Brooklyn, where I live, is the butthole of New York. Our garbage gets left out longer, our subways are more poorly maintained and our bums don’t need an excuse to touch you. For a nice Jewish boy like me, it can all be a lot to take.
I used to sit at my window, watching in terror as mice ran in and out of the Tribeca Oven, a commercial bakery across the street from my house. I held my breath in my neighborhood, so nauseated by the smell, I was convinced, of roasting rodents, only breathing easy when I’d come up out of the subway in Midtown. To me, Manhattan with all its modern convenience, offered at least the chance of cleanliness. I’d see a middle-aged lady get out of a cab in a mink coat and think I might make it after all.
I clung to the fantasy of a sterile, sanitary shield around my existence. Growing up in manicured Southern California, I hardly ever saw a bug – or encountered an animal that hadn’t been fixed. As a child, I had feared not necessarily germs, but cooties. I wouldn’t share a drink or a bite with anyone, not even my family. I would develop illogical repulsions to certain restaurants based on urban legend or gossip, and go to great lengths to avoid places where everybody else ate.
My first week in college at Berkeley, everybody was eating the delicious, healthy, inexpensive sandwiches and salads at Intermezzo Café. I once tried to take advantage of that convenient little place, although it offended my delicate sensibility. It was teeming with smelly homeless people and even smellier spare-changing punks – and that was just the employees. On my first visit, I saw a large cockroach crawl across the menu on the wall and that was it. In four years at Berkeley with Intermezzo a staple in everyone else’s life, I never went back.
When I became sexually active, safe sex felt like protection from my fear of other people’s biology. Maybe my sex drive was just stronger than my neurosis…
I’ll never forget the moment when what began as an only slightly abnormal amount of itching accelerated into constant torture and the horrifying realization dawned that I had crabs.
“I have an STD,” I kept thinking to myself as I trudged to the Tang Center (Berkeley’s student health facility) to seek treatment. Shampooing with the special lotion wasn’t so bad, nor was vacuuming or changing the sheets. Washing every article of clothing, on the other hand, was a bit daunting, but it just led to the beginning of my long-term love affair with fluff-and-folds.
Over the next couple of years, something of a sexually hyperactive period in my life, I got crabs several more times. I’m very hairy and consequently, an ideal host for the enterprising little parasites. Back then, it seemed I couldn’t leave the house without catching crabs, but it was manageable, a minor inconvenience.
At the time, I was also reading a lot of 1970s gay fiction, where crabs made frequent cameos, and a lot of my friends had dealt with it, too, so the stigma largely dissipated, although it was no fun to call a guy I liked to inform him he needed a treatment.
I kept a bottle of Rid under the sink and was always prepared. The worst part was the paranoia every time I felt the slightest itch down there. I would spend hours combing through my pubes, searching for a crab – or an egg sac. They look like a tiny little white balloon attached near the base of the hair follicle, sort of hard to see from a distance. When I thought I spotted one, I’d yank out that hair and hold it up to the light, sometimes even catching a little crustacean dancing around the end, but most often finding nothing, false alarm. It was an oddly and uncomfortably trance-like exercise, sometimes bordering on obsessive compulsive territory.
And it always reminded me of the head lice breakouts in elementary school, when my mother would make me sit for endless hours under a lamp while she picked through my scalp, hair by hair, like an ape grooming her baby, but with acrylic nails. I used to scowl and curse those other children who brought this on me with their filth.
Little did I know I would one day be forced get over myself enough to calmly deal with crabs. And I certainly couldn’t imagine I would one day spend months plagued by scabies.
That little adventure came in my late twenties, I was going back to LA for some Jewish holiday. The night before I left, I had gone out with friends in the East Village and wound up going home with some guy who lived on the Upper East Side. Really a poor choice, considering that I had to rush home first thing in the morning and pack in order to get to the airport by noon or whenever my flight was.
I must have been pretty drunk because I hardly batted an eye at the scabs peppered across his body. Somehow, I managed to catch my flight, and unsurprisingly, I also caught scabies.
Each night in LA, I would wake up furiously scratching my thighs until they were raw. I didn’t understand. I’d seen, on occasion, a stray crab outside of my pelvic region, but never anything like this, nor had crabs ever kept me up at night. And although it got worse every day, I couldn’t find a single louse.
