Our Man in New York: Karl was sitting on the toilet when a small mouse winked at him. He hasn't recovered

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At a big hotel-industry conference recently a gentleman from the Marriott group dared to air some dirty laundry. Not dirty, actually, so much as infested. It was time, he said, for everyone to come clean about a shared and growing problem: the return of the flesh-nibbling, blood-imbibing bedbug.

At a big hotel-industry conference recently a gentleman from the Marriott group dared to air some dirty laundry. Not dirty, actually, so much as infested. It was time, he said, for everyone to come clean about a shared and growing problem: the return of the flesh-nibbling, blood-imbibing bedbug.

The nasty nits, Cimex lectularius, have been making something of a comeback, we learn. A pest-control agency that monitors these things notes that 37 per cent of reports of new bedbug outbreaks come from hotels across the US. And cruise ships too, by the way. They live in or near mattresses and usually first arrive in a room on a traveller's clothes or luggage. It's enough to make you stay at home.

On the other hand, if home is New York City that may not be such a great idea. Like it or not, we humans share the metropolis with an exploding population of various critters. Gotham's rat problem is legendary. Depending on whom you ask, there are between eight million and 60 million of the yellow-toothed rodents in our streets, sewers and subways. Whatever the correct tally, more rats live here than people

We have all seen them darting across a midnight pavement before vanishing down a grate or into a smorgasbord of abandoned rubbish bags. Red signs have recently been posted on the walls of my local subway stop, meanwhile, warning not of the rats themselves but the poison scattered on the tracks to kill them. Why they think we need to know this is beyond me. I don't generally picnic between the rails.

I am less confident when the smiling pest-control guy knocks on my door to fumigate. My building, like most in the city, provides this service for free. It makes sense. No landlord wants to deal with tenants suing for mouse bites on babies or roach traumas in the shower. So, on the second Wednesday of every month, I am required to be at home between 1pm and 2pm to let the exterminator in, whereupon he squirts noxious liquid around the kitchen floor - the same floor my pug licks for crumbs 50 times a day.

The dog, though, has shown no ill effects. And the miracle is that this monthly treatment seems to work. Look at my building with its cracked plaster and vintage plumbing and you might see a pest Shangri-La. Yet not once have I found a tell-tale mouse dropping or spied a single cockroach. Even ants steer clear of my address. That is not to say we have been free completely of unwelcome guests.

Our apartment has occasionally doubled as a moth sanctuary that would be the envy of any zoo. Local schools could bring kids inside on moth-spotting field trips. It starts, at this time of year, with one or two but then, overnight, clouds of moths materialise to the point where we are almost inhaling them. Either they are inviting in their friends from all over town or a million moth eggs are hatching deep inside my clothes cupboard. Finally last year I found an aerosol which, if sprayed regularly, seems to clobber them.

Mousehattan

Nothing is working for our friends Karl and Andrea, whose lives have been turned upside down by a major mouse incursion in their apartment. The degree of their distress has been quite surprising. Karl, who is Swiss, still hasn't recovered from his first sighting; he was sitting on the toilet with the door open when a small brown mouse winked at him as it traversed the kitchen floor. Only then did they notice more evidence of their new co-residents: a gingerbread man completely vanished next to the TV. A bowl of Hershey's chocolates on top of the fridge also all eaten, with only the shredded silver wrappers left behind.

The managers of their building, which is far shinier than ours, have been trying to help. Andrea ruled out poison, fearing the reek of rotting mouse corpses. Karl couldn't contemplate regular traps that tend to chop the animals in half. So they agreed on glue strips, which they lay down nightly wherever mouse traffic is likely to be high. This hasn't proved satisfactory either. It is Karl's job, first thing before coffee, to unstick the mice. But the glue is strong and sometimes the mice do not come off whole.

If they don't prevail soon, Karl and Andrea may be driven to surrender and move. They wouldn't be the first people in New York to flee infestations. But where would they go? To a fancy hotel? I don't think so. Which would you prefer, mice in the bread box or bed bugs between the sheets?

Gotham going

The sanitising of our cityscape continues apace. I have been away for a week only to return to discover that three more symbols of a rapidly disappearing, not so Disneyesque, New York have joined the endangered list.

Two are in the same building on Times Square, sold to developers who will raze it to make way for some gleaming retail box. Gone with the wrecker's ball will be the last Howard Johnson's restaurant in the city and the Gaiety Theater. Already closed, the Gaiety was the last joint in town to show an all-nude male burlesque. HoJo's was a formica and plastic-boothed oasis of cheap fare and even cheaper cocktails in a part of town already made characterless by corporate theme restaurants. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, another developer has bought a chunk of the Coney Island boardwalk, famous for its down-at-heel freak shows and oily hot-dog joints, again to erect some kind of retail mall.

Soon they won't be much left of what makes New York what it is, or was, and tourists might just as well visit Lincoln, Nebraska. And there they'll be able to have a smoke with their martinis.

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