confirmed.

Every tenant who I know who’s in harm’s way is acting as soon as they can to allow access, and take on the responsibility of prepping their apartment except Silverberg. 

              Where the exterminator got the idea that my apartment was possibly infested for up to a year is a mystery since I never saw a single bedbug until late in June. Hard to imagine that they were hiding out the whole time, waiting to pounce, though I can’t rule it out. And again, if the theory holds any water, Martha’s place was unaffected because she wasn’t there, and in any case Stephan the super insists that a canine inspection by Green Earth has turned up no evidence of bedbugs so why all the fuss? 

              In any case, the plea has no effect. Martha has no intention of coming back any time soon, and why should she if she has no reason to think she has any bedbugs to begin with? Of course, Jeanine is pissed off by Ivan’s accusation that she’s the one to blame for the spread of the bedbugs (from which Ivan has so far been spared). 

            She fires off a response by email:

            I'm happy to say that the worrisome bedbug situation has been addressed and this is not the time to blame anyone since obviously no one intentionally created this infestation. I also want to make it clear that I did not delay in notifying TEI and did so as soon as soon as I identified the cause of my bites. It is irrelevant how I arranged for preparation or whether or not I paid for it; all that matters is that the prep was done in a timely manner and that there was no unnecessary delay in making sure it was done. 

            This is beginning to seem like a plague – like AIDS or Ebola – where people panic and look for others to scapegoat for its spread – gays, Haitians, Africans – and then stigmatize them.

            Stephan isn’t worried. He projects an air of studious nonchalance.  Yes, it’s true, the building around the corner where he lives has suffered an infestation in recent weeks. His own apartment has been invaded three times in the years he’s lived there. But he seems to have acclimated to them the way other people get used to a leaky faucet or a car alarm. They don’t bite him, he says. The bugs we have to worry about are inside us, he says, meaning viruses and pathogenic bacteria.

            Rose, Jeanine’s housekeeper, refuses to do more than a cursory cleaning in my apartment until she has room to move. I call Tiffany at Prep4Bedbugs. It’s OK to come and unpack everything, I say, thinking that the threat has passed. Darius returns with his crew – a different man and woman – and they proceed to put things back in closets and back on shelves, relying on code numbers on the green crates which indicate where their contents are supposed to go. That done., I call up Rose and ask her to do a thorough cleaning. She has a keen eye. She spots bedbugs – the adult engorged ones and the smaller transparent ones and even the tiny bedbug eggs. You’ve got to pop their shells, she says with sinister glee. She finds some buried in the pillowcases and another on a stack of towels in the kitchen. She tells Jeanine. Jeanine calls management. They authorize another canine inspection.

            The exterminator arrives holding a cage with a small black beagle. Before he lets the dog out, he scans the doorway connecting the kitchen to the living room. Uses a flashlight. Look, do you see? He sounds like Torquemada. I look. There are two small bugs crawling up the lintel. My heart sinks. Now it’s the beagle’s turn. It pauses in front of the bed, sniffs. More bad news. Torquemada takes a look at the sheets. How long have you had these sheets? Seeing the brownish stains, he shakes his head. You have a big problem, he says.

            Chelsea calls an hour later. You’ll need another treatment, she says. This will entail another prep. I protest. Just put everything back on the assumption that I was in the clear.  I’ll pass your concerns on to management, she says. She’s like a parent at the end of her patience, trying to placate a child throwing a tantrum. This is clearly a woman used to dealing with irate customers. I hear from management a little later. The treatment is mandatory.  And no, just treating the bedroom won’t work, the whole apartment has to be stripped bare. Same with Jeanine. Her apartment, too, has tested positive.

            The prospect of going through the prep all over again – and paying another $2300 – calls for some kind of action, stalling tactics at the very least. Our stance meets with a stern rebuke from management:


Hi Leslie - 
I left you a voicemail in reference to the bedbug situation - I am not in the office today - please be advised that after conversations with Green Earth, in order to properly treat your apartment for bed bugs, a full treatment is required, which means that you will need to properly prep. As landlords we are responsible to ensure that this treatment is done. We do not introduce these bugs but are required to properly treat when there are issues. You as the tenant are responsible for the prep. I understand it is an inconvenience but must be done to protect the property and all residents. Failure to do so will leave us no alternative but to seek legal action. The situation not only affects you but affects your neighbors. We rely on the experts on how to address the matter and they have advised that full treatment which will be through their warranty service is necessary. If it is prolonged and not done within the warranty period we will seek reimbursement for the treatment as well. These are bugs which move, spread and multiply. Your proposed plan will not suffice. Please respond to this email as soon as possible


            Legal action. Words that can put dread into the heart of rent-regulated tenants. We – that is, Jeanine and I – propose an alternative. We continue to maintain that we have a handle on the situation, any surviving bedbugs we sight are on the run and not long for this earth. At least that’s our hope. Jeanine points out that the bedbugs early in the infestation were healthy and swollen with blood – our blood. The ones we’ve spotted more recently are smaller, more translucent, not very quick on the draw. Basically, they’re bedbugs that have seen better days. What if we undertake some remedial action ourselves and then have another inspection? Management is agreeable so long as we pay the $300 ($25 off for a twofer on the same day) that it costs for a technician to come with a dog and circulate through our apartments, a surveillance that takes ten minutes if that. We say yes, believing – mistakenly as it turns out – that we’ve put an end to any legal action.

            Diatomaceous earth – that’s the ticket. It’s a grayish clay that comes in powdery form that is supposed to be lethal to bedbugs, fatally piercing their shells as soon as they come in contact with it. Also, Isopropyl alcohol (91%), which repels the bugs even if it doesn’t kill them outright.

              To spread diatomaceous earth, a powder duster is recommended -- it spews out a little at a time. Don’t want to breathe in this stuff since it might do to your alveoli what it does to bedbugs. In addition to the alcohol, saucer-like dishes placed underneath bedposts can help. They’re called Climbup insect interceptors, the idea being that bedbugs don’t like slick, slippery surfaces and will be thwarted in their attempt to climb up to the bed although the instructions warn that the interceptors will be of no help if no human or pet is in the bed. No human, no pet, no blood meal, so what’s the point?

            My friend Maddie (who’s usually good in emergencies, less so when it involves the quotidian) volunteers to spread the diatomaceous earth. When she arrives, she’s wearing a mask, a white hazmat suit and booties. She packs some of the clay in any cracks where she can see where bedbugs can infiltrate, then seals them up with tape.

