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Scratching the Itch of Curiosity

This week bedbugs make our news weird

In our Mission Statement, Bay Weekly eschews doom-and-gloom news and commits to a world where people enjoy a high quality of life in a sustainable way that they’ll be able to hand down for generations to come.
    So why are we writing about bedbugs?
    Truth be told, we also savor a taste for the strange.
    If you’re a regular reader, you know that. News of the Weird has been with us from our beginning 19 years ago. You might well open Bay Weekly to that page each week. I wish I had a nickel for each time a reader’s claimed it for a favorite. If that’s you, you’re in a far bigger crowd than the readers who call to complain, usually bitterly, about the latest offense related in the syndicated column. I censored one entry this very week, and no, I won’t reveal the banned subject.
    Mostly, however, News of the Weird just shows what a big odd world we live in.
    As my grandmother liked to say, There’s no accounting for tastes. That’s what the lady said when she kissed the cow.
    Also out there is Free Will Astrology. I could argue, as does astrologist Rob Brezsny, that the column’s purpose is to open your mind to possibilities. It’s good and sustainable to wash and air your mind just as you would bed linens. Saying that however, doesn’t do much to assuage the reader whose mind doesn’t open quite so far.
    One reader took offense at what her elementary-school-age children read in Free Will Astrology at the breakfast table. Open as her mind clearly was, it had its shutting point.
    That, of course, is neither here nor there. We’re talking about bedbugs.
    I could tell you that Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite is following where life is trending. I could argue that in it you’re learning a lesson in sustainability. As Bay Weekly stories chronicling biodiversity have noted, a lot of strange things hop in to join you when you step out of the chemical age. Practice live and let live, and you live with weeds. Maybe bugs, too. Bedbugs, so our writer tells us, are one consequence of doing without the pesticide DDT. So, perhaps, is resurgent malaria.
    You might believe me in that allegation because there’s a measure of truth in it.
    The bigger, truth, however, is that I was curious.
    Curiosity ranked first in qualities that make good writers and good stories, according to our esteemed late columnist Bill Burton, whose curiosity — and readability — helped float our boat from 1993 until his death in 2009.
    My horror of bedbugs has always been mixed with curiosity.
    No doubt that’s because I learned of their existence by way of a good story, recounting one of my mother’s dearest triumphs.
    Back when I was a tender infant, my father joined the Navy, leaving my mother to support herself, her mother-in-law, her grandmother-in-law and me. This was back in World War II, and money was flowing freely. Working as a waitress, my mother could top $100 a night in tips.
    With that much money — none of it went on child care with two other women in the house — she saw her chance to buy her first home. She paid two nights’ earnings as downpayment on a tiny bungalow on Palm Street in St. Louis. Scrubbing and painting and planting, she and my grandmother made the place so cute, Mother liked to say, that passers-by stopped to admire her home.
    The one problem was bedbugs.
    Dirt was one of the few things my mother feared. Hard work was not another. So she hauled the heavy cotton-wadding mattresses into the tiny back yard, where she and my grandmother scrubbed them with kerosene until not a bedbug survived.
    Within six months, by the way, my mother had paid off the $2,000 note on her first home.
    Did the infested mattresses come with the house? Or did resident bugs infest mattresses my mother brought with her? I never asked, though I knew that new mattresses were an impossible luxury. Commodities were scarce then; nothing was thrown away.
    Nor did I pay much attention to the enemy in the story, the bedbugs. The point was women victorious. Elsa Martin and her mother-in-law Florence Martin had fought their war and won.
    So the resurgence of bedbugs, though much in the news, has never seemed a threat I’d have to deal with.
    The writer of this week’s story disagrees. Bedbugs are out there ready to move into all our homes, she’s concluded. I’ve since learned she’s not alone — in her fears or in her precautions. Describing the story in anticipation of publishing it, I’ve learned all sorts of tricks for warding off bedbugs. Travel with a hairdryer, for example, and scorch the seams of hotel chairs and mattresses.
    Yes, this week’s feature story is out there at the edge, where sustainability bumps into would you believe.
    I haven’t taken to packing my hairdryer in my briefcase. But I’m suddenly very itchy.