When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to have a pet. I was very sad about this for many years, but the universe works in mysterious ways, and since I moved out of my childhood home I have had many pets. I've had silverfish, for one thing, and drugstore beetles, and ants. I've had spider beetles, stinkbugs, and moths. I've had bedbugs twice, and my kitchens have hosted several generations worth of mice. Now, there are tiny German cockroaches living in my closet, and they like to come out and say hi when I turn off my light. Why these creatures are drawn to me is unclear—all I ever wanted was a puppy.
Of course, I am not the only one who's been repeatedly besieged by vermin. In New York, pests reign supreme, taking over our homes, streets, subways, movie theaters, Greyhound buses, dumpling shops, and viral hoax videos. Here is a ranking of the most unpleasant infestations, from most tolerable to most horrifying, as experienced by one battle-scarred, boric-acid armed New Yorker.
Silverfish: Silverfish are slithery little weirdos that wiggle around and like to nibble on your cardboard boxes, papers, and clothing. They can do damage to your home and property, apparently, and they're hard to get rid of, especially in the summer when things are humid.
I had silverfish in an apartment in Baltimore, and though it was unsettling to see them slither across my desk, they never really bothered me. To keep them out, use a dehumidifier to make your home environment less welcoming to silverfish, sweep up dust, vacuum regularly, and use liquid sprays, bait or dust (tips here) to weed out the rest of them. Or you can do what I did and whack them each individually with a copy of Hegel and the Human Spirit. At least that philosophy class was put to some use.
Drugstore beetles: The first time I saw a drugstore beetle—crawling across my pillow, no less—I was convinced it was a bedbug. I then proceeded to spend the next four hours comparing the teensy specimen to Google images of bedbugs. Thankfully, at some point I determined they were not, and I was able to sleep.
Drugstore beetles aren't nearly as bad as the rest of the creatures on this list, but they are pretty annoying, and they multiply like crazy. The summer they were in full force, we found them everywhere—climbing walls, clustering behind picture frames, and crawling over our pillows and bedspreads. When I moved out, I found thousands of teeny dead beetle bodies behind my bed and nightstand, and it was pretty gross.
If you find yourself with a drugstore beetle problem on hand, you need to track down exactly where they're infesting. As the American Museum of Natural History's resident entomologist, Lou Sorkin, told us in 2014: "You have to find out what they’re infesting. It could be potpourri, which is common. They like spices, so paprika is a pretty commonly infested thing." They also like dried plants and forgotten rodent baits.
Awww, look at the little baby roaches! (Sergei Toronto/Shutterstock)
German cockroaches: There's a big difference between German cockroaches and waterbugs—though the former are smaller and less gross to squish; the latter, while fat and gross, are usually one-offs and not part of a significantly larger invasion. I had my first German cockroach infestation in a bathroom in Greenpoint, and my second is currently being battled in my closet in Crown Heights.
A roach infestation is difficult to deal with, but it's not insurmountable. I am not a fan of sprays, which kill on contact but do little to kill off the little guys you can't see. Your best friend in a roach infestation is boric acid, which you can purchase at a hardware store or on Amazon. Sprinkle a very thin, nearly unseen amount the powder along baseboards and in corners where you've seen bugs (it helps to put a penny in the bottle and shake it up first before you sprinkle). When the roaches walk over the powder, the acid's positive charge will stick to the roach's body, screwing with its exoskeleton and killing it in about 72 hours.
The bad news about boric acid, which can also be used to kill silverfish, is that you might see roaches walking around in daylight for a few days while they die. The good and important news, though, is that it probably means it's working. You only need one application of the acid (though feel free to apply again in a few months to be safe), and you can also buy Combat or Raid traps to keep any surviving creatures at bay.
It's also a good idea, while you're fighting these bad boys, to caulk up any holes in your baseboards and floors, and to ensure you don't have any food items or exposed wet spots and moisture (leaks, etc.) bugs can get to. They need water to survive, and they also feed on everything from human hair to the corpses of other roaches, so do your best to keep things nice and clean so the buggies stay away.