            Vivian in 5RN returns after the summer with her 10-year-old son. She’s been staying with a friend and her son has been living with her ex-husband for the last couple of months. According to Maggie, Vivian videotaped some bedbugs crawl out of wall sockets in her place and then emailed the clips to management when they told her that she had nothing to worry about. She says that she intends to move out in November after her lease is up. Doesn’t like the way management has dealt with the whole situation and who can blame her?

            Then a surprise! Management decides to carry out a canine inspection of all apartments except those that have been treated in the last 30 days. So at least we’re spared the expense. A flier is slipped under every door with instructions about how to prepare:

            “All areas to be inspected including furnishings/floors/baseboards must be free of dust and pet hairs. Please clean surfaces with warm water or vacuum only. Do not use any cleaning agents for at least (24) hours prior to your inspection as their odor of the bed bugs/bed bug eggs and affect the canine’s ability to detect them.”

            This means that we must wipe up the diatomaceous earth. Simple enough. I feel like I’m cramming for a final exam.  Fail and face the prospect of another season in chaos. My immediate future depends on the judgment of a beagle.

            On the day of the inspection I ask Stephan to let in the inspector since I won’t be home until 10.  Have breakfast.  Try to keep my apprehensions at bay. Come back. Karen is coming down the stairs as I’m coming up. They just did mine, she says, I think they’re in your apartment now. Then I run into Stephan. He nods. Inspection is over. He indicates that the results are favorable.

            Later in the day Nancy emails tenants:

          Unless you hear back directly from Management, your unit has tested negative for bed bugs.  There are still some units that will need to be tested which were inconclusive for various reasons (if items were bagged up etc.) but results were overwhelmingly negative which is good news.   We will reach out directly to those units.     If you have any questions, please contact the office directly.


               No one contacts me. Feel I’m out of the woods.

              A few days later at Starbuck’s: Max who lives on the first floor, who traded in a promising legal career for unemployment, comes up to me. He’s anxious. So far, his apartment has been spared.  Although Green Earth has carried out three inspections without finding anything, Charlie isn’t reassured. He has so much stuff, lots and lots of books. The possibility that he might have to prep for a treatment scares the hell out of him. Plus he has no money. Which I suppose is actually a minus.


            Mention bedbugs and people are sure to have a story of their own. Maybe they’ve never been harassed by the creatures, but they know someone who has. Korzen tells me of a friend who was so frustrated – and frightened – by an infestation that he simply abandoned his apartment and moved. Someone else he knew flew all the way from Poland in his underwear for fear of transporting bed bugs in his clothes. These stories offer little hope that I can succeed in fully eradicating the infestation. The best outcome is more likely to be a temporary cessation of hostilities, the establishment of a DMZ. One has to fight against the temptation to anthropomorphize bedbugs, to take one aside and ask it: What is it you want? The answer is quite obvious: it wants my blood.

            Ivan S in 2FS – as opposed to Ivan in 2RN – has long had an infestation problem but with cockroaches and mice, not with bedbugs. He’s a grizzled teacher with respiratory problems that occasionally put him in the hospital. When two technicians arrived to treat his apartment – a preventative measure since there was no evidence of infestation – he tried to block them, saying that he hadn’t time to prepare for them and was afraid of the toxic dust which might affect his health, but they barged in nonetheless, all but forcing him to leave his apartment. Weeks later, he’s still living elsewhere – first on the Upper West Side, now in Queens – still complaining about the smell. He isn’t sure that the treatment will help, either.

            Maggie and Alison still haven’t come back. Maybe they never will. Before the infestation, they’d been talking about moving – maybe to Montana. The infestation (even though they never experienced it) might have given them the push they needed to do it. And there’s still no sign of Martha even though she’d emailed Ivan to say she’d be back in mid-October.

            Other tenants who’d been hunkering down, hoping for the best, discover that their apartments aren’t immune, either.

            From an email forwarded by Jeanine:

            Hi Neighbors,

I am sorry to say that after asking for a new canine inspection, bed bugs have been confirmed to be present in my apartment too (3RN). Green Earth will come out Monday to treat my apartment, but since I haven’t had any bed bugs at previous inspections, I fear that the treatments are getting the bugs to migrate round the building. Therefor I think it would be a good idea for all apartments to have new inspections over the next two weeks, so I appeal that you write management and request a new inspection. 
I can’t get management to tell me whether they have an overall strategy for the building or if they are just doing symptom treatment, so I thought it would be beneficial to have joint thread here, so that we can keep each other updated and share experience and advice. 
Also, does anyone know if the carpets in the hallways have been treated?

Hope we can all soon get rid of this.


           An overall strategy would be welcome. Any strategy would be helpful. Maybe management has one; they’re just no telling us what it is. And to answer Tomas’ question: No, the carpets were never treated.

            Now that her house has become infested and she’s discovered bedbugs in the couch in the living room where she usually sleeps, Alicia is belatedly alerted to the threat they present. She’s told her husband that she picked them up when she was visiting her friend Paula’s in South Carolina a couple of months ago. Her husband is under the impression that she was staying in a hotel when in fact she was staying at Paula’s house – one lie nestled in another. She ultimately prevailed on her husband to hire an exterminator. They didn’t require any prep and told them that only one treatment was required. Even so, she says that her life will never be the same; she will always be looking out for bedbugs. She’s even thinking of cancelling a party she’s been planning because she doesn’t want her guests to go home with bedbugs. Her heightened sense of alarm is in marked contrast to her complacent attitude throughout the summer when she expressed no fear of or even much interest in bedbugs while my apartment was rife with them. Only now – when the bedbugs seem to have been vanquished – does she leave her coat outside the door, a precaution that might have served her well two months ago.

            The threat from the bedbugs may have abated, but management seems determined to pursue both Jeanine and myself regardless. A legal notice arrives in the mail from Thomas S. Fleishell & Associates: TEN DAY NOTICE TO CURE DEFAULT OF RENT-STABILIZED LEASE.

            And what is the default we must cure? What “violations of substantial obligations of your tenancy…”?

            Specifically, we are in violation of Article 9 of our lease because we have not taken “good care of the demised premises and are permitting damage to other apartments and common areas of the building by allowing a bed bug infestation to persist and not taking proper action or following the protocol recommended by the bed bug treatment company hired by the landlord to help mitigate or abate the infestation.”

            The complaint then goes on to allege that we were advised that a treatment would take place on August 11th. (There is no mention, however, that the treatment was undertaken.)

