Monday, 4 August 2008


Imagine that you run a haunted hotel. When a ghost shows up in someone's room they freak out and demand their money back. You bring in a ghostbuster, and for a while there's no hauntings in that room for a while, but then the ghosts start coming back. Not only that, but some guests bring their own ghosts with them, blame you when they get haunted, and re-spookify every room they're moved to.

Now replace 'ghosts' with 'bedbugs'. Welcome to my world.

There are nice things about being in an ancient building: rustic charm, overscale rooms. The downside is that most of the building's internal structure is an absolute, unholy mystery. I swear to God there is a family of raccoons living inside the drywall on the third floor (or whatever passed for drywall in the late 19th century). Water drips into the basement level after travelling sideways ten metres, making problem-solving harder by an order of magnitude.
The ramshackle nature of the building creates a slightly lazy atmosphere, meaning that items with no fixed address are put to one side. Then a second thing is put on top of that, the first thing gets wet, the second thing get mouldy, and a third thing is put down beside the first thing. Repeat the process for more than three years before introducing one manager (me).

Bedbugs are a particular problem because they reinforce existing prejudices about low-cost hotels: dirty, unkempt, diseased. It doesn't matter that this is an false connection (high-class hotels in Toronto have newspaper reports of bedbugs every year), because when it happens it's as close to a catastrophic failure of hospitality as one can get.
The main way to kill bedbugs is by steam. The second way is with chemicals, the third with professional gassing, and the fourth with powders. We use the first, are moving on to the second, are delaying the third, and planning the fourth. Any treatment is only temporary—like hair removal—techniques differ only in price, labour, and period of effect. Steaming takes a few hours and lasts for a few weeks, but can be done at a moment's notice. Chemicals take 24 hours and therefore require planning. Professional gas lasts longest but is also the most expensive. Powders are used to extend the period of effect for other techniques.

Bedbug bites itch. They are white in the centre with a red affected area, like a hard thumbprint, on your skin. They show up in lines of three or four on your arms, or side, or back. I have seen them on the face and neck: this ranges from,"What's that?" to "Jeez, what happened to you?" While a scientific, investigative process may lead elsewhere, the blame invariably comes back to the hotel.

Of the twenty projects I currently have for the hotel, bedbugs are about number four on the priority list. I'm trying to stop the staff from saying or writing the word 'bedbug' where guests can see it. We now have code words. I prefer 'insects'. One guy says 'infestation'. Another writes 'BB'. The Spanish-speaking staff call them 'internationals'. I still haven't figured out why.

No comments: