The scent of human urine is one of the most distinctive, unforgettable, easily identified aromas on earth.
We were living in a modest house in Oakland, people thrown together by happenstance, an escalating rental market (this was way back in the dark ages of the early 200os), and Craigslist. Like every other household, we negotiated our use of the common spaces, juggled the washer/dryer, and sorted out who got which shelf in the pantry (and, on occasion, who had eaten whom's food). The garden, once glorious, had been allowed to decay, and the house was flailing around the edges in that way so many older homes seem to do, sagging where once it was dignified.
One of our roommates found it imperative to depart for Burning Man — the high holiest of high holy cultural events for Bay Area hipsters — as she got tickets at the last minute, and threw her belongings together in the car so she could shoot out into the desert and trample the sand and dust with a panoply of other pretentious people.
We reveled in the chance to have the house to ourselves and the thought that the rapidly gentrifying Mission might actually be a pleasant place to go now that everyone had cleared out.
We went out for tacos on the first night, and if there was an odd smell when we unlocked the front door upon our return, we were all too polite to mention it. There are some things, after all, that are just not said in company, and the three of us, the remaining roommates, were actually friends, of a sort.
On the next night, we went to the movies, but when we got home, it was clear that The Smell had reached a crisis point in the murky heat of Oakland in late August. So and thus, we attempted to pinpoint it, criss-crossing the living room and the stairwell and at last the hall in search of the precise point where it was most malodorous, and ultimately tracing it to a pile of dirty laundry, which was irritating enough — we generally kept the common areas clean, and dirty laundry was not high on the list of things we wanted to see there.
Yet, this laundry held, shall we say, a little time bomb, as we discovered when one of us boldly bent over to pick it up so she could toss it into the absent roommate's room: It was laden with urine. Nay, soaked. Nay, dripping. Friends, our third roommate dropped the sodden pile and squeaked in horror before racing upstairs to the bathroom, tearing her clothes off all the while, in order to shower off the bitter memory.
Which left Roommate Two and I staring at the laundry. There was a part of us that just wanted to leave it there, souring and ripening for our absent rooomate's return, but we knew that it would be shooting ourselves in the foot — likewise, if we suited up in trash bags and tossed it into her room, the aroma would no doubt spread.
No, we'd have to gingerly cover ourselves in the finest that Hefty had to offer, delicately pick up the offending pile, and toss it into the wash. Delicates be damned: This called for high heat, extra detergent, the longest possible cycle, and bleach. If a few things didn't make it, c'est la guerre.
We traipsed down the stairs, carefully maneuvering our biohazardous load, and tossed it into the washer. Just to be sure, when we heard the noxious sound of the buzzer, we ran the cycle again; not for us would there be even a whiff of urine. In the meanwhile, Roommate Two grimly swabbed the hallway while our freshly showered comrade started a batch of chocolate chip cookies, hoping that the aroma would mask the pee. (It didn't: The next day, we had to apply the heavy artillery and go straight for French onion soup, which was, we decided, preferable to urine.)
When the washer had at last finished cycling, the three of us went down the narrow stairwell to the basement, single lightbulb swinging ominously. The horror-movie implications of the washer/dryer setup hadn't escaped anyone in the past, but they seemed especially sinister now as we faced down the moment of truth and opened the washer, hesitantly leaning forward for the dreaded sniff test.
No one really wants to lean over a washer filled with clothing that, until very recently, stank of urine. Taking a deep breath is even less desirable, but I took the plunge, and pronounced the load good to go. Yet, we didn't want to leave it in the washer to mold, thereby creating a new set of stench-related problems, and furthermore, we rather wanted to run the washer with a load of baking soda to clean it before doing some laundry of our own.
So Roommate Three and I hefted the load up to the dryer (for those fortunate enough to have never use a stacked washer/dryer...consider yourself fortunate). Along the way, though, something fell, and we heard a clunk, followed by unstoppable giggling from Roommate Two.
"What?" I asked.
Lo and behold, a sodden bag of marijuana had fallen onto the stairs; I daresay it was at least eight ounces, and possibly more, though it was difficult to tell, given the circumstances. The three of us stared at it in mutual amazement, mixed with horror — we'd most definitely ruined a whole lot of pot, but could our roommate really say anything, given the circumstances? Would she demand compensation?
We started the dryer and tiptoed back up the stairs, leaving the baggie abandoned while we conferred. At the end of the day, we opted for what seemed the most logical decision — after lobbing the dry laundry into our roommate's room, we tossed the Mary Jane in after it.
When she returned, we said nothing about the laundry.
She said nothing about the pot.