Cute, but evil. (Eric Isselee/Shutterstock)
Mice: This may be controversial, but I believe a mouse infestation is far worse than a roach infestation. Mice, in my opinion, are more psychologically affecting. As Spielberg proved in Jaws, the unseen horror is the most unsettling, and mice like to announce their presence from the shadows. You can hear them squeaking and rustling around when you can't see them, for one thing, and they leave droppings all over your stovetops long after you've tried to convince yourself they're gone.
I am against sticky traps, which do you the duel disservice of forcing you to stumble unsuspectingly upon a writhing, squealing mouse and leaving you responsible for killing it, since letting the poor thing starve to death seems even less humane. I once watched a friend bash a stuck mouse's head in with a wine bottle, and the sound of the poor thing's final whimper still haunts me. Snap traps, meanwhile, threaten your feet, and even the sight of a tail sticking out of those little black house-like ones makes me squirm.
In college, I suffered a mouse infestation so severe I stopped going into the kitchen altogether—those Baltimorean rodents were so unyielding one managed to escape while still attached to a sticky trap. In Bushwick, we had an infestation an exterminator likened to Stage IV cancer, and my roommate woke to find one fat little dude jumping in her bed. Somehow, at some point we stopped seeing the mice, but they still left little hard poops on our counters.
Keeping mice out of your apartment is difficult, but there are ways to mitigate an infestation. Keep food in plastic containers, and never leave dishes in your sink. Shove steel wool in any open crevice in your apartment (radiators, behind your sink and dishwasher, etc.) Set up the aforementioned sticky traps at mouse-entry points and steel your stomach. Call an exterminator and expect to spend some cash.
Mice are dirty, unsettling, hard to get rid of, and too cute to kill. Fuck mice.
Bedbugs: Bedbugs don't carry diseases like mice or roaches, but the psychological terror that will grip you when you find one of these bad boys gripped to your mattress is something that will stick with you years after your exterminator gives you the all-clear. The funny thing about it is that bedbugs aren't actually that hard to get rid of, provided you catch the infestation before you've got bugs crawling the walls—a few visits from the exterminator and a handful of trips to a laundromat will usually do the trick well enough.
But the fact that bedbugs come out to FEED on YOU at NIGHT, when you're most defenseless and dreaming about being Han Solo or pulling your teeth out or turning into a sushi burrito, is deeply unsettling. Roaches are gross, but they aren't after you; mice drive you crazy, but they'll leave you alone.
Bedbug infestations are best battled by a professional (for one thing, the sprays they sell in hardware stores aren't potent enough as what an exterminator can get his or her hands on.) If you find a bug, or suspect that cluster of bites is suspicious, call an exterminator ASAP. You should do this through your landlord so he or she can have neighboring apartments treated, but there are private companies you can call, too. The worst part of having bedbugs is the night between calling the exterminator and waiting for him to arrive in the morning—you know those little fuckers are lying in wait, but there's not much you can do about it. You will be tempted to sleep elsewhere—the couch, a friend's place, with a Tinder date—but DO NOT, because bedbugs know when their food's going elsewhere, and the worst thing you can do is spread your infestation around.
The best exterminators, I've found, are the ones with those cute little bedbug sniffing doggies. This is both because the doggies are so cute, and also because the dogs are usually able to pinpoint the exact areas that are infested, so you don't have to clean/launder/throw out things unnecessarily. Your exterminator will then treat infested areas, give you instructions re: bagging clothes and belongings, and set up a date to return in two weeks. I've found throwing clothes and bags in a dryer on high heat for a minimum of 30 minutes is good enough to murder buggies and their eggs—keep your clean clothes bagged until the exterminators return and give you the all-clear signal so you don't re-infest anything.
It usually only takes a few treatments to get rid of a mild-to-medium infestation, but it's the paranoia that strikes deep. I spent months checking for bites, even though I never even had any initially (some people don't react to bedbugs). Anything I buy at a thrift store I bag and throw in a dryer immediately. A vacation stay in a hostel or two is panic-inducing. My back started itching as I wrote that last sentence, and I'm considering checking my mattress again. Bedbugs are beatable, but they also bite at your brain, and so, they win the title of Worst Infestation.
Thus ends the ranking. Other infestations I have not experienced but imagine are quite terrible are: termites, rats, toilet rats, and toilet snakes, all of which are real and probably planning to attack my home at some point in the future. Stay tuned!