            “On September 11, 2017, a canine inspection revealed the presence of bed bugs and/or visible bed bug eggs in the bedroom on the foot of the bed.” (No mention that the technician discovered two small bugs crawling on the lintel of the door separating the office space from the kitchen which would have given added weight to their allegations.)

            “On or about September 11, 2017 you advised a representative of Green Earth that you would not permit a third treatment and refused to schedule with Green Earth for that purpose.” (No mention of the exchange we had with management in which we agreed to hire Green Earth to conduct an inspection at our own expense.)

            Having laid out the allegations, the notice (which helpfully includes a copy of the Green Earth guide for preparing the apartment as EXHIBIT A) goes on to assert “that bed bug infestation in your apartment constitutes a health hazard, has disturbed the comfort and quiet enjoyment of the other tenants of the building and threatens their life, health and safety. This conduct on your part exposes the landlord to civil and/or criminal liability and another tenant or tenants have demanded they be released from their lease obligations.” (“Quiet enjoyment” is a nice phrase; presumably, it doesn’t count when tenants host parties and are indulging in ‘noisy enjoyment.’ And since bedbugs aren’t known to harbor or spread any disease it’s hard to know how they could threaten anyone’s life, let alone their health or safety although a good case could be made that they can disturb a person’s sleep and peace of mind.)

            What this notice fails to note is that when the infestation was at its peak early in the summer, management neglected to notify all tenants of the problem (though most tenants knew about it by that time) and more to the point, that the default we’re supposed to cure is already ‘cured’ since the apartments have all been retested and found free of bedbugs. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to respond within ten days – by Oct. 27th – and failure to cure what has already been cured will prompt the landlord to terminate our tenancy. Appended to this notice is an authorization signed by Tony Vaughan, managing agent for the company. We – that is, Jeanine and I – have a feeling that they’re covering their asses so if any tenants sue them for negligence and compensation, they can make us the scapegoats.

            Karen is outraged to hear about the notice. She says the landlord has behaved reprehensibly.  She and her husband and their kids are still using sleeping bags and have yet to unpack after their treatments for fear that the infestation hasn’t really been gotten under control. I don’t believe anything they tell us, she says of management.

            I talk to a lawyer whom I’d previously consulted about suing for compensation (he believes that there were legitimate grounds to bring a suit). After reading a copy of the notice, he agrees to defend me and sends me a retainer agreement -- $2500 upfront.

            A few days later, Jeanine and I convene in her apartment. She reads me a list of points she wants to raise with Morgan, the main one being: Is this about bedbugs or are bedbugs a pretext to evict us? We get hold of Tony Vaughan. He sounds confused. He doesn’t seem to recall the notice he signed. Probably signs many legal notices for dozens of apartments on any given day. He needs to get Nancy on the phone. She’ll be in a better position to answer our questions, he says. Nancy is surprisingly friendly or as friendly as she probably ever gets. No, no, she assures us, this notice was just an attempt to make sure that we’re free of bedbugs. Nothing to do with trying to evict us. (How could we think such a thing? She doesn’t say this, but that’s the implication.) We remind her that our apartments have tested negative. Nancy says that she thought that our tests were inconclusive. I point out that in her email letting us know about the results of the canine test mentioned that she would contact anyone who needed to be tested again, but that was two weeks previously, and neither of us were contacted. I’ll have to consult with Green Earth, she says, promising to call us back.

            Two days later, Nancy emails us:



Please be advised that the recent letter that you received in reference to complying with treatment is retracted. You do not need to do anything further at this time except comply with one more inspection – date tbd.   This is due to the last inspection(s) which resulted in a negative result in your apartment, which is most likely the result of the in wall treatments building wide and recent aggressive unit treatments.   The normal timeframe to still see activity etc. is two weeks after the last treatment.  As there were issues in your apartments after that period, and positive canine results, we were requiring proper treatment with prep of the unit.   The letter was the result of not agreeing to properly prep when the unit was positive.  We would require that any unit that does have an issue and tests positive receive treatment.   Your units were under warranty.  Should there be any further problems with bed bugs, you would be required to properly prep so that we may treat.  If you see any signs, it is imperative that you call the office right away.  Please do not try to self-treat or wait to call the office.    We will have one last inspection in the upcoming weeks to make sure the problem has been eradicated.  You must provide access for that inspection. 


That’s not to say the problem cannot return as unfortunately bed bugs are more the norm in NYC in recent years and they can be brought in anywhere at any time.  Again, please let us know if there are any issues so we can promptly treat.


            As of the beginning of November, the date TBD is still to be determined.







Note: I’ve changed the names of the individuals mentioned in this account with the exception of Chelsea of Green Earth and Tiffany of Prep4bedbugs. With some editing to disguise their identities and the landlord, the emails I’ve quoted contain the original text.             


AuthorLeslie Horvitz

The army ants died in the Natural History  Museum last week before I had an opportunity to see them. This has happened before. For whatever reason, each time the army ants are introduced into the museum they seem to succumb to a mysterious plague that carries them off within twenty-four hours. Entomologists are at a loss to explain this phenomenon, but they remain hopeful that at least one generation of these ants will endure long enough for a public display. Army ants have an undeservedly bad reputation; contrary to popular belief they are not rapacious but are rather highly discriminatory in their choice of food, their diet consisting primarily of other insects. I would never have gone to the museum if it weren't for the prospect of seeing the ants. I hadn't been there for years.   This is what I recall from an excursion made there long ago: a picture, hazy indeed, of a youngster (who must be me ) roaming about dark claustrophobic halls, a transistor radio held up to his ear. This transistor conveyed a recorded narrative meant to alert the attentive listener to the importance of what he was seeing. However, I remember never being able to match up what was on the tape to what was in front of me.  There I was gaping up at the hulking remains of some antediluvian creature while all the time an insistent tinny voice continued to discuss Navajo basket weaving. I looked about me helplessly -- not a Navajo basket in sight. The recollection of such needless confusion, and even worse, of unrelieved boredom had kept me away all these years.I went to the museum with a friend of mine, an acquaintance, a young woman strangely excited by the idea of seeing a colony of army ants; as she was so expectant she was that much more disappointed to learn of their collective demise.

I met this young woman in a bar located a block from where I live. Hundreds of unread books like the shelves above the bar. People used to tell me that the movers and intellectuals of the Upper West Side always gathered here. While once I thought this was possible I no longer believe it. Most of the clientele exude a kind of melancholia.   They look vastly depleted, their lives seem to hover on the edge of boredom.  It is far more difficult for them to keep alive than they might have imagined.   Some are teachers and bankers, others are computer programmers, junior executives or secretaries.  Some are plain out of work.

