Column: Fleas, Chiggers, Greenheads And Sunbathing in the Nude

By Susan Parker
Tuesday August 08, 2006

I forgot to give my dog, Whiskers, her flea medication and as a result she got fleas. Whiskers sleeps in my bed, so it didn’t take long for me to get the buggers, too. Thus began a three-week spiral into insecticide hell.  

I went to Ellis’, my local hardware store, and purchased special powders, soaps, and sprays. The next day I bought more of the same, plus a powerful, deadly bug bomb that took three hours to detonate. Nothing worked. The fleas refused to leave.  

Because I had exhausted the selection of flea insecticides at Ellis’, I went to Home Depot where there is a shelf a mile long and three stories high dedicated to insect eradication. I spent a ridiculous amount of money on anti-flea paraphernalia, then went home and dropped a nuclear-like cocktail, mixing and matching bug poisons in the hope that something would chase the critters away. Houseplants died, but the fleas survived.  

I sought advice from friends, relatives and strangers. Most people took a step back before responding to my complaints. Everyone had a flea-fix story to share.  

“Spread a white sheet on the floor and cover it in flea powder,” recommended the woman standing behind me in Home Depot. “Fleas are attracted to white. They’ll roll around on the sheet, get themselves full of powder and die.” She shook her head in sympathy. “If that doesn’t get rid of them,” she said, “I’ve got another remedy that might work, but it could kill you if you aren’t careful.”  

“I’m careful,” I lied. “And desperate.”  

“Spread lye under your house and then leave on a six-week vacation,” she whispered, looking around to see if anyone could hear her. “Don’t tell anyone it was my suggestion.”  

Someone said I needed to wash everything in the house with ammonia, fill the vacuum bag with mothballs and sweep until the carpet was threadbare. Another person said to throw out mattresses, chairs and sofas; anything the dog or I had slept on.  

Somebody mean hinted that I should get rid of Whiskers; someone else said selling the house and moving elsewhere was always an option.  

A neighbor informed me that fleas overrun the country of South Africa, and therefore I should be glad I live in Oakland, where only my house seemed to have the problem.  

“Drink plenty of gin with tonic and lime and wait ‘til winter,” advised Andrea. “Fleas hibernate in cold weather.”  

My dad suggested inviting all the neighborhood dogs into the house. “Let them in the back door and run them through each room until they run out the front door,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Then put camphor inside all the furniture, and go into lockdown mode for three full days.”  

I called my friend Jack, a pest control expert in Manhattan. I interrupted him while he was on vacation in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  

“Should I put out white sheets and white powder? Should I throw out my bed and sofa?”  

“No,” said Jack. “Call a professional. They’ll use chemicals to zap ‘em.”  

“Should I—”  

Jack cut me off. “I gotta go,” he said. “I’m at a nude beach, and the greenhead flies are eating me up.”  

I decided to take Jack’s advice but before doing so I had lunch with my sage friends, Pearl and Louise. They were surprisingly unsympathetic.  

“Back when I was growing up,” said Pearl, “people were tougher than they are now. We learned to live with fleas. You shouldn’t be so hung-up on bugs. Fleas are, after all, quite small.”  

Louise seemed to agree. “In Louisiana we didn’t have fleas, we had chiggers. They got in the bed ticking and they wouldn’t let go. If you think fleas are bad, try sleeping every night on a homemade mattress full of feathers and bugs. In the morning there was blood everywhere.”  

I went home from my visit with Louise and Pearl determined to get tough. After all, I wasn’t in chigger-infested Louisiana, or flea-ridden South Africa. And I wasn’t in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, where I’d be subject to ravenous, flesh-eating flying greenheads, and cranky middle-aged pest control experts sunbathing in the nude.