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The Chronicle Magazine

Spider Woman

by Burkhard Bilger

Early one morning last year, when the streets of downtown Los Angeles were still mostly deserted, a strange figure appeared in the Goodwill store at 235 South Broadway, next door to the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel. She had on tennis shoes, dungarees, and a faded blue T-shirt, and was outfitted as if for a safari or a spelunking expedition. A khaki vest was stuffed with empty plastic vials; a black duffel bag across her shoulders held a pair of high-tech headlamps, a digital camera, and a venom extractor. She made her way to the front desk, past a rack of summer dresses on sale for six dollars and ninety-nine cents. Then she introduced herself to the store manager, Gina Torres, a statuesque woman with silver blond hair and thickly drawn eyeliner. She said that her name was Greta Binford and she wanted to hunt spiders in the basement.

Torres stared at her. Binford is small and keen-eyed, with a dark-brown bob and a scattering of freckles across her nose. Her voice has a quick, clear, almost chirping quality, and at forty-one she carries herself with the springy assurance of a high-school cheerleader. She didn’t look like a crackpot to Torres. Then again, she didn’t look like a spider hunter, either. Perhaps she was a health inspector. “I’ve never heard anything about you,” Torres said, her eyes narrowing. “I’ve been here two years, and I’ve never seen you before.”

Binford explained to Torres that she was a professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon. She specialized in arachnology and was on a week long spider-hunting trip through the Southwest. She’d been to this store before, years ago, to collect an interesting species that lived in the basement. “I just need an hour or so to get a few more specimens,” Binford said. What she didn’t say was that they were among the deadliest spiders in the world.

They belonged to a South American species called Loxosceles laeta–a cousin of the brown recluse, but larger and more venomous. Sometime in the late nineteen-sixties, apparently, their ancestors had ridden to California in costume crates owned by a troupe of Shakespearean actors from Brazil. A year or two later, they were discovered at a theatre in the L.A. suburb of Sierra Madre and promptly triggered a citywide panic. “50 DEADLY SPIDERS FOUND,” a front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times announced on June 7, 1969. “VENOM LIKE RATTLESNAKES.” In Sierra Madre, spider suspects were rushed to the police in jam jars, ice-cream boxes, and Styrofoam cups. “Some have shown up around 3 a.m. in the trembling hands of frantic householders,” the Times reported. By August of that year, more than two hundred laeta–as well as a thousand of their molted skins–had been found across Los Angeles. One family of eight abandoned their home at the sight of a single spider.

The Great Spider Hunt of 1969 ended as such scares usually do: attics were cleared, tool sheds swept clean, buildings fumigated and declared safe. Yet the spiders remained. Buildings like the Goodwill store had basements and sub-basements so deep and interconnected that no pesticide could reach into every hiding place. “I showed one of the spiders to an employee the last time I was here,” Binford told me. “And she said, ‘Yeah, I see those in the bathroom all the time.’ ” No bites had been reported, but word seemed to have got out that something was not quite right in the basement. Torres told Binford that no one was allowed downstairs, for reasons of liability. “You have to understand,” she said. “I have to protect myself.”

Binford spent the next hour on her cell phone, pleading her case with Goodwill executives. She was thumbing through a rack of used Hawaiian shirts, awaiting the management’s verdict, when an irritated voice blared over the intercom, “Spider lady! Spider lady! Come to the front!” Torres was standing by the cash register, her hands on her hips. She made Binford scrawl out a waiver on a legal pad, then led her down a long, dingy hallway to the basement door. “It’s your own risk,” she said, pointing down the stairwell. “If I don’t hear from you in two days, I call the authorities.”

Excerpted from an article originally published in the March 5, 2007, issue of the New Yorker. Greta Binford emerged safely from the Goodwill basement to return to her position as assistant professor of biology at Lewis & Clark, where she and her students study spiders and spider venoms from an evolutionary perspective. You can read the full article online (pdf).

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