Army ants are welcomed by villagers in Ecuador, anthropologists have discovered. The villagers simply leave their houses for a few days, abandoning them to the columns of army ants which proceed to devour all the insects they can find in their path.  An interesting and economical form of pest control. 

The women come in groups to this bar but the men are more often alone. On Friday evenings they all stand together packed between the bar and the oak- en partition that conceals the dining area. Intimacy is forced on everyone be- cause of the lack of space; embarrassment must give way to something like un­easy chatter and eventually to the exchange of vital statistics. If a conver­sation goes well for maybe ten or fifteen minutes the man will feel free to ask the woman for her telephone number. Generally shy, I am wary of going up to somebody and introducing myself. Nonetheless, if I notice a girl alone staring at me with curious intensity I feel practically obliged to strike up a conversation. It was in this way that I met my sometime friend. Attractive without being especially desirable, she had fashionably long hair (dark) and a sensibly proportioned body. A certain hardness both of spirit and expression was evident, particularly in her calculated gaze. She was the sort of young woman that I was accustomed to seeing on the Upper West Side; for some reason you didn't find them so very often cross town. We talked in a desultory fashion without the formality of trading either names or aspirations. From the outset she was honest about what she was doing in this bar.   She said she was waiting for the man she loved (her head kept turning, her neck craning dramatically, as she scrutinized the patrons who entered ). She did not believe he was going to show up. He was a bartender at a nearby tavern, she said. Tonight he was off. Still she did not think he would come for her. She excused herself now and then to go to the phone booth and try calling him. Her coins kept coming back. 

Hundreds of thousands of these army ants, always the female ones, spread out in search of food.    They may cover as much as a hundred yards a day in their travels.  Scouts similarly reconnoiter in all directions; as soon as they manage to locate their prey they hasten back to their col­umn to inform the others of their discovery. 

Finally broaching the subject, she asked me what I did."I work for a business magazine putting together news releases, preparing extracts from stockholder reports." "Is it interesting work?"   "No• ..Now tell me what you do ." She refused, saying that she was too embarrassed.  That wasn't surprising. Everyone in this place suffered from embarrassment. It was the atmosphere, I suppose. "Oh, come on. You can tell me," I urged, really curious by now. Sighing, she relented. She told me she worked in an information booth in the middle of Grand Central Station, directing the bewildered and the lost to their proper destinations."What's so wrong with that?"'She didn't reply but looked at me as if I should know. Naturally she had no intention of doing this sort of work for the rest of her life.   She hoped to become an actress, a painter, a sculptor, a writer, I forget which, but she was taking classes: The New School, City College, The School for Visual Arts, NYU.   One of those , maybe all of them.  She was taking dancing lessons too -- ballet and belly dancing.     She promised that she would do a belly dance for me.   She said she possessed an enviable collection of anklets, bracelets and hand clicks which were meant to clink in unison as she writhed about, but she hadn't gotten it so they would.  One day, she said, she would have everything coordinated.

As soon as the ants have found their prey they begin marking out a path back to the column; what they do is to discharge a certain chemical from their abdomens along the way. 

She thought she was too short though actually she was average in height. When she was still a teenager she barely measured five feet, she said, but once she'd entered college she gained another four and a half inches, a spurt as dramatic as it was unexpected. But she had never adjusted to the idea that she was no longer short and so she continued to rely on ugly, gaudy platform shoes to keep her aloft.   Sometimes she stood as tall as me with them on. Inevitably she gave me her name.   It was Andrea. That was all -- just Andrea. One night shortly after our initial meeting I happened to mention the arrival of the army ants at the Natural History Museum. "I'd like to go," she said. "I'm free on Sunday. We can go then if you want." I was pleasantly surprised; I had just been making conversation, I never considered inviting her to see them with me. But as I said once we arrived there, Andrea' s counterpart in the museum's information booth, a pale college grad, told us that the army ants had died earlier in the week. We walked through the museum anyway, but neither of us were very interested in what we were seeing.   Besides we went through the rooms at such a remarkable clip that the only thing I remember is a blur of impres­sions -- Olmec heads and millions of dinosaur bones, African chants (taped ) and stuffed Kenyan elephants, samples of quartz and dead carrier pigeons poised forever in mid-flight.   It wasn't so different from my first trip to the museum except that now I had a companion.  

Returning from the prey, the scout begins running up and down the column, touching the other ants with her antennae and her body. This form of communication is surprisingly effective, perhaps more so than any system man could ever devise, and it is almost instantaneous in  eliciting a response.



Afterwards we returned to the bar -- it was always the same one of course -- and ordered cocktails. She refused to accompany me to dinner. She didn't say as much but I guessed that she was afraid that her mysterious friend might come in her absence.  She didn't want to take any chances. In fact, he did show up. "He's here," she whispered. I strained to see but I could not distinguish the man she was pointing out from among the others  clustered down at the other end of the bar."Why don 't you go over and talk to him?" I asked. "He's with somebody else. That girl there. The redhead. "

While I was still unsure of which one he was, I did spot a redhead, a striking woman whose presence obviously animated the men about her. So we sat together, Andrea and I, as she continued her unhappy vigil. To her right, a man was trying to pick her up; he did not seem aware of me. He was balding fast, his stomach bulged hideously, his wide blue tie -- on which a single peacock strutted -- flapped listlessly as he moved, and he moved with big expansive gestures. A smile came on to his face and never left. Good dental work. He said he was a famous illustrator though he neglected to say of what. He drew an incomprehensible sketch on a moist napkin for An­drea whose expression of confirmed boredom changed slowly to one of resig­nation and then to some scant interest. "You want to go somewhere else?" he asked, convinced already that she would say yes. She did not reject his proposition as I had suspected. She turned coy instead. "Where? What do you have in mind?""Oh, I figured • ••My place." "Well, I'd prefer to go someplace where there are lots of people." "Hmm. Well, I tell you I often have lots of people coming to my apartment. Like Grand Central Station sometimes. "She winced but let it go. She fell silent. "Well, whaddya say?"