A cursory google search gave me the idea that it might be scabies, but none of the numerous doctors I visited gave me anything more comforting than a tube of Rid and some prescription-strength Benadryl. Actually, the Rid was prescription strength too — for scabies you use a higher concentrate. Bizarre, right? I can’t imagine that anyone would abuse it. “Dude, are you gonna Rid with us tonight?” “Let’s Rid it up!” “Whoohoo!” “Feel the burn!”
Worst of all, I read about the phenomenon of post-scabies. This is where your skin has become so irritated by all the itching and scratching and chemical treatments, that you’re hypersensitive to the most minor of allergens, to dust, and suffer a adverse reaction EXTREMELY REMINSCENT OF SCABIES. It is bad enough to endure the symptoms of these conditions, but at least with crabs, you can rest assured that once you’ve followed the proper steps, you’re out of the woods. With scabies, you just lie there sleeplessly night after night, having no idea whether you’re still hosting the fuckers or (merely?) suffering this freakshow phantom follow-up.
Lately, I haven’t been sleeping well. I don’t know what’s eating at me, but I think something literally is. It started with an itch, in a couple of spots on my arms and legs – “Mosquitoes are little late this summer,” I thought, at first. I’ve always been highly susceptible to mosquito bites. I don’t know whether it’s something about my skin or a pheromone, or the large amount of cologne I’ve always worn, but those little bitches love me. At camp one summer, I had – literally – 78 bites on the back of my neck. It was a harrowing experience.
Initially, I thought nothing of this latest crop of itchy bumps. When I came back from a weekend in New Hope and discovered a slew of new bites, I assumed I’d been ravaged by the wild mosquitoes of the Pennsylvania countryside. But, it kept getting worse. I would strenuously refrain from scratching all day only to wake up in agony at 4 or 5 in the morning and find I’d been tearing my skin to shreds in my sleep. And when I spoke to the friends I’d traveled with, they reported no such affliction. Oy.
I began to wonder if it could be bed bugs. I know that there is an epidemic right now, particularly in New York City.
I began searching ravenously online for information. The puffy, red bumps in many of the pictures I found seemed very similar to what I was seeing on my body. But you’re supposed to see the bugs. Or at least eggs or droppings or discarded shells. Or (gulp) blood stains. I couldn’t find anything!
Every morning and every night, I’d lift up my mattress, lift up my box spring, look under the bed, look inside the couch, on the walls. I’d sleep with a flashlight to be ready for a surprise ambush, hoping to catch even one weak-limbed critter straggling away as I’d stealthily throw off the covers in the wee hours. I even tried some more complicated recommendations like surrounding my bed with double-sided tape to trap the intruders. Nada. Zilch. Gornischt. NOTHING!
The thing is that you’re supposed to catch a bed bug, or like you know, a specimen, a corpse if you will, to prove to your landlord or the exterminator or whomever, that you actually have them. And I have not been able to find one. Of course, I know many of you are probably thinking, “GO TO THE DOCTOR.” I had been reluctant because, with scabies, neither my doctor nor my dermatologist nor the people at the hospital who did my biopsy, could confirm or deny that I even had anything at all. It was possible that, at least in their eyes, I was suffering from parasitosis, delusions of infestation when there is actually nothing there. I felt like Bea Arthur trying to convince the asshole doctor that chronic fatigue is real. Somehow, I got through crabs and scabies. And now, I find myself in this new predicament. What do I have? I know I don’t have crabs. Been there, done that, kept all the T-shirts. I’ve gone to the doctor and done the scabies treatment, in case that’s what it is. Now comes the waiting period to see if the itch goes away while trying to stay serene and not succumb to post-scabies hysteria and confusion.
I’ve been apprehensive about tackling this issue here. It’s not exactly groundbreaking; even Sex and The City covered crabs, but it’s still hard to admit that something as personal as, well, my person, has been infiltrated.
I’m trying to be Zen about it, thinking back to a breakthrough I had ten years ago when I went to see Patti LuPone’s solo debut at Carnegie Hall – the pinnacle of everything that is right in the universe. She sang every song from every part that she ever wanted to play. I was in heaven. It was an amazing, fabulous night.
As my best friend Marissa and I were leaving the after party at the Russian Tea Room, I noticed a big van unloading into their service entrance. The van was from Tribeca Oven. What the what? Were those disgusting Brooklyn mice baked into the bread at Patti’s opening? Was Sweeney Todd actually art mirroring life? I was horrified. It was like finding out God and the Devil are the same person, but it was my Oprah moment. I GET IT, PEOPLE! I surrendered to the City.
And that is what I am trying to do now. The bastards are not going to win. I am bigger than a bug.