When I say no one wants to see this video, I sincerely mean that no one wants to see this video. First posted by the Village Voice’s Runnin’ Scared blog earlier this week, what you see here is a close-up of a bed bug on a seat on the R train. It was spotted by a group of commuters on a Bay Ridge-bound train near 36th St., and one varmint expert has confirmed that this brown insect does indeed resemble a bed bug.
“That looks pretty believable to me,” Maciej Ceglowski of the Bedbug Registry said. “I can’t make out what kind of bug it is from the video, but it’s the right size and moves in the right way to be a bedbug. And I do know there have been other confirmed subway sightings.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about bed bugs taking over the subway. In early 2008, a few intrepid reporters spotted infestations in various wooden subway benches, but the MTA has not, by and large, made a public stink about it. That could change soon.
On Tuesday evening, I went to the New York City Transit Riders Council President’s Forum with NYC Transit President Tom Prendergast and a variety of other Transit higher-ups. While the meeting featured mostly personal complaints and subway minutiae from the audience, Prendergast repeatedly levied a charge toward Albany. Without political and economic support, he said, the TA’s hands are tied. (For a little bit more on this aspect of the forum, check out John Mancini’s report at NY1.)
What struck home to me though was a conversation Prendergast had with Marvin Holland, the chair of the cleaners’ section at the TWU. Holland has been an outspoken organization for the union for years, and he opined on the cleanliness, or lack thereof, underground. Noting that bed bugs have been spotted throughout the system, he said, “We have to get more cleaners or it’s not going to work. hat is happening is cleaners are being overworked. And then they’re getting physically broken down. And then they can’t come to work.”
When cleaners don’t come to work, Transit doesn’t fill their shifts with workers accruing overtime. Rather, trains and stations just go uncleaned. The MTA has been up front with this approach to cleanliness. They’d prefer to invest their limited dollars in track and car maintenance to ensure that trains run frequently and smoothly, and if the environment underground suffers, well, said Prendergast, that’s the devil’s choice they have to make.
In response to Holland’s complaint, Prendergast acknowledged the lower staffing levels of cleaners and promised that Transit was doing what it can to bring back workers who can improve conditions underground. He stopped short though of drawing what I think is a logical inference. “Customers don’t like to hear that they’re part of the problem,” he said, “but we pull out 90 tons of trash a day from the subways.”
The inference is an obvious one, and another speaker whose name I didn’t catch let it all out. She has been a station monitor for years, and she says she routinely sees people disregard societal norms as they discard their trash everywhere but in the garbage cans. They drop papers and cups onto stations floors; they leave discarded chicken bones underneath seats; they spew sunflower seeds and spill drinks. It is, in other words, a human pig sty.
It’s true that Transit’s own approach will not help the situation. Cutting cleaners won’t ever improve cleanliness, and the way that some station cleaners drag garbage bags — and thus leave a trail of grimy litter water in their wakes — doesn’t help. But responsibility can start with the people who ride the rails. After all, we have as much an interest in keeping the system clean for ourselves as the MTA does, and I don’t know anyone who discards dinner on the floor of their dining room instead of in the trash.
Bed bugs and rat infestations are serious problems that require serious responses once they start to unfold. We the riders can’t do anything about it once the bugs are there, but our attitudes go a long way toward ensuring that bugs and rats don’t find the subway attractive in the first place. Until the garbage ends where it belongs, perhaps Prendergast and Holland should feel more comfortable telling riders that they are a part of the problem indeed.