"I don 't think so." He and I both detected the uncertainty in her voice but he wasn't discouraged.   "Look," he said, "it doesn't have to be my apartment. There's a nice club near here. It's quiet and cozy. We could go there, listen to some jazz, have a drink. Talk." More amenable to this suggestion, she agreed. "OK, I don't want to take too long though." She made it  sound like an unpleasant but necessary business appointment. But he didn't seem to mind.Andrea bade me good night and went off with her illustrator, making a great show of it. She stopped before she got to the door and had her new friend light her cigarette.   I assumed that she wanted to impress her estranged boyfriend at the other end of the bar but I doubt that he noticed cared if he did. I wasn't sure. I still didn't know which one he was.

Thirty seconds is all it takes before the ants react. They are im­mediately diverted from the column to begin following the scented trail that will guide them to their sustenance. In the first minute up to one hundred ants are conscripted in this enterprise. Then if these ants locate the prey of their own, they, too, return to the column and recruit followers.I remained at the bar, sleepless and inert.

Within twenty minutes or so Andrea returned to the bar. She was by herself. "He was an ass," she declared and sat down . I didn't press her for details, I didn't want to know.She resumed her staring. She concentrated as much on the redhead as on any man in her company. "I know that girl he's with," she said bitterly. "She's no great shakes. I've met her, I've talked to her. She hasn't got anything really."I was not about to dispute her. Still I suggested that it was doing her no good sitting there glaring. But she had heard this all before and paid me no attention .I couldn't stand it any longer . If she wasn't staring then she brooded. She remembered me only when she needed somebody to light her cigarettes. I finally got tired of her and left.    She gave me a fragile, helpless smile.  What can I do? she seemed to be saying. What can I do?

Army ants rely on numbers to overwhelm their prey. They only measure one third of an inch; the insects they consume are very often much larger, a wasp for instance. Without such an efficient method of procuring food, entomologists say, the army ants would starve.

I sometimes check the information booths in Grand Central to see if I can find Andrea.   She is never there. I just ask for Andrea because I never learned her last name.  But nobody seems to know her.  "Personnel changes rapidly here," I'm told. 

Sometimes I go back to the bar and at hours when I used to be sure of finding her . But she isn't there either . The bar­tender says he knows her. "The blonde, I remember," he tells me. "That's a different Andrea from the one I'm looking for," I say and then drink my beer in silence.I would like to find her, though, because I understand that a whole new contingent of army ants is to go on exhibit in the Natural History Museum very shortly and I think she will be interested. Maybe this time they'll remain alive long enough to be seen by the public , It would cheer her up a little, I think, for Andrea to have something else to look at other than her old boyfriend. But I can't say that my search for her is particularly intensive; I can't bring myself to try very hard.  There are too many other girls like Andrea, more easily found, who sit in darkened bars waiting for some mysterious man to snatch them up.  Still, I suspect none of them will take to the idea of army ants the way that Andrea did.





AuthorLeslie Horvitz

New York celebrates beauty and vigor; beauty salons, cosmeticians and health clubs (not to mention plastic surgeons) do a thriving business by playing on the fear of growing old. Baby boomers are in the vanguard, determined to beat back the encroachments of time by any means possible, regardless of expense. In New York it can be difficult to grow old gracefully. It becomes even more difficult if you lack resources, family or close friends. Yes, there are social services available and Meals-on-Wheels which provides food to the homebound. But for tens of thousands of aged people in New York survival is contingent on rent regulations. Because many of them are living in the same apartment that they’ve occupied for many years their rents are virtually frozen at rates that prevailed decades before. Once they die – and apart from retirement in Florida that’s the only way they’re likely to leave – their apartments will revert to market rents. Needless to say, many landlords eagerly await that eventuality, a situation that may call to mind the macabre image of vultures waiting to pounce. What strikes such terror in the young is seeing their future in the faces of the old. It is one thing to endure the vicissitudes of the city when you’re in your twenties or thirties, it’s quite another to do so when you’re in your seventies, confronting mortality alone in the same one-bedroom apartment you’ve lived in for years.

            No one wants to grow old alone, of course, but inevitably it happens. Illness steals away a spouse or partner; a grown child moves away and rarely calls. Friends die or leave for warmer climes.

            But like most New Yorkers who manage to stick it out in the city for many years, the aged who live here are a tough breed, their steely resolve often belying the frailty of their bodies. Of course, that resolve can also come across as sheer stubbornness. And because the city doesn’t allow the luxury of segregation the generations are frequently thrown together.

            Several years ago I moved into an apartment on West 20th Street in Chelsea, at a time before the district was considered chic or desirable. The newly renovated apartment offered enough space for my needs but it also offered a dispiriting view of an ugly courtyard hidden from the sun by surrounding buildings. As a result it was necessary to keep the lights on throughout the day.

            There were only two apartments on each floor. I met my neighbor as I was moving in. A thin, shrunken woman who looked to be in her seventies opened the door of 3F and called out a cheerful greeting. I must come over for a drink as soon as I was finished moving in, she said. Her name was Shirley Sanko.

Her invitation to join her for a drink after I’d moved in was only the first of many. She drank scotch but felt guilty enough about her habit to keep the booze hidden. (Hidden from whom it was hard to say since she seldom had visitors.) But if she could coax me to join her she would happily bring it out. It wasn't my company she sought so much as it was a pretext to have a drink herself.

It was obvious that she was eager for company. Because of a debilitating stroke that had left her with a pronounced limp she stayed put in her apartment, leaving only when she had a doctor’s appointment. Her husband, Leo, a painter, had died six years before. She’d never gotten over his loss. He’d keeled over of a heart attack one winter day. She blamed his death on the landlord because he’d failed to provide enough heat. They’d had no children. She occupied herself watching television. Mrs. Sanko had no books, there weren’t even any magazines. The only reading material in evidence was a copy of TV Guide.

A home attendant contracted by the city would come around in the mornings to help out. These home attendants never stayed long because Mrs. Sanko was constantly accusing them of taking her money or of being so stupid that they couldn't even find a simple item like an ice cream pop at the A&P. She suffered from a bad ulcer as well as residual complications from the stroke which accounted for her obsession with ice cream pops. She had little appetite and when she did eat she preferred pizza, roast beef sandwiches or ribs from the Chinese takeout place on 21st Street. She barely touched the wholesome dishes Meals on Wheels brought her. She didn’t care that pizza and ribs might be detrimental to her health.

