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01.24.2008

Sleeping Is Giving In

I discovered bedbugs and modafinil on the same eventful night a little over a year ago in San Francisco. I had just moved back from China and was staying in a dingy Travelodge on the corner of Valencia and Market streets. I had a song in my throat, a dream in my heart, and - thanks to a pharmacologically more adventurous friend - four 100mg Provigil tablets in my wallet. I was about to discover that I also had a sizable bedbug colony under my mattress.

Modafinil, of course, is the wonder drug that lets you remain awake for many hours in a row without any of the unpleasantness or fun of amphetamines. The closest it comes to being a good time is making your urine smell like banana pudding. No one really knows how it works, but after feeding large doses to narcoleptics for years, the medical community has decided any negative effects are probably subtle. For such a strong CNS stimulant, modafinil has weird properties. Eating a double handful of pills, for example, will make you jittery where a similar overdose of any other alertness drug (caffeine included) would kill you. In addition to keeping you awake, modafinil tends to give you a sense of heightened mental clarity and focus, making it the perfect programmer's drug.

Bedbugs, of course, are the retro parasites now proving that there are second acts in American lives. They started their comeback in the provinces before hitting the big time in New York City a couple of years ago, with feature articles in the Times, the Village Voice, and the hipster press. Even after receiving the kind of saturation coverage you'd think would inspire a backlash, bedbugs are still going strong two years later, expanding into new media markets across the US, Canada and Europe. Their formula for success is as simple as it is effective: hide in tiny cracks and crevices, travel easily, be practically impossible to eradicate, and feast on the blood of sleeping children.

In that happy portion of my life before I knew what bedbugs looked like, I had always assumed they were tiny and nearly transparent insects like mites or aphids. So in the morning, when I found what appeared to be a tick lying on his back next to the coffee maker, feebly waving his legs, I was not alarmed. "Ah, California" I thought, scratching my arms. "Wild kingdom".

"Bedbugs," said a friend on IRC, and after belittling him for his ignorance I ran a Google image search to show him just how wrong his conjecture was.

The next few minutes were not spent in that positive, happy frame of mind that I like to think has come to be the hallmark of this website, and I will draw a veil over them. By early afternoon I was sitting in a public laundry, watching most of my worldly possessions spiral around in very hot water, with the captured bedbug secreted away between two plastic-wrapped plastic hotel cups now stuck in my rolling suitcase.

I cannot explain why I took the bedbug along. He seemed like a valuable piece of forensic evidence, except that after my rapid online education on bedbugs I had no intention of trying to get my money back from the hotel. I had slept, been bitten, and knew already from panicky study of the internet there was nothing the hotel could usefully do. I think I wanted to take him along to keep my options open - his kin had eaten me, but he was going to learn a lesson about messing with primates. The bug and his crew had incredible stamina and the ability to stay hidden in the tiniest of crevices for months at a time without eating; I had a brain the size of a cauliflower and a high-speed internet connection. It was on.

Upstairs from the laundry was the Hotel Mithila, which turned out to be a wonderful family run hotel just on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, close enough to the crappy part of town to be cheap and far enough to be clean, calm and wonderful. The rooms had thick, bedbug-patterned carpets and immaculate sheets, which I would check each night before going to bed like a jeweler looking for flaws in a diamond.

Modafinil keeps you from feeling sleepy, but it does not remove fatigue or mask any of the other symptoms of staying up too long. This means that by four in the morning of your third consecutive day of little sleep you see a constant crawling in your peripheral vision and feel a prickling on your skin. This certainly livens up the paranoid late-night vigil for bedbugs. Each night I also took care to check on my prisoner, who was waving his legs in his plastic prison.

You can fall asleep on modafinil, but after three hours or so you will wake up with the false feeling of being fully rested. A practiced hand knows to ignore this and go back to bed, but in those early days I would get out of bed at seven and go about my day, which consisted of moving from cafe to cafe, trying to stay one step ahead of my other nemesis - the Norah Jones Christmas CD, which was spreading across the cafes of the city even faster than the bloodsucking bugs were invading its hotels. Feeling unfocused (because like an idiot I was sleeping three hours a night) I tried as an experiment drinking coffee on top of the Modafinil, but this turned even my briefest emails into sixty paragraph stream-of-consciousness rants, and I found myself writing object factories just to turn a string into lower case. It seemed wiser to stick to overpriced orange juice.

One evening I got home from my rounds to find my prisoner had gone. I had carelessly left him for dead on top of the armoire, covering him with the plastic cup without weighing it down. Now I was going to pay for my complacency: the bug was gone. In a room with a million crevices and cracks I had let escape an insect whose specialty was hiding.

I knew the bedbug was not long for this world, but I had no idea whether he might not be a she, brimming with eggs, and I felt terrible for introducing this pest into a hotel that had been so good to me in a time of need. Clearly it had to have fallen from the armoire, but where did it go? The top of the armoire was perfectly smooth and overhanging; the escapee had to have dropped somewhere on that bedbug-patterned carpet.

Two long hours later, I conceded defeat. I had officially introduced my worst enemy into the very hotel that had rescued me; I was the viper that the Mithila family had warmed on its breast. I decided it was time to gather what thoughts I still had and go drink beer. I took down a dress shirt hanging from the rack next to the armoire, and as I began to put it on the bedbug dropped out of the rolled-up cuff. Twenty more minutes of hard staring at the carpet and I had found him, on his back again, waving his legs in frustration.

This time I settled the matter out into the alley, gangland style, before throwing the shirt in the hot cycle of the downstairs washing machine.

I spent that week (and about another half-sheet of pills) setting up the Bedbug Registry. I figured no hotel or apartment owner in his right mind would ever admit to a bug problem they were powerless to treat. I also recalled my own reaction after encountering bedbugs, which was to search online and try to find every particle of information possible about what to do next. There were excellent sites like bedbugger with lots of useful advice, but there was nowhere I could angrily report an encounter and vent.

The registry turned out to be a valuable form of closure. It transformed bedbugs from archnemesis into valued business partner. All I had to do was take charge of the technical end, and the bugs took care of the viral marketing across a valuable urban demographic. Man and bug could work together! The only sour note in our arrangement was the very real distress of the people submitting the bug reports. For those who came across them in a hotel (and the most unexpected hotels turned out to have bedbugs!) the episode was traumatic but at least limited in time; for people who had to try to eradicate bedbugs from their home, it could mean months of suffering, moving house, and lasting trauma.

For the rest of my time in San Francisco, I would pass the Valencia Travelodge every other morning on my way to go running, and the parking lot was nearly always full. This always gave me a strange feeling - I knew people were being eaten there at night, but I wasn't at all sure what to do about it. Knowing that most victims would never notice that they had been bitten at all, it would have been as cruel as it was pointless to warn them. And I certainly missed the days of being able to stay in a hotel room without having to meticulously inspect every mattress and stay up half the night with an imaginary itch; I wasn't about to inflict that on anyone else. I just hoped they were keeping their suitcases well away from the walls.

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