I have houseguests. My eldest daughter, her cat, and her lizard (and the enormous, awkward-to-transport tank he lives in) have taken up residence in my living room for a few days while her building is treated for bedbugs. Thankfully we have found no evidence of the wee beasties in her apartment. But they have been spotted somewhere on the premises, and so all the apartments have to be treated.
Which meant a full page of instructions on how to prepare for the big event (moving furniture out from the walls, laundering and bagging all bedding, lifting things off the floor, etc.) It was a lot of work. By Sunday evening the three washing machines shared by 40 apartment units had been in overdrive all weekend, and the dumpster in the lane was overflowing from a whole building full of tenants using the enforced cleanup as an excuse to purge.
My daughter tossed out a stack of foam floor mats that she no longer used, and within minutes I watched in amazement as a man lifted them triumphantly from the dumpster and made off with them. All I could think was, “How does he know they aren’t carrying bugs?” Or perhaps he doesn’t care.
The information sheet from the rental agency explained oh so tactfully that tenants may have unwittingly brought the bugs in on items from garage sales—or dumpster picking. It’s acknowledged as a fact of life. We have regulars at my condo. One fellow cycles along the river trails that snake behind a series of apartment and condominium complexes, armed with a long pole that he uses to poke through the contents of the bins in our parking lot. Clearly he’s a pro.
My city has even come up with a genteel form of dumpster diving known as “Giveaway Weekend” when the city encourages us to leave unwanted but re-usable items on the curb with a sign labelling them as “free” for anyone to pick up. Savvy Giveaway Weekend “shoppers” know to be out early Saturday morning with trucks and vans to score the really good stuff. My sister managed to unload a refrigerator this way. I have a fantastic big umbrella plant that I picked up curbside a few years ago. But my best “Giveaway” score was the little wooden desk that I picked up from a neighbour, polished up and used for three years, and then sold for $25 (how’s that for return on investment?!)
Unfortunately, as much of a bargain hound as I am, the spectre of bedbugs means that there are lots of items I would never dare pick up or even buy secondhand unless I knew everything there was to know about its history.
But clearly not everyone is quite so discriminating.
It’s complicated, though. I am fully aware that if I absolutely needed to replace my bed or sofa tomorrow I would have the resources to do so without scrounging one of questionable provenance. I am equally aware that for the fellow who looked so delighted to claim my daughter’s castoffs, those scruffy cat-scratched floor mats may well be his bed now. I feel uncomfortable criticizing anyone who needs to depend on other people’s garbage for their essentials.
On the other hand, my daughter has been displaced from her home because someone in her building failed to pay attention to our fair city’s well-publicized bedbug precautions. It’s true that she and her pets have a safe and welcoming place to crash for a few days, but— as she asked me mid-cleanup yesterday—what happens to the tenants who don’t have anywhere else to go?
And this is why I find the whole thing so complex. A whole building full of tenants has had their lives disrupted because someone didn’t know better. Or didn’t care. Or didn’t have a choice?
Whatever the story is, and we will never know, the fact is that none of us exists without affecting other people, whether we know we are doing it or not. And it’s sometimes difficult to know when the thing you are doing because you feel the need to do it is negatively impacting your neighbour.
At least whoever brought in the bedbugs in the first place is being equally inconvenienced. It’s another story over in the community garden near my home, where signs have been posted that clearly instruct the gardeners to have their plots cleared by October 4th for tilling. Today, three days after the deadline, there are several sections that have not been cleared. Corn stalks stand defiantly behind the signposts bearing the clean-up instructions, and in some sections there are mountainous tangles of cucumber and squash vines.
Someone is going to be inconvenienced by this failure to follow the rules, but in this case it is likely not going to be the ones who wouldn’t clean up their plot on time. (Or couldn’t—because part of me always wants to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe something terrible and unforeseen prevented them from getting to the garden last week…)
But now I’m just making excuses for them. The truth is that if you are the one stuck cleaning up someone else’s mess it’s just as much work whether they wouldn’t or couldn’t—whether they didn’t know or didn’t care.
It’s a good reminder that as long as I am blessed to have choices, I hope I make the choices that touch my neighbours’ lives as positively as possible —my global neighbours as well as my nearby ones. While I’m cleaning up other people’s junk, I need to reflect on where I’m depositing my own junk. And who is getting stuck with cleaning it up.