Sometimes you were her 'pal' or her best friend. Sometimes, if you hadn't been attentive enough – because you’d failed to call her every day, for instance -- you were 'one of them.' "I won't call you anymore, I don't want to bother you," she'd say, making no effort to conceal her irritation. Then the next morning she’d call as if nothing had happened. She smoked fiendishly in defiance of her doctor’s advice, ordering a couple of packs of Kent 100's at a time. "I'm a smoker!" she would declare. She would also say, almost boasting, "I'm a cripple!" That was what she’d shout down to a caller on the street who refused to walk up the two flights to see her.

Mrs. Sanko was incredibly suspicious. She kept her door bolted and double-locked. She was often on the phone to her state assemblyman to complain about noise. She routinely harassed the managing agent Melinda, complaining of problems in the apartment for which she was paying seventy dollars a month. (But this was an old tenement and her bathroom was located in the corridor.) The lock on her window didn't work; there was a leak in the ceiling from upstairs; there were bugs; there was a smell of gas. For months she fought to have a buzzer installed. When it finally was put in, she insisted that it didn't work and rather than use it she continued to shout downstairs to find out the identity of her visitor.

She had to call on the police to expel a home attendant she didn't like. (Why the attendant didn't leave on her own is something she never explained.) She'd smell something burning and became convinced that the building was on fire. Strange people would knock on her door or present an unnamed threat. The fire escape was falling in, the building itself was crumbling. (There was some truth to this, too.) Often things happened at times when no one else was around to witness them.

She didn’t have many friends. For the few friends she did have she was an endless source of frustration. They were unable to convince her to get out more. "People want to fix me up with men,” she’d say derisively. There was a local social club where she could meet others her age, especially of the opposite sex. She was having none of it. “I'm afraid of AIDS,” she’d say. “Anyway I had my man and he's gone."

Often she'd station herself by the window and watch people go by on the street. If she spied me trying to slip out the front door she'd call out, "What happened to you?" Then she’d ask me to get her some pizza or cigarettes. "I'm the mayor of 20th Street," she would say. Famous people -- Mayor LaGuardia, various actors and actresses -- used to stop by. Nowadays things were changing too rapidly. People were moving in and out of the building and she had no idea who they were. She lived in constant fear. The fear was not always unwarranted. Once she let two men in who claimed that the managing agent had sent them to install new windows. One man kept talking to her in the kitchen while his companion pretended to be measuring the windows. When they left she found that two hundred dollars was missing from a drawer. She was suspicious of everybody but the people she should have been. She said she wanted to move. She said she might like to go into a nursing home. She would call and plead for people to keep in touch. Everybody she knew -- relatives, friends, acquaintances -- suffered bad luck. They all seemed to have lost something: their leg, their memory, their life. Disaster always seemed to strike her. She'd adopted the persona of the old, helpless, dependent woman. Her life had stopped with Leo’s death.

One day very early in December, the latest home attendant was unable to gain entry to Mrs. Sanko's apartment. Evidently she waited a day before notifying the managing agent. Melinda summoned the police at ten the following morning. Two youthful-looking officers from the 13th Precinct a block away responded: one with a red moustache named Cooper and the other a pretty, dark-haired Italian named Diane. Unable to elicit any response and finding the door locked, they went out on the fire escape and broke in, kicking in one pane. They found Mrs. Sanko dead on the floor of the bedroom, dressed in pajamas and a red robe. She seemed to have been trying to grasp hold of the bed to pull herself up when her heart gave out. Someone from EMS was summoned to confirm the death, a formality. Two detectives appeared. They took in the scene but saw nothing that would cause them to think that the death was due to anything other than natural causes, and quickly left. Then two representatives of the Medical Examiner's Office came by. The one who seemed to be in charge was a diminutive Chinese man who spoke with heavily accented English and asked if she'd been taking any medication. No one knew. Cooper and Diane began to search for names and numbers of relatives. They’d been informed that Mrs. Sanko had two nephews in Brooklyn. Address books were found, with lots of names in both, but there was no telling who these people were or what relationship they might have had with the deceased. A wagon -- as the M.E. mortuary vans are called -- was ordered.


After a while a sergeant appeared. He asked me to act as a witness while Cooper and Diane searched the apartment for valuables, credit cards, bank books, stock certificates and cash, which would be vouchered and turned over to the precinct house. "This is the worst part of our job," Cooper said, referring to the distasteful task of rummaging through a person's past.

Mrs. Sanko kept a lot of papers. Cooper turned up a divorce agreement between her and her first husband, Kalinsky, whom few people knew that she had, as well as fifty dollars in cash, some gold and tarnished silver rings, and a couple of necklaces.

Eventually the sergeant left. So did Cooper, leaving Diane to wait until the wagon arrived. Once it did, she had instructions to seal the apartment so that the owner or manager or anybody else couldn't slip in and make off with any possessions, not that there would have been much to take. Even several hours after her death, no family members had been located although the police had made several calls trying to find the nephews listed in her address books. In any case, it wasn't up to the officers on the scene to call the relatives. That was up to the detectives.

As we waited, Diane told me a little about her life. She hadn’t always wanted to be a cop, she said. She used to work as an art director for an ad agency but had grown tired of it. A friend suggested she try out for the police. She didn't take the suggestion seriously. On the day of the police exam she got on the train to Manhattan as she did every day, to go to work at the ad agency. But before she reached her stop she decided that she had nothing to lose, switched trains and went back to Brooklyn where the exam was being given. She took it and to her surprise was admitted. Her parents didn't know she'd become a cop until six months had gone by and even then they only found out accidentally because a friend called them, trying to locate her. "I went to see them late in the evening when I knew they were tired so it would be easier." Her parents have grown to accept what she was doing so long as they were assured she was safe.

Diane spoke in phrases and fragments, rarely in complete sentences, the words tumbling out at breakneck speed. "I get used to answering people who call out 'Yo!' to me." She realized that she was often speaking too fast or using too many big words for people to understand her -- and that included other cops. She regarded her gun as a 'charm.' She had drawn it only when obliged to enter apartments where she suspected a burglar was hiding. "I'd be stupid not to." But she'd never fired her gun and hoped never to have to. Even so, she was often in dangerous situations. Just the other day, she told me, an eleven-year-old emotionally disturbed girl had pulled a butcher knife on her and said, "I come from another galaxy and my mission on this planet is to kill you and your partner." Diane succeeded in calming the girl and persuading her to put the knife away. Diane told the girl that if she hadn't obeyed she wouldn't have hesitated to shoot her even if she was only eleven. When the father appeared on the scene he acknowledged that his daughter had been having some problems as if this wasn’t already quite apparent. Told that the girl had threatened two officers with a butcher knife, he was unfazed. "She did that to me too," he said. He explained that he'd had six children and that all of them had suffered mental problems. Two were institutionalized. Another two, he said, had 'grown out of it,' presumably meaning their insanity.

