Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Get a Whiff of That

My first apartment after college was a dump.

My mom and I were in the hall with the landlord. There was an unpleasant tang in the air.

“Someone must be keeping a dog,” said the landlord.

“That’s not dog pee,” my mom and I both said, in unison. “That’s cat pee.”

The landlord looked at us like we had three heads. But cat pee smells different from dog pee and from human pee (which only smells when it’s stale, like in subway corners), just like chicken shit smells different than cow shit.

Doesn’t everybody know that?

My grandmother told me something that haunts me to this day: “You can’t smell yourself.” That’s why you can have B.O. or bad breath and not realize it.

She was right. We only register the smell of something for a short time, when we first encounter it. That’s called olfactory fatigue.

I once met a man who had lost his sense of smell permanently. He had, he explained, been having a bad LSD trip when he opened the door of a moving car and stepped out. (This was one of my more memorable first dates.) Anyhow, he said not having a sense of smell affects you more than you might think. You can’t taste food. You worry that you might not smell something important – like a gas leak.

Our sense of smell is pretty interesting. According to this article, it is the oldest sense, even single-cell animals have it, and studies have shown that, yes, we can really smell fear.

Also, the sense of smell is very direct. When you smell, actual particles of what you are smelling are in your nose, coming into direct contact with neurons, the only brain cells that are exposed like that.

Like the cat pee that day. 


  1. Boy, you're right about cat pee. It almost ranks up there with skunk. Once my not-yet-ex-husband and I were looking at houses to buy and were shown a home were a widower lived with numerous cats. The place just reeked. We knew that smell would be next to impossible to remove. But I guess the guy was used to it and didn't smell it anymore. Either that or he smelled just as bad. :)

    1. And you're right about houses for sale that smell of it. When we were looking at houses, we saw several, most of which were otherwise clean and only had 1 or 2 cats in residence, which REEKED. We could only figure that the owners didn't realize (another thing to worry about myself: does my house stink and I don't realize it?).

      Maybe my husband and I are super-sensitive, though. He has a pretty bad allergy to cats and he would walk into a house that did not smell of cat to me and even didn't have any sign that a cat lived there, no litter box or anything (though one did), and, scratching absently at his arms, he'd say, "I don't know why, but I hate this house."

      On the other hand, come to think of it, he LIKES the smell of skunk, at least from a distance. :o)