Bedbugs and pickpockets: a non-travelers tale


I am a hotel aficionado. I wrote my undergraduate thesis in a New Haven hotel lobby, watching the light fade from pink to orange to a deep purple-blue each night, sometimes not leaving until the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass began to brighten with the morning.

Some of my favorite places in San Francisco are hotels: I love their bars and cafes, awash at all hours with a tide of voices bubbling forth in languages I don’t understand. I love the scale and grandeur of the marble foyers and reams of upholstery. I love making up stories about the passers-by: this one with jetlagged eyes and too much eyeliner; that one walking an unwieldy assortment of shopping bags like too many dogs; the last, an anachronism with a cigar and seersucker.

Like the airport bar, hotels hold all the romance of a moment suspended: an alternate reality, set apart from the day-to-day. Of course, most people associate traveling with a whole set of very real hassles – from which, I found out yesterday, my little non-vacation vacations are not immune. I experienced some authenticity along with all that atmosphere: in the lush upholstery, bedbugs, and among the tides of travelers, at least one very skilled pickpocket.

Picture me: a steaming pot of Earl Grey, settling into a sofa, the sun slanting through the gauzy drapes. No sooner have I unfolded my laptop and set Pandora to supply the elevator music (embarrassing but true) than I feel a tickle on my neck. Absentmindedly, I brush it away, and there – sitting right there on my hand – is an impudent, shameless, full-grown bedbug.

I’d like to point out that I am not a paranoid person. But the bedbug’s reputation precedes him, and the tales of horror are too overwhelming to take lightly. Bedbugs, parasites that snack on human blood, can survive temperatures that dip below freezing and soar above 100 degrees. They can go months without feeding – some say more than a year. More than enough to warrant my jumping, yelping reaction.

I smushed the bug, heart racing, and looked for the nearest escape. But simply running away would not do. Instead, I needed to assess my situation.

I put Mr. Bug in a Ziploc bag (despite a thorough smashing, he waved jauntily as I sealed him shut) and began to examine the couch. Bedbugs particularly like seams, corners, rolls in the fabric, and cording. If an infestation is severe, piles of cast-off skins and small white eggs can be found in little caches. The bugs also leave dark brown droppings dotted over areas where they have recently fed.

My search didn’t reveal much, but adults – flat, rusty-brown, and about the size of a pencil-eraser – generally hide during the day. Nymphs range from .5-4mm – easily small enough to hitch a ride on clothing, shoes, luggage, or hair without arousing suspicion. Once they reach their new home, they will burrow into the cracks around baseboards, to say nothing of the raging party they will have in mattresses.

The thing about bed bugs is that they can come from anywhere. Even if a hotel is scrupulous about maintenance, any person who walks in and sits on a couch can bring them and transfer them to the next person. Females lay eggs continuously (300 in a lifetime) so a lone straggler is enough to start an infestation.

So, I did what any sane and sensible person in my position would: I politely informed the hotel staff that I had found the dreaded critter, and then I got the heck out. I had the urge to tear off my clothes and burn them, but I settled for locking myself in the bathroom of the hotel next door and performing a careful inspection. I would need to wash my clothes in hot water and dry on “high” when I got home – a good policy for all travelers, especially if they’ve received suspicious bites on their trip. Suitcases should also be thoroughly inspected and vacuumed.

I said good-bye to Mr. Bug and threw him out in his sealed Ziploc – never throw out infested items (such as vacuum bags used to clean buggy furniture) without sealing them first – and sighed, secure in the knowledge that I’d sufficient precautions.

I settled down with a new pot of Earl Grey in my new hotel, ready to regain my earlier calm. It was a bustling lobby of tiny tables overflowing with a tipsy happy-hour crowd. Hotel happy hours are another reason I love this city’s hospitality industry: the bartenders are less hassled than at the typical neighborhood watering hole, and the people-watching is far better.
After a happy few hours (during which I switched from plain tea to G&T), I had finished a pile of work and was ready to pack up. I bid adieu to the bartender and looked for my pocketbook to leave a tip.

It was gone.

For the second time that day, I found myself groveling on the floor, lifting up couch cushions, and sweeping through curtains. I wished I’d had enough to drink to call the whole thing a hallucination, but by the time I found myself riffling the leaves of the potted plants, I had to admit that my wallet was not going to reappear.

I dumped out my purse (which is really just a canvas shoulder bag) I realized my phone was gone, too. Both had been in the bag, which had spent the last couple hours hanging on the back of my chair. This, obviously, was a huge mistake.
In all that cheery hustle and bustle, I’d been totally hustled. I have to hand it to my assailant – who, I’ll deduce from the $800 Nordstrom splurge, was a woman. She managed to get both items out of my possession without my noticing a thing. Of course, I did her a huge favor by favoring an open-style bag without a zipper or other closure. I love that my laptop and other sundries fit in the loose sack, and Ms. X loved that it enabled her to take a quick trip to Saks.

In just a few hours, Ms. X loaded a total of $6,000 of charges onto my Merrill Lynch Visa. To their credit, the folks at Chase Bank didn’t let the same thing happen to my debit card – when I called the hotline, a representative read me a list of fraudulent charges they had denied. Five minutes and a few identifying security questions later, I was slated to receive a new card in the mail.

It may seem obvious, but if your wallet is stolen, the absolute first order of business is to cancel your cards – even if means spending, as I did, the hours of 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. on the phone with a series of outsourced Visa workers. Word to the wise: it’s far easier to call your bank directly than deal with your credit card company. Like most US banks, Merrill Lynch has a 24-hour customer support line, and if I’d dialed it rather than the number I found on the Visa website, I’d have bypassed a long painful process. Furthermore, only my bank was able to tell me what charges had been made, and what I will need to do to reverse them.

And then there’s the police report: it’s a pain, especially because fraudulent charges mean you must appear at the station in-person, rather than filing online or by phone. But it’s also crucial in case you have troubles down the road with your bank, credit card company, or someone who wants to pretend they’re you. Reports are kept on file, and copies may be requested at a later date.

Verizon received an A+ for swiftly cutting service to my cell phone, switching me back to my old dumb-as-a-brick phone, and automatically crediting charges for my no longer needed data plan. By then, it was 4:00 a.m. The next day, I would need to tackle the new driver’s license, the new student ID, and the new keys. But first, I needed a good night’s sleep – in my own non-vaction home, in my bed bug-free bed.

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