As the afternoon wore on, Diane mused about the woman lying on the floor. She admitted that she wasn't married, but she said that seeing something like this -- a lonely old woman dying this way -- made her think that maybe she should. "Who have you got if you don't have your family?"

The wagon still hadn’t come. It was now after four in the afternoon. Diane told another story.

Not long ago, she said, she’d answered a complaint at an apartment where a woman in her eighties was living with her son who was in his forties. Both mother and son were mentally retarded. What really struck Diane was how filthy the apartment was. It didn't appear as if either mother or son had ventured outside in many years. The walls were crawling with roaches but they didn't seem to notice or care. "You don't know how lucky you are sometimes," Diane said.

The whole while Mrs. Sanklo’s door, so long shut and bolted against the world, stood open. Suddenly we looked up to find a man of about forty-five, wearing glasses and an expensive gray winter coat, standing in the doorway. "What's going on here?" he asked in bewilderment. Diane explained. He looked shaken but managed to retain his composure.

It turned out that the man was one of the missing nephews. He was an executive at a printing company located a few blocks away. He said that he was the only relation who was usually in the city and so it was up to him to check up on his aunt. The last time he’d spoke to her was two days ago. They’d had an argument. It wasn’t surprising; in my brief acquaintance with her she argued with everyone she knew. "I nearly lost my voice shouting," he admitted. The argument was over her treatment of the home attendants. "If you keep on firing them," he’d told her, "they won't have any one left to send you." He'd stopped by to give money to her for the weekend. He was dismayed to learn that he couldn't take control of the apartment or its effects. "I just paid the rent for December."

Nonetheless, procedures have to be followed. He began to leaf through the Yellow Pages looking for a funeral home. He said that his aunt had expressed a desire to be cremated like her late husband Leo. As he went into the bedroom to call the funeral home and to cancel the wagon (since the funeral home would handle the disposition of the body), his eyes teared up and his voice quavered. "I don't know why," he said, as if apologizing for the tears. It was hard to say whether he was embarrassed about displaying his sorrow or was simply astonished that his aunt’s death had touched him so much. Understandably, he was a little rattled by the proximity of Shirley’s body lying on the floor. "She had her good points," he said, "but the worst thing was her mouth." All the money she had, aside from what he contributed, came from Social Security payments. She used to be an excellent typist, he went on, but that ended with her marriage. The painters union that Leo had belonged to was corrupt, riddled with organized crime influence. So she never received any pension from them. "They gave her a few hundred dollars for his funeral, that's all."

Diane announced that her shift was finished. I was sorry to see her go. I would, of course, never see her again. She was relieved by a young Hispanic cop. By this time the wagon had been called off. The nephew said that someone from the funeral home was checking with the M.E.'s Office to make sure that it was all right to come for the body. He wanted no autopsy.

Asked his aunt's age, the nephew said that he couldn't be exactly certain but he believed she must have been in her mid-sixties. I was astonished. She looked decades older. The stroke might have had aged her, but in some way I suspected that after Leo’s death she’d given up and become old without bothering to wait for years to pass.

About an hour later representatives of the funeral home showed up and at last removed Shirley Sanko’s body. The police placed a seal on the door: “These Premises Have Been Sealed By The N.Y.C. Police Dept. Pursuant To Section 435, Administrative Code. All Persons Are Forbidden To Enter Unless Authorized By The Police Dept. Or Public Administrator.”

I remembered that on those few occasions when Mrs. Sanko had a few people over on the same day -- a workman repairing a door, a visitor slipping her a bottle of scotch, a home attendant she'd end up berating for incompetence -- she'd say, "I had a full house today." On this particular Friday she had the fullest house she had ever had.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

It's no wonder that so many physicians have taken on a second career as novelists -- the drama they witness and the variety of people they come into contact with on a regular basis make for too many good stories to pass up. (Somerset Maugham was a doctor before he became a playwright, novelist and short story writer; he was a spy as well but that's another story.)  A subset of physician/writers -- medical suspense novelists -- gathered last week at ThrillerFest, an annual gathering held at the Grand Hyatt in New York.
As someone who's written several medical suspense novels myself, I thought I'd cover it.  Is the Medical Thriller in Need of Life Support?

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

Scientists at Harvard Medical School had the audacity to think that they could beat nature at its own game and improve on photosynthesis by making it more efficient. They not only succeeded, but showed that their method could convert sunlight directly into  biofuel. Read the my article on the SEED conference last month in Digital Journal.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

It turns out that by interfering with the body's natural clock (circadian rhythms), jet lag can contribute to weight gain.  What Mice Tell Us about Jet Lag.  Scientists found this out by conducting a stomach-turning experiment. Several of my articles reporting on the Synthetic Biology: Engineering Evolution & Design (SEED) conference last month have been published in Digital Journal.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

I covered the Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design (SEED) conference earlier this month in Boston for Digital Journal.  
My interest stems from my novel SynBio, published last year.

Two reports have appeared so far and I will post a few more in the coming week.

Scientists are now investigating the possibility of turning bacteria into 'computers' to use as therapeutics and diagnostics:  
Why Scientists are Trying to Reboot the Gut

A second report focused on Monsanto's efforts to use synthetic biology (which combines biology with engineering techniques) to replace natural soybean oil with a substitute for omega-3 oil, which is essential for health and mainly available from seafood. The idea is to find a sustainable, land-based alternative especially since stocks of fish are already being depleted. Of course, with anything having to do with Monsanto, the experimental work has already come under fire from critics -- and there are a lot of them. You can read about it here:  
Soybeans Seen as a New Source of Omega-3, Sparing Fish

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

Failure – unalloyed, inexorable failure – is difficult to swallow but it is also impossible to overlook. In few places is failure more brutal, more acutely felt, than in New York. Yet failure in this city has a way of concealing itself and in some cases can assume the guise of success.

Outright failure can serve as a corrective, a signal (or hammer blow on the head), which lets you know that you are possibly heading in the wrong direction and might wish to rethink your course. If you have your heart set on something – landing a part in a play, publishing a novel – it usually requires repeated blows, one more crushing than the last, before you throw in the towel. Some people never do, of course.

Failure is a loaded word. What constitutes failure is often in the eye of the beholder; someone who appears to be a failure to the rest of the world may not feel like a failure at all and in any case, the ability to handle and overcome failure is considered a crucial measure of character. By the same token, a person who is perceived to be staggeringly successful may deep down feel like an imposter, unworthy of the fortune that has been bestowed on him. All that said, it may be instructive to examine some of the forms that failure – or a frustrating lack of sustained success -- can assume in a city which puts so much stock on image. Someone who is a “failure” can by a bit of legerdemain and a sense of style transform himself into a person who, because everyone thinks he’s on top of his game, actually is.

There are stories -- or cautionary tales – about writers who persevere and triumph over nearly insurmountable odds. I once attended a party thrown by a freelance magazine writer who’d papered the walls of her apartment (including her bathroom) with literally hundreds of rejection letters she’d received over the years. But she wasn’t commemorating her repeated failure to get published; she’d thrown the party to celebrate the sale of a story to a periodical for a good deal of money. Such an ostentatious display of failure as she put on is something that can be indulged in only by someone who has achieved a certain level of success. You can see this same phenomenon on a larger scale in Silicon Valley where failure has become a badge of honor (at least in retrospect) and youthful CEOs of aborted start-ups boast of how many millions they burned through.

Because New York is such a magnet for talent from all over the world the competition is especially daunting. All the same, if you do have talent – or you manage to get your foot in the right door (obviously not the same thing) – you may eventually get lucky. Your short story or poem is accepted by Ploughshares or the Paris Review. Your book finds an agent or a publisher. A small film producer pays you $5000 for a six-month option on your novel. Anyone can be forgiven for construing such a break, especially coming after a long, dry spell, as a sign that the gates have at long last swung open. The way is clear. Bigger, better deals are sure to follow.  Hollywood will come calling. Maitre d’s at trendy restaurants will know your name.

This is where it gets tricky. Drug dealers will hook future customers by initially providing them with free samples. A little success acts in much the same way (even if it usually doesn’t run the risk of imprisonment); a little success acts like an intoxicant. Once you have a taste of it you want more. Those who would have given up are seduced into thinking that they can actually make a go of it, after all. It is stunning, not to say disheartening, to discover that the initial success doesn’t invariably lead to more and greater successes. Actors understand this dilemma all too well. An actress I knew struggled valiantly to get work; she studied acting and regularly lined up for auditions. She eked out a living as a coat check girl in an uptown restaurant and later traveled around the country as a model for car shows where she was expected to look pretty while expounding on automotive innovation, a subject she knew next to nothing about. It’s likely that she would have given up on an acting career altogether if it weren’t for the fact that from time to time she would be offered a part – a job with a summer stock or dinner theater company. These gigs paid little, just enough to settle a few bills before the next ones came due, but nonetheless they made her feel that things were finally coming together for her.

Eventually she reached the conclusion that a life as an actor was too erratic to build a career on and she switched to…writing. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the talent to be writer. On the contrary, she was a very good writer. At first she decided to try her hand at a romance novel, figuring that a genre novel would be a good way to break into the business. (Filmmakers starting out use the same approach when they make low-budget horror flicks.) She familiarized herself with varieties of the genre and then went ahead and tried to write one herself, choosing to use a formula based on ‘The Second Chance at Love Series’ if I remember correctly. The manuscript was rejected, not because it was poorly written but because it was too well written, too “literary” for readers of the series. Undeterred, she scraped together the funds to attend a graduate writing program on the west coast. A surprising number of students in her class would go on to write critically acclaimed bestsellers that commanded significant advances. But my friend didn’t do so badly. Within a couple of years of earning her Masters she found a top New York agent and sold her first book, a literary novel, for a modest advance. The novel was accorded a warm reception from critics, but it didn‘t fly off the shelves. There was some talk of a movie option but nothing came of it. Her agent, a tough-minded woman lacking the patient or interest in nurturing budding talent, dropped her. Several years had to pass before my friend was able to sell her second novel. This one was about a subject she knew well: struggling young actors trying to make it in New York. Again the book was greeted enthusiastically by reviewers but again its sales were hardly exceptional. In other words, her writing career had followed much the same trajectory as her acting career had, tantalizing her with the promise of success, confirming her obvious talent, but without giving her the wherewithal to pursue her art and find the audience she deserved. Can this be called failure? Is the glass half empty or half full?

There is another kind of failure – the failure to live up to early success. This is in a sense a problem of timing. Back in the mid-seventies a playwright – let’s call him Nelson Mathis – made a big splash with a two hander that ran for several months in an Off-Off-Broadway theater in downtown Manhattan. Nelson was reaping tens of thousands of dollars a week. A big bear of a man, he looked more like a logger or longshoreman than a playwright, which only enhanced his image. He seemed determined to spend money as fast as he was making it – faster actually. In those days the ingestion of cocaine, washed down with expensive champagne, was an effective way to go about this. Nelson hired a limo on a daily basis and would invite friends – and he had more of them all the time -- from his local watering hole to accompany him on rides around town although eventually he ran out of destinations and friends.

I ran into him many years later. At the time he was living in upstate New York in a kind of exile. New York simply presented too many temptations, he said, some of which were potentially lethal.  “I made a million dollars in six weeks,” he recalls of the period when his play was a hot ticket. He still sounded astonished by his good fortune. He subsequently won an Emmy for writing an episode of St. Elsewhere. But he admitted that he seldom wrote plays at all anymore. Instead he churned out short stories – slices of life he called them. He said that he’d amassed two or three hundred of them, all written by hand. “I need to find a typist.” No one else has ever laid eyes on these stories. It didn’t seem as if he was in any rush to show them, either. It seemed to me that Nelson was still competing against his younger self and falling farther and farther behind.

There’s another type of failure, one which can also masquerade as success. It’s what happens when a would-be novelist puts his way his manuscript and decides to take a “real” job – he goes into advertising or law, or does another type of writing altogether, working for trade magazines, for instance, or pounding out thrillers. His heart isn’t in the endeavor he chooses, but he does well at it; he makes a good living that enables him to buy a nice house and put his kids through college. To the outside world he’s an undisputed success, but inside maybe he feels that he hasn’t lived up to his ideal. He has let down his dream. Maybe he would never be any good as a novelist or short story writer, but he’ll never know. That manuscript he started but never finished, or finished but never tried to sell, lies buried in his bottom drawer or forgotten on his hard drive. It’s the embodiment of a secret self that will never have the chance to see the light of day and a repository of the hopes of a life that will never be lived.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz